Spinning Rwanda in the Grand Cult of US Empire

More than twenty years after its ignominious formation, the mainstream cult of thought surrounding the Rwandan genocide is still going strong. If you doubt it, just observe how easily any outrage of a tinpot dictator or maniacal insurrectionary or estranged Western ally can trigger a fresh torrent of feverish insistence that "another Rwanda" is nigh and that the U.S. military simply "must" institute a no-fly zone or deploy troops or do something to forestall an atrocity that, like the Rwandan genocide, could tarnish Washington’s moral record forever. Unfortunately, it’s a sanctimonious charade quite difficult to miss.

Perhaps this shameless exploitation of human tragedy would be slightly less irksome if we could content ourselves with the knowledge that it’s an isolated phenomenon. But alas, the Rwanda evangelists constitute just one contingent of a hegemonic, even more manipulative and insidious network of thought cults, together dubbed the "Grand Cult of U.S. Empire." No matter who you are, you have probably encountered this cult at some point in some form or fashion, as there’s hardly a people in the world that’s been spared its truly putrid concoctions of turgid proselytizing, saccharine cajolery, and – when push comes to shove – "humanitarian" warmongering.

Departing from the custom of cults at large, the Grand Cult of U.S. Empire actually permits occasional criticisms of its venerated deity. There’s a catch, though: to remain an imperialistic votary in good standing, the essence of one’s gripe with the beneficent imperial god must usually be that he-the-almighty does too little. So, for instance, it is A-okay for Barack Obama to express misgivings about NATO’s war in Libya, because his regret is that the U.S. and its partners planned inadequately for the intervention’s aftermath, not that they invaded in the first place. And, as is relevant here, it is fine for Bill Clinton to flagellate himself for failing to send troops to Rwanda, because that, too, reinforces the core religious tenet that the U.S. empire is basically salvific, even if our imperfect leaders sometimes fail to kick the empire’s redemptive machinery into gear. But woe betide anyone who dispassionately assesses the evidence and concludes that the fundamental problem with the U.S. imperial behemoth is not its laziness (if only!), but rather its hyperactivity as a dictatorial global hegemon that incinerates enemy lands with near-total disregard for due process and civilian lives.

Now, it is true, as they say, that the United States wronged Rwanda in the 1990s. However, Clinton’s alleged sin of omission – the one that so preoccupies imperial partisans – was not the United States’ primary transgression. In fact, were it not for the Americans’ more serious crime, failing to stop the Rwandan genocide may have been no problem at all – because, absent their more grievous offense, there may have been no genocide to stop.

Let us recall that this conflict pitted the Hutus against the Tutsis, two peoples of the African Great Lakes region, both formerly ruled by Rwanda’s German and Belgian colonizers. The Europeans generally favored the Tutsis, whose exploitation of their privileged social status became a source of tremendous social friction over the years. In 1959, this tension came to a head when Hutu rebels’ "Wind of Destruction" unleashed hell upon Tutsi communities and forced the Belgians to put more Hutus in power. With the political tides turning against them, tens of thousands of Tutsis departed for other parts of Africa over the next decade, but it remained the high hope of many a Tutsi to reconquer Kigali some day.

In 1986, the warlord Yoweri Museveni took over neighboring Uganda and launched a successful public relations campaign to ingratiate himself with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. While Washington lined his coffers, Museveni succored a gang of Rwandan Tutsi exiles who had reset their sights on Rwanda after helping Museveni to power. Much assistance to the Tutsis’ "Rwandan Patriotic Front" came in the form of land that Museveni – no gentleman, he – wrested from Ugandan landlords left to fend for themselves.

As the Tutsi exiles congregated on Uganda’s southern border, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana at first refused to let them cross, pleading that his country was jam-packed already. Eventually, though, he succumbed to pressure from other world leaders to negotiate the exiles’ return – only to discover that they, Tutsi exiles in the RPF, did not much care to talk it out. Armed to the teeth by the unrestrained U.S. client Museveni, they apparently felt emboldened to waltz into northern Rwanda on their own terms, Habyarimana and the Hutus be damned.

It is here that the recklessness, or downright malignity, of Washington’s approach becomes glaring. Instead of reining in Museveni, by cutting off weapons shipments outright or at least until the RPF reached a modus vivendi with Habyarimana, the U.S. proceeded with business as usual, selling materiel to its chums in Uganda as their Tutsi allies overran northern Rwanda in the early 1990s.

Before the exiles’ invasion in 1990, class divisions in Rwanda had actually been pushing ethnic tensions to the political periphery. But when the RPF rampaged through the country and forced Habyarimana’s enfeebled government to accept a power-sharing agreement in 1993, deep-seated Hutu paranoia about Tutsi intentions returned with a vengeance. Pandering to the fears of their co-ethnics, Hutu extremists invoked the specter of a full-scale resurgence of Tutsi power and, now infamously, likened the whole Tutsi race to cockroaches. The mysterious downing of an airplane carrying Habyarimana brought this heightening antagonism to a boiling point in April 1994, when the indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis began.

Well, we will be told, no matter if the U.S. erred in the years leading up to the genocide, Washington could have – and should have – knocked out the Hutu genocidaires once their diabolical intentions became clear. It’s an enticing suggestion, I suppose, just as fantasies of "sticking it" to the murderous Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi at one point held a potent allure for decent people everywhere. Even with the purest of intentions, though, U.S. commanders in Rwanda likely would have discovered, as many of their peers in Iraq and Libya did, that the "beneficiaries" of U.S. interventions don’t always appreciate Washington’s kind gestures. In fact, to prevent a foreign interlocutor from forcing an unideal power-sharing agreement upon his men, RPF leader Paul Kagame pledged outright to fight any outside force that might invade Rwanda.

Assuming, though, that the U.S. theoretically could have made common cause with Kagame by pledging total allegiance to the RPF, the West’s "humanitarian" crusade still may have gone awry for the simple reason that Kagame and his underlings were themselves threatening genocide, or something like it, against the Hutus. As the State Department’s George Moose acknowledged in a 1994 memorandum, the U.N. Refugee Agency determined that "RPA and Tutsi civilian surrogates had killed [approximately] 10,000 or more Hutu civilians per month [in July and August]" as part of a possible "campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to clear certain areas in the south of Rwanda for Tutsi habitation." Had Washington intervened decisively on behalf of these Tutsi criminals, whose sadistic streak was well-established by 1994, they could have made a farce of the entire "humanitarian" mission by (further) implicating the United States in a slew of grisly crimes against the Hutus.

To be clear, doubting the wisdom of this U.S. war-that-never-was is not the same as condoning Clinton’s total nonintervention in Rwanda. Surely it comes as a surprise to the pro-war phalanx, but an "intervention" can be an intervention, and a meaningful one, even if it doesn’t leave muddied craters and shrapnel in its wake. In this case, U.S. officials – who were alerted as early as 1992 that the Tutsis were in serious danger – could have intervened by facilitating Tutsi migration to friendly countries, perhaps even organizing a series of Saigon-styled airlifts to deliver Tutsis to safety. Though hardly a panacea, that may have saved a good many lives without the usual bloodshed of war – and that, perhaps, is why the Rwanda cultists will be forever disinclined to dignify it, or any similarly nonviolent proposal, as anything more than a hippie-dippie pipe dream. For the Rwandan case study, as we know, would lose all political utility to the Grand Cult of U.S. Empire if Americans realized, despite all the countervailing propaganda, that militarily meddling in Rwanda may not have been the most prudent course of action in 1994.

Bearing all of this in mind, we might think it strange that Clinton would so eagerly incriminate his own administration by insisting that an armed intervention really could have been effective. But let’s remember that we’re dealing with a cult here, and a cultist’s "apology" is hardly ever the earnest self-reckoning that appearances may suggest.

Recall that as the horrors of the genocide came to light, it became plain that someone, somewhere, messed up big time; it was inevitable, too, that all scrutinizing eyes would soon enough land on Washington, that bloated imperial octopus with an arm everywhere. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Clintonistas may have decided that the only way to dominate the conversation was to plead guilty, at the top of their lungs, to the relatively minor offense of "failing to stop" Rwanda’s genocide. Perhaps to make this a credible admission of guilt, they also contrived a dubious story about how their strategic uses of violence really could have saved Rwanda, if only they had mustered the will to follow through. Likely by design, this phony mea culpa has for decades served to deflect attention from Washington’s actual and more heinous offense: backing the Tutsi marauders who sparked a genocidal backlash.

Why, though, does Clinton assume that it looks better to have done too little in Rwanda than to have done too much? That part is easy: failing to stop a crime, by just about any moral standard, is less egregious than instigating the commission of the crime itself. More importantly, if the U.S. did too little in Rwanda, then the clear lesson is that the U.S. should be more "vigilant" (i.e. bellicose) in the future, whereas if the U.S. did too much in Rwanda, then the clear lesson is that Washington’s military apparatus would do well to stop poking its nose in everybody else’s business. That latter lesson, of course, would strike at the heart of the grand imperial deity, calling the very raison d’etre of Clinton’s beloved cult into question. That’s precisely why Clinton and his co-religionists work so assiduously to suppress this lesson – and precisely why we must embrace it.

Helen Epstein’s Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror provided much of the background information used to write this piece. Tommy Raskin is a writer working on Middle East policy in Washington, DC. Send him email at tommy.raskin@gmail.com.