Volume 10, Issues 2 & 3
One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide. Jared A. Cohen. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2006. 232 pp.
During its colonial rule of ethnically diverse Rwanda, Belgium supported the minority governing Tutsi, which ensured the majority Hutus’ continued second-class status. After granting Rwanda autonomy in 1961, Belgium reversed course and incited Hutus to rebel against the Tutsi aristocracy. Ethnic tensions peaked in October 1990 when civil war erupted between the Hutu-led government of President Juvénal Habyarimana and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front. The conflict officially ended in August 1993 when the two sides signed the Arusha Accords creating a power-sharing government.
Then on April 6, 1994, a surface-to-air missile downed a plane carrying Habyarimana, killing everyone on board. Hutu extremists immediately blamed the Tutsi for the assassination. Within hours, a government-backed Hutu militia systematically set about murdering both Tutsi and moderate Hutus. Over the next 16 days, more than 250,000 perished. By the time the killing ended in mid-July, the number had reached 800,000. Even by the grim standards of the twentieth century, that deadliest of all centuries, the Rwandan genocide stands out for its sheer intensity.
Despite clear warning signs, the Clinton administration remained silent throughout the genocide, focused on other matters. Perhaps most shockingly, the administration actually lobbied for the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers from Rwanda, thus allowing the killers to go about their deadly task unimpeded. America’s behavior marks an especially ignoble chapter in the country’s history.
Explaining how U.S. diplomacy operated and why it failed to act despite the many signals of impending genocide is the goal of Jared Cohen in One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide. A Rhodes Scholar, Cohen joined the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in 2006 at age 25. There he provides counsel on “counter-radicalization,” youth, and education, especially in the Muslim world. Before taking this position, Cohen held internships in the U.S. government that afforded him access to U.S. officials who served during the Rwandan genocide. He also traveled to Rwanda to interview key officials on both sides of the genocide.
Cohen argues the main reason the United States failed to intervene stemmed from the backlash generated by its disastrous experience in Operation Gothic Serpent (August 22 - October 13, 1993), a military undertaking designed to capture Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid. During the Battle of Mogadishu (October 3-4, 1993), later turned into the film “Black Hawk Down”, 18 American special operations forces lost their lives. This event transformed U.S. foreign policy. Afterwards, Congress renounced sending American forces in harms way unless the nation’s vital interests were clearly at stake. Unwilling to challenge Congressional opposition, the Clinton administration ruled out military intervention.
In addition to Congressional restraints, the administration faced other challenges, including an attempt to restore civilian rule to Haiti and to end the Bosnian War (1992-1995). The White House deemed these missions more important than intervening militarily in Rwanda. Moreover, the highly publicized deaths of Kurt Cobain (April 8), Richard M. Nixon (April 22) and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (May 19), as well as public interest in the completion of the Channel Tunnel (May 6), the inauguration of Nelson Mandela (May 10), and the arrest of O.J. Simpson (June 17) pushed Rwanda to the margins of international consciousness.
The U.S. bureaucracy also prevented a response. State Department lawyers cautioned U.S. officials to avoid using the term “genocide” when describing the killing in Rwanda in the mistaken belief that it might obligate the United States to take action. Pentagon officials saw their duty as implementing policy, not creating it. Absent orders from the civilian leadership, the military establishment refused to take up the issue. Cohen also faults U.S. officials for erroneously thinking that intervention automatically meant sending military forces. Few considered actions such as delivering a stern public warning to stop the genocide, publicizing the names of the killers, or even jamming the radio the Rwandan government employed to orchestrate the killing. By failing to think creatively, U.S. officials missed a chance to save thousands.
Beyond explaining how America’s lumbering bureaucratic process enabled genocide to occur unobstructed, Cohen also identifies specific individuals who, by either committing sins of omission or commission, allowed the genocide to go forward. President Bill Clinton had the power to overcome the bureaucratic gridlock, but chose not to expend his political capital. Secretary of State Warren Christopher knew little about Africa and seemed to care even less. Dick Clarke, the chief counter-terrorism adviser on the U.S. National Security Council, was adamant that preventing genocide fell outside his professional responsibilities. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake, who knew Africa well, declined to act because he did not see Rwanda a priority. The U.S. ambassador to Rwanda, David Rawson claimed not to know genocide was unfolding, even though he grew up in the region, spoke a regional language, and witnessed the initial stages of the killing.
There were, however, courageous individuals who risked their careers by speaking out. Prudence Bushnell, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, arose at 2:00 a.m. each morning to call the warring factions in Rwanda, going so far as to falsely claim to speak for President Clinton. Another was Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the Force Commander of the UN peacekeeping force for Rwanda. Although outgunned and outnumbered, Dallaire and his staff labored to save as many people as possible. There were others who also took risks, but they were low-level officials who lacked the clout to goad the bureaucracy into action.
Alongside the book’s strengths are a few weaknesses. Cohen’s almost step-by-step account of U.S. policy during slows the narrative considerably. His account is also repetitive, as he retraces his steps time and again. Acronyms also abound, forcing the reader to repeatedly consult the three-page list of abbreviations. The book is certainly not for the lay reader.
Despite these reservations, policymakers would profit from reading Cohen’s book. They would see human costs of a policy stridently indifferent to moral considerations. And as we again face genocide, this time in the Darfur region of Sudan, the current and succeeding administrations should ponder whether inaction in the face of mass murder is a price the world can afford.
Michael H. Creswell Florida State University