When It Seems Safe to Intervene

July 30, 1994|By DANIEL BERGER

The decisiveness with which President Clinton dispatched troops to aid Rwandan victims of disease, thirst and starvation in Zaire was undoubtedly approved by most Americans.

It represents American power at its best and most humane -- like the initial U.S. mission to feed Somalis.

We have the stuff those poor people need and the logistic muscle to get it to them. We impress our adversaries doing it. We couldn't face ourselves if we didn't.

Previously, sending U.S. troops to intervene within Rwanda would have been unthinkable. Get mixed up in an unfathomable hatred between Hutus and Tutsis where the U.S. had no strategic interest? No one seriously proposed it.

At the time President Clinton did intervene, the death toll from thirst and disease in refugee camps in Zaire was thought to be 10,000. A toll of 40,000 was predicted.

But the death toll from the policy of genocide by the Rwandan government, until the rebels dispersed its forces, had been put for weeks at 500,000 without noticeable contradiction.

There is no telling if these estimates are accurate, but they come from similar sources, nongovernment aid workers in the field.

In other words, for every dead body from disease, there had been 50 from murder. For every death expected from disease, there had been 12 from murder.

So when President Clinton said the onslaught of disease in refugee camps ''could be the world's worst humanitarian crisis in a generation,'' he knew that ''this human catastrophe'' was smaller then the one immediately preceding.

That was mass murder by a government of its own nationals for the crime of being born.

But for that earlier catastrophe -- so much greater in medical terms -- the U.S. could not intervene. Enemy soldiers might have shot at our planes. GIs would have died.

France did intervene, though on the side of the genocide. The French later felt sheepish about this.

Two differences made notice of the larger catastrophe unacceptable, and of the smaller one imperative.

1. There was no television of the genocide, because no camera crew could have survived recording it. Film of the victims of disease, safely made, is overpowering.

2. Any attempt to stop genocide would risk combat. A mission of mercy to refugees in third countries is unopposed.

Only the victory of the Tutsi-led rebels and disintegration of the Rwanda government and militia ended the genocide. But it also provoked the mass-panic flight of much of the Hutu majority, the second catastrophe.

The radio of the government, which had been demanding Tutsi blood, forecast the slaughter of Hutus and urged the panic. Millions of Hutus, knowing there had been genocide, expected reprisals.

The rebels in fact created a government with Hutus in the top positions. Some Hutu refugees claim to have witnessed atrocities by the victors, but no reliable third party has confirmed them.

The new government asks the people to return. U.S. troops may enter Rwanda to operate way stations and show a reassuring presence during the trek back.

The new inability of the U.S. and other countries to send troops in harm's way is dealt with in a thoughtful manner by Edward N. Luttwak in the current Foreign Affairs. Mr. Luttwak, an old Cold War scholar who hurls notional armies about the globe, is scandalized.

His theory is that, previously, people had lots of children expecting some to die and could accept if some did for their country. Now, all except the very poor have one or two children and cannot abide that any die.

That makes the U.S., supposedly the world's only superpower, impotent in any world crisis where Mr. Luttwak thinks it should intervene, of which there are a few.

He sees two possible alternatives to a professional American army, one on the model of Britain's Gurkhas from Nepal, the other a copy of France's Foreign Legion.

Otherwise, he says, ''Blindness can be learned, and Americans will have to learn how to possibly ignore avoidable tragedies and horrific atrocities.''

He gives Bosnia-Herzegovina as one example of American progress in this direction. Another is Rwanda, where American intervention was unthinkable when the problem was genocide, but imperative when the enemy was cholera in a population weakened by HIV.

F: Daniel Berger writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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