The Role of the U.S. In the Rwandan Genocide and the Congo Wars

In my last post comparing the death tolls under Joseph Stalin and Bill Clinton, I decided to include the deaths of the Rwandan Genocide and the Congo Wars.

I took the position here that Clinton and the administration in Washington acted (or failed to act) out of either gross negligence or perhaps out of interest in allowing both the genocide and the wars to occur (at least in the way that they did).

Clinton Kagame

“I won’t tell if you won’t!”

With regards to the Rwandan genocide, there are generally two competing narratives. The dominant narrative has been very public: the administration (and Clinton himself) expressed time and again that they made an egregious mistake by not intervening. So, if we accept this narrative, then I think it’s fair to include the deaths that they admit that they didn’t stop.

However, if we accept an alternative narrative, presented in books like The Politics of Genocide by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, then the U.S. intervened fairly heavily. For example, according to Herman and Peterson, the United States was very involved in helping the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) assassinate Habyarimana in 1994 and then militarily conquer the country and subsequently massacre Hutus, Pygmies, and even Tutsis in reprisal killings, which, they argue, probably outnumber the 800,000 killed in the genocide. By accepting this narrative, although much more controversial, we would be able to attribute far more deaths to Paul Kagame and, by extension, Bill Clinton.

This is why I decided to include the death toll of the events in Rwanda under Clinton’s name.

Following this, Kagame and Yoweri Museveni in Uganda decided to invade Zaire in order to remove Mobutu from power. This is what is referred to as the First Congo War. As is discussed very in depth in Africa’s World War by Gérard Prunier, the U.S. very heavily backed Kagame and Museveni during the First Congo War. Prunier argues that Clinton saw an opportunity to get rid of Mobutu, of whom the U.S. was embarrassed for supporting throughout the Cold War. In fairness, pretty much everyone was in favor of ousting Mobutu in 1996/1997 and Kagame and Museveni got support from pretty much everyone except France.

"Our Guy" in Africa

“Our Guy” in Africa

Rwanda and Uganda installed Laurent-Désiré Kabila as president, who renamed the country as the Democratic Republic of Congo and who proved to be an uncooperative puppet in Kinshasa.

The Second Congo War began when Kagame and Museveni agreed to get rid of puppet #1 and try to set up puppet #2. This war, however, was much more complicated and the sides were much more convoluted – with Angola, Zimbabwe, and Sudan maintaining their support of Kabila. The big players officially took a much more hands-off approach during the Second Congo War. Nevertheless, both the RPA and the Ugandan government were able to rely on their backing of the U.S.

This is obvious, because Clinton could have roped in Kagame and Museveni (both during the genocide and the subsequent wars). Or he could have continued to give aid to the DRC. But instead he traveled himself to Rwanda in 1998 and sent officials to Kigali and Kampala after the most brutal parts of the wars. Bill Clinton could have made sure that the United Nations thoroughly investigated Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Army. But instead, he actively blocked UN investigations to continue with regards to RPA’s massacres in the Kivus and their reprisal killings.

Those are the reasons I decided to include his involvement as sharing responsibility for the deaths in Rwanda and the DRC.

Ultimately, comparing the death tolls was an exercise in showing the absurdity of “death counts” in the way they are commonly used. When I was teaching, I often heard students repeat the completely ludicrous claim that “Stalin was responsible for more deaths than Hitler”. This, of course, is nonsense. Nazi Germany, as shown by even anti-communist historians, killed many millions more than the Soviet Union.

It seems to me that a huge fallacy is being made when we decide to attribute deaths to state leaders. When we analyze deaths, both as the direct and indirect result of state policy, they need to be placed in their greater context – especially during the 20th century, where “death counts” often lead to counter-intuitive assessments.

The highest example of this is shown by Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze in their book Hunger and Public Action, where they argue that there have been more deaths from low-level hunger in India than from the largest famines under Mao and that fewer people would have died if India had pursued similar (communist) policies as the People’s Republic of China. They even conclude “that every eight years or so more people die in India because of its higher regular death rate than died in China in the gigantic famine of 1958-61. India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.”

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