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The following article previously appeared in Dissident Voice.

In the first chapter of his excellent The Clash of Barbarisms: Sept 11 and the Making of the New World Disorder (New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2002), Gilbert Achcar reflects on the depressing contrast between the “exceptional intensity of the emotions elicited worldwide by the destruction of Manhattan’s Twin Towers” and the comparative paucity of global concern for victims of much larger - if less spectacular and instantaneous - catastrophes in the Middle East and Africa.  Among the latter such relatively invisible victims, Achcar includes the three million deaths caused by war in Congo-Kinshasa between 1998 and 2001 and 2,300,000 sub-Saharan Africans who died from AIDS in the year 2001 alone. 

Achcar finds it “indecent” and “revolting” that “the white world” (which sets the tone of global caring capacity largely through its domination of corporate-planetary media) is “thrown into convulsions of distress over  the ‘6,000’ victims in the United States, while it can hardly gives a thought to Black Africa in its horrible agony.”  Achcar describes this phenomenon as a form of what he calls “narcissistic compassion.” This is “a form of compassion evoked much more by calamities striking ‘people like us,’ much less by calamities attacking people unlike us.  The fate of New Yorkers in this case elicits far more of it than the fate of Iraqis or Rwandans ever could, to say nothing of Afghanis” (Achcar, The Clash of Barbarisms, pp. 22, 24).  

A curious and timely example of what Achcar is talking about is presented by the recently celebrated White House expose author Richard A. Clarke.  Clarke left the Bush administration in outrage at two intimately related things: (1) Bush’s failure to recognize and act seriously on the threat of al Qaeda before and after 9/11; (2) Bush’s determination to sacrifice U.S. troops in an invasion of Iraq that diverts U.S. resources from fighting the terrorist threat to Americans.   It’s good that Clarke came out against Bush’s stupid and reckless foreign and security policies, which have cost thousands of American lives. At the same time, however, it’s important to note – as I do in a recent ZNet Commentary, “Serve the Superpower” – that Clarke refuses to acknowledge non-American victims of U.S. policy before and since 9/11.  These apparently worthless casualties include 1 million Iraqis killed by U.S.-imposed economic sanctions, the tens of thousands of Iraqis killed as a result of the U.S. invasion, and the thousands of Afghan noncombatants killed in a post-9/11 attack that Clarke thinks was carried out too slowly. 

All of which provides some fascinating context in which to revisit Samantha Power’s investigation of the U.S. role in the Rwandan genocide, summarized in a long article that was published and then largely forgotten, like so much else, in the terror-spectacle of September 2001.  The article in question appeared in the respectable establishment journal Atlantic Monthly, under the provocative title “Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let The Rwanda Tragedy Happen.” It was based on what Atlantic Monthly editors called “extensive interviews with scores of participants in the decision-making” and “analysis of newly declassified documents”

The title was an understatement.  Power showed that President Bill Clinton fell far short of the truth when he visited Rwanda in 1998 to say that “we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we should have done to try to limit what occurred” in Rwanda in the terrible spring of 1994.  “In reality,” Power shows, “the United States did much more than fail to send troops.  It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda.  It aggressively worked to block UN reinforcements.  It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in coordination and perpetuation of the genocide.  And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term ‘genocide,’ for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing ‘to try to limit what occurred’” (Power, “Bystanders,” p. 2).

At a time when U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice was defending her beloved president from Clarke’s accusation that he failed to appreciate and act upon the al Qaeda threat, there’s an interesting chief perpetrator in Power’s story. Richard A. Clarke, Power shows, was the leading policy actor behind the Clinton administration’s refusal to acknowledge and act upon the threat of genocide in Rwanda.  As special assistant to the president from the National Security Council and  official overseer of U.S. “peacekeeping” policy, Clarke was chief manager of U.S. Rwanda policy before and during the genocide. For Clarke, Power notes, “the news” of mass Rwandan slaughter “only confirmed [his] deep skepticism about the viability of UN deployments” and sparked his fear that “UN failure could doom relations between Congress and the United Nations.”  

Clarke, Power shows, was a dark force behind U.S. rejection of an aggressive plan to save Rwandan lives put forth by Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who commanded the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda at the time of the genocide.  The empty U.S. proposal advanced by Clarke to counter Dallaire, Power shows, abandoned “the most vulnerable Rwandans, awaiting salvations deep inside Rwanda.”  It falsely assuming (or pretended to assume) “that the people most in need were refugees fleeing to the border” and could actually make it to the border (p. 21).  “My mission,” Dallaire told Power, “was to save Rwandans.  Their [the U.S.] mission was to put on a show at no risk” (p. 22). 

In the face of that Clarke-led mission, U.S. officials like Donald Steinberg and Joyce Lawson, a key State Department deputy who argued early on for the U.S. to “send in the troops,” were frustrated by official U.S. bureaucratic inaction in much the same way that Clarke credibly claims to have been stymied by Bush and Rice et al. prior to 9/11. “Steinberg,” Power notes, “managed the African portfolio [a curious and revealing term - P.S.] at the NSC and tried to look out for the dying Rwandans, but he was not an experienced infighter and, colleagues say, he ‘never won a single fight with Clarke’” (p. 15).

Consistent with all this, Clarke was the “primary architect” of Presidential Decision Directive (PDD)-25, “a new peacekeeping doctrine” unveiled on May 3, 1994 (the genocide began the previous month).  This directive “circumscribe[d] U.S. participation in UN missions” and “limited U.S. support for other states that hoped to carry out UN missions,” subordinating basic humanitarian concerns to cold calculations of global realpolitik and “U.S. interests.” 

Clarke was certainly a key player in the Clinton administration’s determination to avoid what insiders called “the g-word” - “genocide” - in describing what was taking place in Rwanda.  That determination emerged from U.S. fear that calling events by their real name would have morally and legally required the U.S. “to ‘actually do something’” - the literal language of a Defense Department memo dated May 1, 1994 (Power, p. 13). Before the mass killing began, Clarke and his colleagues and subordinates in the NSC were scandalously oblivious to abundant, widely available evidence indicating the terrible fate that lay around the corner for Rwanda’s Tutsis and moderate Hutus. 

“It is not hard to conceive of how the United States might have done things differently,” Power concludes, noting that the Clinton administration could easily have:

● agreed to Belgian pleas for UN reinforcements prior to the genocide

● deployed U.S. troops to Rwanda once the mass killing had begun

● joined Dallaire’s forces

● intervened unilaterally (imagine) with UN Security Council support, “as France eventually did in late June”

● made the case to Congress that genocide was underway, that this reality challenged core American values and that U.S. forces could “stop the extermination of a people” at “relatively low risk.”    

None of these basic acts of civilized imperial statecraft occurred, thanks in part to the structurally empowered skepticism and stonewalling of Richard A. Clarke.

The current melodrama of the 9/11 hearings and the related Clarke revelations, which have scrupulously avoided the deepest issues behind the terrorist threat to America (U.S. imperialism and the related dangerous asymmetry of world power relations in an age of unchallenged U.S. military supremacy – see Street, “Serve the Superpower”) is taking place against a curiously unacknowledged backdrop.  Ten years ago to the month, the government and many citizens of Rwanda carried out what Power calls “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the 20th century” (p.1).  This horrific mass butchery was deeply enabled by the U.S. through stubborn and systematic inaction, reflecting in part the successful “bureaucratic infighting” and moral vapidity of top White House imperial functionary Richard A. Clarke, the chief official accuser of pre-9/11 inaction in the White House.

The mostly white and American victims of U.S. inaction in the late summer of 2001 numbered roughly 3,000.  The black Rwandan victims of U.S. inaction in 1993 and 1994 numbered 800,000.  The “horrible agony” of the second set of victims and the question of what might have saved them can hardly be discerned ten years out.  It is lost among other things in the din of public distress over the comparatively small number of Americans who lost their lives on 9/11 and what might have saved them. It’s a chilling statement of the racially tinged difference between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims that permeates U.S. doctrine and the imperial pathology of “narcissistic compassion.” 

Paul Street ([email protected]) is an urban social policy researcher and freelance author in Chicago, Illinois.



April 15 2004
Issue 86

is published every Thursday.

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