Cleaning the lake

Cleaning the lake April 19, 2008

Here is the passage I was looking for the other day when I instead stumbled onto that bit about cheese sandwiches. This is from Philip Gourevitch’s award-winning history and meditation, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families.

The desertion of Rwanda by the UN force was Hutu Power’s greatest diplomatic victory to date, and it can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States. With the memory of the Somalia debacle still very fresh, the White House had just finished drafting a document called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in UN peacekeeping missions. It hardly mattered that [UNAMIR commander Maj. Gen. Romeo] Dallaire’s call for an expanded force and mandate would not have required American troops, or that the mission was not properly peacekeeping, but genocide prevention. PDD 25 also contained what Washington policymakers call “language” urging that the United States should persuade others not to undertake the missions that it wished to avoid. In fact, the Clinton administration’s ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, opposed leaving even the skeleton crew of 270 in Rwanda. …

A week after UNAMIR was slashed, when the ambassadors of Czechoslovakia, New Zealand and Spain, sickened by the barrage of irrefutable evidence of genocide in Rwanda, began pushing for the return of UN troops, the United States demanded control of the mission. But there was no mission to control. The Security Council, where Rwanda conveniently occupied a temporary seat in 1994, could not even bring itself to pass a resolution that contained the word “genocide.” In this proud fashion, April gave way to May. As Rwanda’s genocidal leaders stepped up efforts for a full national mobilization to extirpate the last surviving Tutsis, the Security Council prepared, on May 13, to vote once again on restoring UNAMIR’s strength. Ambassador Albright got the vote postponed by four days. The Security Council then agreed to dispatch 5,500 troops for UNAMIR, only — at American insistence — very slowly.

So May became June. By then, a consortium of eight fed-up African nations had proclaimed their readiness to send an intervention force to Rwanda, provided that Washington would send 50 armored personnel carriers. The Clinton administration agreed, but instead of lending the armor … it decided to lease it to the UN — where Washington was billions of dollars in arrears on membership dues — for a price of $15 million, transportation and spare parts included. …

By early June, the secretary-general of the UN … had taken to describing the slaughter in Rwanda as “genocide.” But the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights still favored the phrase “possible genocide,” while the Clinton administration actually forbade unqualified use of the g-word. The official formulation approved by the White House was: “acts of genocide may have occurred.” When Christina Shelley, a State Department spokeswoman, tried to defend this semantic squirm at a press briefing on June 10, she was asked how many acts of genocide it takes to make a genocide. She said she wasn’t in “a position to answer,” adding dimly, “There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of.” …

Shelley was a bit more to the point when she rejected the denomination of genocide because, she said, “there are obligations which arise in connection with the use of the term.” She meant that if it was a genocide, the Convention of 1948 required the contracting parties to act. Washington didn’t want to act. So Washington pretended that it wasn’t a genocide. Still, assuming that the above exchange took about two minutes, an average of 11 Tutsis were exterminated in Rwanda while it transpired. …

Clinton’s brain trust then produced an inventive new reading of the Genocide Convention. Instead of obliging signatory states to prevent genocide, the White House determined, the Convention merely “enables” such preventive action. This was rubbish, of course, but by neutering the word “genocide,” the new spin allowed American officials to use it without anxiety. Meanwhile, the armored personnel carriers for the all-African intervention force sat on a runway in Germany while the UN pleaded for a $5-million reduction of the rental charge. When the White House finally agreed to the discount, transport planes were not available. Desperate to have something to show for the constant American protestations of concern about Rwanda, administration officials took to telling reporters that Washington was contributing to a public-health initiative in Uganda to clean up more than 10,000 Rwandan corpses from the shores of Lake Victoria.

Four years later.

Ten years later.

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  • sophia8

    I used to admire Bill Clinton. Not any more.

  • Remembering Mbaye Diagne.

  • not_scottbot

    Yeah, the world was just enabling the U.S. to not get involved in preventing possible acts of genocide.
    Lucky we learned that lesson – we didn’t even bother the U.N. when dealing Iraq. Remember the Marsh Arabs? I think that was another example of Cheney having something better to do with his time – after all, the Secretary of Defense had a lot of privatizing to do in those heady days, where the smell of victory was that of oil fields ablaze.

  • not_scottbot

    For those who may have missed the point about smoke getting in everyone’s eyes – it also smelled like money. Halliburton had a lot of work to do, cleaning up those oil fields. And a grateful leader, who will allow democratic elections any decade now, was showering money on those that had saved him.
    Including a man who could not find anyone more suited to be vice president than himself.

  • Brel

    I frankly think the US should stay out of all these conflicts. As in, not pretend to go along with a peacekeeping program, as here, or rashly start a war elsewhere, as in Iraq. I greatly distrust interventionism of any kind and feel that it has eroded our conscience as a nation. This is the one thing I agreed with Ron Paul on.

  • Cat

    I’m finding myself agreeing with Sophia.

  • The only reason America needs a standing military since the Cold War is for stuff like this. Just send troops and shut up, America having to run the show has messed up more “peace keeping,” than I care to count.

  • Brel

    So… America “running the show” messes things up, and yet you want us to “send troops” anyway?

  • Nina

    I think practicallyevil is trying to say that the US should contribute troops to UN peace-keeping missions, but not try to be in charge of them. There is a difference.

  • Nenya

    God damn. :( :( :(
    And of course it’s happening again with Darfur, maybe not the exact details, but we’re moving so SLOWLY. Is there anything we can do besides write letters?

  • Rosina

    I think practicallyevil is trying to say that the US should contribute troops to UN peace-keeping missions, but not try to be in charge of them.
    Or perhaps just not insist on being in charge under threat that you’ll either take your ball away, or charge impossibly inflated rates for assistance, or just tell all your mates not to play either – so there!

  • Drak Pope

    I don’t understand why we can’t let the British or the French be in charge of the peace-keeping missions more often. I mean, they were one of the great colonial powers back in the day; all they would have to do is rework their mission requirements from “enslavement and pillaging” to “peacekeeping and genocide prevention”, which shouldn’t be too hard for them.
    The U.S. has never actually successfully colonized anyone; the Phillippines was a bloody, unpopular, and short, and Iraq and Afghanistan are starting to look the same way. Yeah, there was Hawaii, but that was already underway by the time the U.S. got officially involved.

  • Brel

    I agree with Drak Pope. The US doesn’t like spending its people and money on diplomatic/colonial style missions, and this underlying dislike/lack of interest/apathy shows in our performances when we do try it, I believe. So why keep bothering? Let people who really care, and claim to have real knowledge of what’s going on (since “everyone knows” Americans are ignorant) do the work. It is sure to turn out better than if we keep throwing our troops and money into missions that we the people… don’t ultimately care about. I know it sounds callous, but given our past performances, it may well just be better for everyone.

  • Lizzy L

    Welcome to the club. I haven’t read Gourevitch’s book; I simply didn’t have the heart/stomach/nerve for it. But I read Love Thy Neighbor, by Peter Maas, about Bosnia, and the way Bill Clinton allowed his policy to be manipulated by the Serbs. He was a bad President, ladies and gentlemen. NAFTA. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Yes, Bush is worse, much, much worse, but dear God, it’s hard for me to say I will vote for Mrs. Clinton if she’s the Democratic nominee, because I don’t want her in the White House.
    Sorry. Bad mood. Bad moon rising.

  • not_scottbot

    Being more of a Patrick Buchanan style isolationist than anything else when looking at America’s role in the world (including the fact that America’s involvement in World War I led to more of the 20th century’s horrors than if we had just followed the advice of the founders about never getting involved in Europe’s endless wars), ‘callous’ is not quite the right word, Brel.
    I’m not honestly sure which word is right, however.
    And being able to say the death of hundreds of thousands of people doesn’t affect you or me in the least is the sort of attitude that just keeps growing.
    For example, New Orleans has experienced, first hand, the sort of ‘missions that we the people… don’t ultimately care about.’
    But hey, maybe you don’t live in a coastal city, or one in a fault zone, or one subject to flooding, and so on. So don’t be surprised, at least in Bush’s America, if you suffer from some sort of problem (tornado, say), and the rest of us merely shrug our shoulders, say we aren’t good at rebuilding work, and leave you to your fate.
    And remember, I actually agree pretty much with your point, politically. It is just that politics isn’t everything.
    Worse, the sort of politics you are advocating has repercussions, since ‘take care of our own’ can be sliced and diced until anyone pointing out that tax cuts for the rich, for example, is only the rich taking care of themselves is then engaging in class warfare.
    We should have never gotten involved in WWI – and yes, the British managed to use propaganda, forgeries, and lies to ‘win’ that conflict – but talking about events almost a century in the past is another European trait we would be better without.
    Let’s turn to Sudan, today, where thousands are dying so that the richest Chinese can drive cars instead of bicycles – you realize that the Chinese are merely attempting to secure oil exports, right? That Sudan has been China’s largest external supplier of oil? That the acts being committed there are all part of the same great game that involves other countries, like Iraq, or Colombia? And that the U.S. is actively engaged in attempting to contain nations which it perceives to be future rivals? That ‘genocide’ in Sudan is about oil, in the end? And if there is one substance that fuels American foreign policy, oil is it.
    Maybe if we could start living a bit differently, oh by not consuming roughly 1/4 of the world’s resources with only 1/30 of the world’s population (give or take), we wouldn’t feel the need to be involved in the world so much. Planning to cut back your living standards to that of a typical person living on this planet? If not, enjoy the comforts that America’s involvement in the world bestow upon you. But do keep bemoaning the fact that the American government spends more money on arms, with more bases in more countries than any nation in history, than the rest of the world, because really, what American wants to reap what we have sown?

  • Yes, World War One was a stupid bloody mess (which, by the way, Sir Norman Angell always never said was impossible) but the peace that followed, led to World War 2.

  • Brel

    For the record, I do live pretty simply and buy what I absolutely need. Helps when you’re a poor college student. But even when I do have the cash I prefer to save it, because I’m not a consumerist type. Not every American is. I certainly understand that full-scale isolationism would require a reduction in living standards. But that is going to come anyway unless population stops rising. By the way, how much do you consume?
    New Orleans is precisely the type of thing that strengthens my point. We claim to care more about “giving freedom” to Iraqis than about the wellbeing of our citizens? If we put more money into our country, and our people, and helped them out of poverty and improved the education system, indirectly we would be helping a lot of others, due to America’s large role in the world (even if it remained militarily isolationist, it’s still the third largest nation in the world, which means it’s a huge market). Directly, of course, we wouldn’t be outright killing them. For the record, I meant “take care of” on a national level. We already have 300 million people to keep track of here. I had thought that was clear, but okay.
    That the US government seeks to maintain its position in the world should not come as any surprise. But I suppose whatever my views are I should be guilty for being American or something. Since I had so much control over where I was born.
    Lastly, don’t give me that bullshit about where I live. I grew up in Alaska, which was the epicenter of one of the worst earthquakes last century. This is precisely why I want more of our money going to our people, because it’s inexcusable that some of the natural and social conditions we encounter in the US still exist.

  • Michael Cule

    Now, this I do not understand.
    You’re the President of the United States and you don’t want to get involved in dealing with a ghastly situation in Africa. Never mind why you don’t: there may be an honourable reason to keep your distance although I can’t immediately think of one.
    But then you decide not merely to sit on the sidelines but to screw up anyone else’s efforts to sort out the mess and save the lives of the people threatened with extermination.
    I’m not wrong am I? That is what is going on here?
    So why? Not only why do it but also why would anyone think that this could be kept secret forever and not have negative consequences for you (and by implication your wife now running for the same job you used to have)? For goodness sake what was the downside they were avoiding that was so terrible?
    I really don’t understand this.
    Is it that if this had succeeded without the aid of the US, people would have got dangerously independent ideas and started doing other things without checking with the White House first?
    Is it that if the situation had become general knowledge the American people would have insistd on getting involved and that’s something so hideous that conniving at genocide would be preferable?
    Michael, he no understand.

  • mike timonin

    Drak Pope – the United States had a colonial military force based in the Philippines from 1898 to 1945. While the “insurrection” officially ended in 1901, the end of that was more or less akin to the end of the Korean War – the soldiers based in the islands expected some sort of low level enemy action on a regular basis. After WWII, the US retained military bases there until 1992, when the Philippine Senate rejected a treaty renewing the 1947 bases treaty for 10 years. I think, in terms of colonial action, we cannot regard the Philippines as “short”. Indeed, if the Philippines represent American colonialism at its best, we can expect a long period of US monitored low level chaos in the Middle East followed by 40-50 years of corrupt independent rule before Iraq attains any sort of stability.

  • LadyM

    Drak Pope: I don’t understand why we can’t let the British or the French be in charge of the peace-keeping missions more often. I mean, they were one of the great colonial powers back in the day; all they would have to do is rework their mission requirements from “enslavement and pillaging” to “peacekeeping and genocide prevention”, which shouldn’t be too hard for them.
    One of the biggest problems that arises from international intervention in cases such as Rwanda is the involvement of colonial powers. In Rwanda, for example, the argument could be made that the presence of Belgian forces (who sent the largest amount of aid for UNAMIR) exacerbated the problems. The Belgians had been the colonial presence in Rwanda and had actually originally made many of the distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi (placing the Tutsis in higher jobs because they had lighter skin) and when the Belgians left, they left the Hutus in charge. Obviously, ethnic tensions in this area have been rife ever since. The presence of Belgian peacekeeping troops made things worse (and they were also deliberately targeted for murder by the Hutu leaders because of the history).
    Obviously, Rwanda was a mess because of a whole series of conflicts of interest (not the least being the seat on the Security council) but these situations are by definition ‘messy’. There has to be a willingness to sacrifice money and men for peacekeeping missions to succeed, and it was unlikely that the UN was going to devote a lot of time to Rwanda, which had few international interests, when they were dealing with the civil war in Yugoslavia at the same time. It is really interesting to compare the levels of effort, attention and money that when into these two horrifying disasters, as they took place in the same period of time. Although one was a European country that arguably had greater interest to countries such as the Us, than a small, poor African country.

  • Urizen

    Having had a number of discussions about UN peacekeeping on mostly-American internet forums, I find that the earlier these statistics appear in the discussion the better.
    (1) The United States provides only a small minority of troops for UN peacekeeping. As of March 2008, for example, the US has a mere 297 troops on UN peacekeeping duty. For comparison, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh each contribute arund 9,000 troops. (see
    (2) The United States is among the highest contributors of funds for UN peacekeeping. However, the US has a history of chronic failure to pay UN dues promptly or at all, which causes major problems for the UN budget. (see
    (3) A majority of Americans (while most are generally positive to the UN and to UN peacekeeping) feel that the US provides disproportionately large amounts of troops and funding to UN peacekeeping missions. This perception is based on drastic over-estimation of the amounts actually contributed. (see
    (First post on slacktivist, btw, after years of lurking. Came for the book reviews, stayed for the social commentary.)

  • mike timonin

    Urizen – it’s not just the UN – A majority of Usonians feel that the US provides disproportionately large amounts of funding (in the form of charity and foreign aid) to the rest of the world in general, despite evidence to the contrary.

  • Chris

    Do I spot a reference to my favourite Monty Python sketch in the topic title?

  • BillyGee

    I used to admire Bill Clinton. Not any more.
    The other Clinton haters from the 90s join me in a rousing “I told you so” (after this, the current presidential campaign, etc). We were right, and the left was wrong.

  • Nenya

    BillyGee, you’re claiming that the reason the right wing hated Clinton was because he didn’t intervene in Rwanda?

  • LL

    Was never a big admirer of Clinton, for this and other reasons. The Clinton haters hated him for lots of reasons, but I really doubt this was one of them. And I doubt a Republican president would have acted differently.

  • bad Jim

    I doubt that anyone here would insist that our intervention in Iraq was a good thing, or that our abstention from intervening in Rwanda was a good thing.
    One might suspect that national interests (oil?) had a great deal to do with our preventive invasion of Iraq, and that the lack of such in Rwanda (or Haiti or Darfur) had something to do with our complacence in the face of a greater humanitarian threat.
    It probably wouldn’t be difficult to show that the cost in lives of the invasion of Iraq exceeded either the entire death toll in Rwanda or the part that a timely American intervention might have prevented. It’s clear that even a modest display of force from the UN would have saved lots of lives, and that the invasion of Iraq … didn’t.
    The conclusion to be drawn, if there is a conclusion to be drawn, is that we constantly face questions without simple answers, and that we have to think through each one on its own merits with fresh thinking.

  • This point in American history is not the most effective time to insist that “Clinton was eeeevil too! Really! Look it up!”

  • not_scottbot

    ‘…that the lack of such in Rwanda (or Haiti or Darfur) had something to do with our complacence in the face of a greater humanitarian threat.’
    Sudan has been the largest supplier of exported oil to China. Darfur, as a subset of Sudan, is definitely about oil – but in this case, the Chinese are the ones that are taking it, not us.
    A nice overview (from 2003, please note – not that too many people, it seems) –
    ‘China’s Need to Acquire Foreign Oil Reserves
    China invested in Sudan’s nascent oil industry because of its need to acquire foreign oil reserves. While China expected its industrial development to make increasing demands for more oil, the Chinese oilfields had, by the late 1990s, already passed their peak production. “China until recently relied on its vast northeastern Daqing oilfield to fuel its energy needs, but output is declining and it has yet to find new large domestic supplies,” according to the Chinese government news agency Xinhua.
    In the early 1990s, the Chinese government projected that it could have a shortfall of about 50 million tons of crude oil (30 percent of its oil needs) in 2000, while domestic crude output remained static at 160 million tons. China therefore had to rely on its ability to stake out oil reserves abroad. Oil analysts projected that China would become an oil importer—at the mercy of non-Chinese oil producing states and companies—within five years. China set about becoming a global player in the oil industry. Chinese officials wanted “to have a 10-million-ton-oil supply from overseas a year by 2000 and 50 million tons of oil and 50 billion cubic meters of gas by 2010.”
    By 1997, according to CNPC’s then president, Zhou Yongkang, China was “very aggressive in buying foreign oil and gas fields.” The CNPC brought its first shipment of foreign crude oil to China in 1997.
    CNPC, a government-owned corporation, acting through a wholly-owned subsidiary, took the largest share, 40 percent, in the GNPOC consortium on December 6, 1996, when Arakis sold 75 percent of its interest in the project to three other companies to form that consortium. The Sudanese project was expected to produce up to ten million tons of oil a year for China by 2000, which would by itself help meet China’s projected oil import target for 2000.
    In 1998, CNPC’s construction arm, China Petroleum Engineering & Construction (Group) Corporation (CPECC), participated in the construction of the 1,500-kilometer-long GNPOC pipeline from Blocks 1 and 2 to the Red Sea. It also built a refinery near Khartoum with a 2.5 million-ton processing capacity. It further engaged in “10 million tons oilfield surface engineering.” The Sudan project became “the first overseas large oilfield operated by China,” according to the Chinese.
    The Chinese government-run news agency was effusive about China’s participation in the Sudan project, characterizing it as CNPC’s biggest overseas project to date.1398 The agency termed the oilfield, the long oil pipeline, and the oil refinery China built in Sudan “a major breakthrough in China’s overseas oil work.” The news agency likewise claimed, “China has made a series of technological breakthroughs in undertaking the huge [Sudan] oil project, including in the sectors of oil engineering technology, geological prospecting and oil drilling.”
    Yet, China claimed it did not make any profit on the pipeline, refinery, and two oil well projects in Sudan. The vice president of CPECC said, “A Western company couldn’t have done what we did . . . Sudan wanted it done in 18 months and we did it, even though we knew we wouldn’t make any money.”
    China admitted that it brought in a team of 10,000 Chinese laborers so the GNPOC project could be completed by the NIF’s tenth anniversary (June 30, 1999). Its labor costs were low: “Our workers are used to eating bitterness . . . they can work 13 to 14 hours a day for very little.” Similarly, the Chinese subcontractor (also a Chinese government enterprise) brought in two Chinese crews for the seismic phase of the Lundin operation in Block 5A. They were new, straight from Beijing. Some did not know how to drive a vehicle.
    It was widely rumored in the oil business in Sudan that the Chinese planned to bring in prisoners to build the pipelines, which was allegedly how they underbid others to get the pipeline contract. Still, it is difficult to see how Chinese laborers brought to Sudan could live and work for less than southern Sudanese laborers, even Chinese prisoners, because of the transportation cost—even if the transport was one-way for many who may have perished from disease in the inhospitable swamps and baked savannahs. China also admitted that the Sudanese army had to protect the Chinese workers from rebel attacks.
    The Chinese companies’ failure to hire local staff led to copious complaints from southerners. In Block 5A, Lundin and its Chinese subcontractor had a crew of sixty people in the “highland” location (Ryer/Thar Jath), forty-five of whom were (northern) Sudanese, the rest Chinese. On the “swamp crew” of sixty (on the White Nile), thirty to forty were Sudanese, the rest Chinese. The Chinese spoke no English and translations were done by the Chinese party chief, who spoke rudimentary English.
    The Chinese subcontractor had recruited in the north and hired northern Sudanese to work on this Block 5A project, though they did not have any technical expertise and had to be trained on the job. The Rappaport security consultant to Lundin advised Lundin and the Chinese that it was not a good idea to take northerners to the south to work. Everyone from the Bentiu area, from the governor to the local hires, complained that there were not enough locals on the job, he reported. The Chinese subcontractor insisted on bringing in these northern workers, however. After some incidents, the security company put its foot down on hiring northern Sudanese, and the Chinese subcontractor relented.
    The Chinese companies involved in GNPOC did all this work, their spokesman said, for no profit—for valuable experience overseas—which, as China omitted to mention, was gained mostly under Talisman as project manager. The Wall Street Journal nevertheless reported in 1999 that the Sudan project accounted for U.S. $ 500 million of a record $ 710 million in revenues (unaudited) for China Petroleum Engineering & Construction (Group) Corporation.’
    The Chinese are as unlikely to react favorably to someone threatening their oil supplies as we are. Darfur is just part of the global struggle for oil – with America in the beggar’s seat in this case. Facing a nation with nuclear weapons. That just happens to be about the only thing propping up the dollar in international trade. And even more coincidentally than Bush having been head of the CIA, guess who has also served as ambassador to China – ‘The Bush family’s ties to China go back to 1974, when President Nixon named George Bush ambassador to China.’
    Those Bushes do seem to have their fingers in just about everything, except dikes.
    It always amuses me to read about how disinterested America is in the Sudan – they were on the same terrorist target list as Iran. A wish list at this point, due to a couple of niggling problems in Iraq.

  • Jim

    South Africa would be a much more logical choice to lead peacekeeping in Africa; it would probably need to spend more money strengthening its army though.
    Niall Ferguson notwithstanding, the former colonial powers did not run their African empires particularly well when they were in charge (at least from the perspective of the native peoples). And these empires led to the modern African states, whose boundaries are often based on which colonial power was in charge of that area, regardless of whether the boundaries contain ethnic groups that hate each other. That is a recipe for disaster.

  • Matt

    Replace “Rwanda” with “Iraq” and you have a nearly identical situation, except this time you support the abandoment.

  • spencer

    matt @ 2:20 –
    Um, no, not really.

  • US colonies — not only the Philippines, but Guam, ‘USA’, a bunch of other little places with sweatshop-enabling special trade arrangements…

  • Froborr

    Got to join in on the “Clinton was not a good President” thing. While I never bought into the absurd conspiracy theories and character attacks (I honestly do not give a rat’s ass how many women, men, or ungulates a political figure chooses to have sex with, nor do I think that perjury is a sufficient crime to be worth wasting Congress’ time with), but he was much too conservative, too willing to compromise on principle to win, and thoroughly mediocre in all other respects. It is one of the tragedies of history that Al Gore — who had the makings of a truly great President — was so tarnished by association with Clinton.
    The sort of sheer evil Fred describes, though? That, I must admit, surprises me, because that goes beyond mere incompetence and into malicious callousness.