U.S. was right not to intervene in Rwanda

January 05, 2000

This is an excerpt of a Newsday editorial, which was published Monday.

THE United Nations has gone through an extraordinary exercise in self-laceration recently, issuing a scathing internal review of the peacekeeping failure in Rwanda. It is disquieting not because of what it shows, but because policymakers may feel pressured by the report to draw the wrong lessons about future humanitarian interventions in genocidal conflicts.

The Rwanda report is an exercise in guilt assignment based on a flawed case study. Its conclusion that the 1994 genocide of nearly 1 million Tutsis could have been prevented with the deployment of as few as 5,000 troops flies in the face of the realities of that conflict. And castigating Washington and its allies for failing to intervene in time takes no account of the breathtaking speed of the country-wide massacre, a cataclysm that took less than a month -- hardly enough time to reach a consensus on intervention.

The Rwanda report condemns the leadership of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. It shows credibly how Mr. Annan, then the head of peacekeeping operations, repeatedly ignored warnings from his commanders about preparations by Hutu forces for a genocidal attack on Tutsis.

When the attacks came, precipitated by a plane crash in which Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed, Mr. Annan ordered most of his 2,500 peacekeepers to withdraw: They lacked the force and mandate for combat. The report then accuses major countries on the Security Council -- singling out the United States -- of dithering while hundreds of thousands of Tutsis were killed.

All of that is true. But President Clinton's decision not to intervene in Rwanda was essentially correct, and he should never have apologized for it. Independent studies have shown that dispatching 30,000 troops could have saved 125,000 Tutsis. But it would have taken a minimum of 40 days to prepare an airlift of that size.

The majority of Tutsis were massacred only 14 days into the genocide. And after the fighting, there would have been a largely European and U.S. force enforcing peace on two hostile African groups.

The Rwanda case should not be taken as a template for intervention in genocidal conflicts. If anything, it should be seen as a case for the prevention of genocide through more intrusive peacekeeping and more effective diplomacy.

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