What do Rwanda, the Congo, and Syria have in common?

Stumped? How about this one? Who’s got two thumbs, used to be president, and has a thing for the ladies?


Bill Clinton outed himself as part of the Do Something brigade this week, when, while at some event with President-for-blowing-up-brown-people John McCain, he opined that President Obama was making “a big mistake” if he continues to keep America out of the Syrian Civil War. I realize that this excerpt comes from Tiger Beat on the Potomac, but they did get the story, so here’s what they had to say:

Bill Clinton told Sen. John McCain he agrees that President Barack Obama should act more forcefully to support anti-Assad rebels in Syria, saying the American public elects presidents and members of Congress “to see down the road” and “to win.”

At another point during a closed-press event Tuesday, Clinton implied that Obama or any president risks looking like “a total fool” if they listen too closely to opinion polls and act too cautiously. He used his own decisions on Kosovo and Bosnia as a point of reference.

This is interesting, for two reasons. One, I’d love to know what “to win” means in the context of a civil war happening in a country thousands of miles away, from which we’d already disengaged, between a regime America doesn’t like (and their terrorist allies) and an insurgency that is largely surviving on the backs of its al-Qaeda (who, you know, we also don’t like) affiliated elements. Two, I can almost guarantee that “Kosovo and Bosnia” are not the “point[s] of reference” that Clinton is really using here, because both of those interventions were themselves motivated by Bill Clinton’s greatest presidential regret: the failure to intervene in Rwanda to stop the 1994 genocide (ABC makes this connection, but gets the point wrong). But Bill Clinton almost certainly learned the wrong lesson from Rwanda, which is that bad interventions lead to bad outcomes, even with the best of intentions, and sometimes no intervention is the best choice.

A little history is in order here, but for a better treatment I’d recommend this piece by The War Nerd. I was going to write a longish bit about how western intervention in Rwanda finally took shape and wound up completely destabilizing the Congo, but I realized that most of it was just rewriting what’s already in that piece. The short version is that, without western intervention, the Hutu massacred hundred of thousands of Tutsi but were then rocked back on their heels once the Tutsi, who have always been the superior military force in the region, regrouped and counter-attacked. When the West finally did intervene, in the form of the French Opération Turquoise, it stumbled into the middle of the Tutsi counter-offensive and wound up creating a safe zone in western Rwanda for the Hutu who had started the genocide in the first place, where they could themselves regroup and from which they began attacking Tutsi again. Clinton’s regret is that America and the world didn’t intervene earlier, to stop the genocide in the first place, but the Hutu and Tutsi have been at odds since the Tutsi first appeared in the region centuries ago, whatever their origins were, and have attacked each other repeatedly in modern times, not just in Rwanda but also in neighboring Burundi. Would heading off the 1994 genocide before it happened have really made a difference, or would it have just postponed the inevitable next round in a centuries-long rivalry?

When the French pulled out of Rwanda, the Hutu moved over the border into then-Zaire, and when the Tutsi followed they wound up overthrowing Zaire’s dictator, the loathsome Mobutu, and installing Laurent Kabila as the new ruler of the Congo in 1997. Then Kabila turned on the Tutsi, starting a whole new war, that the international community once again intervened to stop just as the Tutsi were starting to win. The War Nerd’s argument is that the Tutsi are really the only power in the region capable of running the Congo as a relatively stable, relatively peaceful polity, but that international intervention, from the West initially and now increasingly from China, has only prevented the Tutsi from stabilizing the region and thereby hurt the people it was intended to aid (and hurt them it has, because the Congo is an utter disaster today, with paramilitary groups constantly fighting one another and displacing millions). That’s if you assume that the goal of these interventions has been humanitarian; it’s hard not to speculate that at least some of the motivation for international intervention into the Congo has been precisely to keep the region destabilized, because commodity exploitation is cheaper in that kind of environment. But the point is, not only did international intervention do nothing in Rwanda but protect the perpetrators of the 1994 genocide, it also created and has perpetuated the conditions that have left the Congo in the catastrophic shape it’s in today.

Now, Syria is not Rwanda and not the Congo, but it is destabilized along political, cultural, and religious lines that were demarcated centuries ago, and now we have ex-Presidents talking tough about how America needs to get involved and Do Something. But when outside actors intervene in regional conflicts, particularly conflicts based on age-old enmities that the outside parties don’t understand and can’t possibly remedy, how often do their interventions result in an outcome that helps, rather than harms, the people they claim to be trying to save? Look at the way Clinton talks about the rationale for intervention, about how Pres. Obama risks looking like a “wuss” or a “total fool” or “lame” for staying out of the conflict, which is what opinion polls show most Americans want. Nothing about why Obama should involve us there apart from dick-measuring. Clinton cautions that there will be hell to pay “if you refuse to act and you cause a calamity”; that’s great, but what about when you do act and that causes the calamity? Unfortunately I think “calamity” means something different to Bill Clinton than it does to me, because I’m talking about causing a complete calamity for the people who actually have to live with the aftermath of our intervention, and he’s talking about causing a political calamity for the president who looks like a “wuss.”


3 thoughts on “What do Rwanda, the Congo, and Syria have in common?

  1. I know that I am really late to the party, but I do think that this point is kind of important and I would like for more americans to understand it. To whit:

    When I was working in Denmark, mid-nineties, I had two friends who were refugees from Burundi – which is the only reason I know that the capitol is Bujumbura and that there are three stars of David on the national flag.

    And they just loved Americans. Everything about America was wonderful, wonderful.

    Which I thought was odd, because as a young punk I bought into the strong version of the claim that America was the imperialist global superpower asshole and that we were busily looting a defenseless. Which is not completely untrue, but…

    According to my buddies, compared to the french we americans are total sweethearts. We are honest brokers and can be trusted, unlike those thieving bastards who would sell your mother for twenty centimes and stab you in the back for a loaf of bread.

    Now, maybe this just reflects the fact that France has been influential in Africa for many more decades than America so there has been a lot more time for resentments to accumulate – but at that time in my life it was really good to hear somebody say something nice about my country. That was an era when my heart would swell upon seeing the American flag over the consulate, on those days when I had to take the train back to Koobenhavn and get my passport touched up. Those ignorant goobers who squeal WE’RE NUMBER ONE! despite never having set foot out of the country to see how the other 95% live, they are a gang of goat feltching morans who embarrass me with their influence over our government.

    But anyway, yeah, Rwanda and Burundi are more important than most americans realise and you have done a good thing by composing this essay. BRILLIANT!

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