Perils of feckless humanitarianism

November 21, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

Washington -- SOMALIA WAS surely a humanitarian disaster, but it was unique, anomalous, something not to be repeated again. The problem was not with the humanitarian aid, but with the fact that the United Nations and the United States changed the mission in midstream.

Bosnia just hasn't worked out, but it is still just a blip of history. You see, the Europeans and the U.N. should never have put "peacekeeper" troops into a conflict that, far from dying out, was actually at its murderous and persistent height.

Haiti took a long time to ripen, because President Clinton couldn't make up his mind. But our policy may just succeed, even though the American troops there have not solved the problem of the military murderers.

Those conflicts, our leaders here and in the U.N. would like us to accept, are anachronisms. They are part of the "working out" of policy in the post-Cold War World, as men and women of !B goodwill scratch and scramble for new ways of doing things as we stumble toward the 21st century.

But are they? The question we need to answer -- and urgently -- is this: Are the many mistakes in all of this essentially well-meaning new policy part of a learning process that will indeed lead us somewhere? Or do they contribute a tragic series of quite documentable errors that are going to be repeated over and over?

To answer that question, let us look at still another case, that of Rwanda in Central Africa. It would seem that that benighted country must be totally different from the others in its tragedy -- and in the world's reaction to it. The operative word is "seem."

After the mass tribal murders earlier this year -- 500,000 is a conservative estimate of the dead -- and after tens of thousands of refugees fled to hellish refugee camps, it at first did seem that the humanitarian approach might work. The initially rampaging Hutu militias had, after all, been defeated by a new Tutsi government, or so it seemed.

And today? The Los Angeles Times recently reported in depth from the Zairean border camps (and all other reporters hear the same awful tales) that "relief supplies to the estimated 750,000 Hutu refugees have come under the direct control of former Hutu government leaders and militias . . . accused of systematically slaughtering at least half a million Tutsi civilians inside Rwanda before they fled here in July."

And who and what elements of power are allowing them to do this? The food, blankets and water of the international community!

"It's outrageous," Samantha Bolton, spokeswoman for the respected organization Doctors Without Borders, one of the 85 aid groups there. "It's gotten to the point where we're aiding and abetting the perpetrators of genocide." Nicola Dahrendorf, acting director of the U.N. refugee agency there, spoke to the question of how to aid an impoverished refugee population (of between 750,000 and 2 million) led by mass murderers.

"We shut our eyes" to helping the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the early 1980s, she said, "and we're shutting our eyes here. There's no doubt we're strengthening them." She then cited U.N. reports that the defeated Hutu Rwandan army is recruiting in the camps, especially among children, so it can resume the war.

Somalia is far away from Bosnia. Bosnia is far away from Haiti. Haiti is really far away from Rwanda -- physically, at least. But, in truth, the experiences are closely linked.

Is it not time to drop all the ridiculous pretense that the well-meaning world is doing so much "good" by rushing in humanitarian supplies and then letting the murderers of the world use them to live to murder again -- and more efficiently? (The "well-fed dead," the Bosnians call themselves.) Is it not past time to just stop and see that intentions (our moral problem) are far less important than results (their life-or-death problem)?

The post-Cold War reality is one of ethnic warfare brought about directly by the collapse of the old East-West power structures. The West and the international community don't want to fight any more -- or even plan, for that matter -- and so we rationalize our failures and our cowardice by sending blankets and canned meat.

If we were the decent people of Rwanda, would we prefer guns or this new price of the world's "humanitarianism"? Of course we'd prefer guns. Are the people of Rwanda any different?

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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