America's Role in Rwanda

July 29, 1994

As the Pentagon gears up warily to send U.S. troops into Rwanda on what is described as a strictly humanitarian mission, American diplomats at the United Nations are pushing for an end to the international community's ill-starred intervention in Somalia. These contradictory policies send a stark message about how this country is trying, not too coherently, to cope with the chaos sweeping so much of Africa.

When President Bush sent U.S. troops to Somalia in late 1992, that was also supposed to be a strictly humanitarian operation. But after the Clinton administration took power, the American forces quickly became involved in U.N.-directed peace-keeping operations that slid disastrously into taking sides in the clan battles for control of Mogadishu. The result was a fire-fight which left 18 G.I.s dead and the United States determined to get out of Somalia as soon as possible. If, indeed, the U.N. withdraws from Somalia, mass starvation could again return to that blighted land.

The searing experience in Somalia explains why Washington has been so reluctant to get involved in the internal turmoil of Bosnia and Haiti, and why it required horror on an appalling -- and televised -- scale to force the U.S. to come to the aid of Rwandan refugees. Even now, as the death toll makes mass burial a higher priority than food, water and medicine in cholera-stricken camps on the Zairian side of the border, President Clinton is waiting for a formal invitation and promises of security from Kigali's revolutionary government before he sends troops into Rwanda.

His caution is well grounded. Defense Secretary William Perry has warned that any strictly humanitarian mission by U.S. forces "would be inextricably mixed with [U.N.] peacekeeping operations that are going on in that area, and then we would have to take very careful consideration of how to provide security for [U.S. personnel]." In other words, there can be no guarantee that U.S. troops, however well-intentioned, will not be drawn into the vicious Hutu-Tutsi civil war, if only to protect themselves from attack in a situation marked by indiscriminate violence and desperate shortages of foodstuffs and other goods under American control.

Tens of thousands of Hutus have risked death in Zairian camps rather than face possible revenge from Tutsis who have taken power in Rwanda. The situation could worsen if France pulls out of a "security zone" in southwestern Rwanda where many other Hutus have fled. Thus, humane conduct by the interim government in Kigali must be an absolute condition for U.S. intervention.

Americans should not pretend, as they once did in Somalia, that a humanitarian mission can be a feel-good, risk-free mission. If U.S. forces go into Rwanda there will be casualties, there will be ugly incidents, there will be temptations to pull out prematurely. What is at stake here is another test of the American will to take on world leadership burdens no other country can remotely approach.

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