by Rafael Medoff
Critics have appropriately challenged the assertion by Scripps College students that former secretary of state Madeleine Albright be disqualified as their commencement speaker because of the color of her skin. But with regard to Albright’s record on the Rwanda genocide, the students have a point.
In the spring of 1994, machete-wielding militias of the Hutu tribe in Rwanda carried out nationwide massacres of members of the country’s ethnic minority, the Tutsis. Detailed reports about the genocide began reaching the West almost as soon as it began.
Three days after the slaughter started, the New York Times (in a page one story) cited Red Cross eyewitnesses reporting that “tens of thousands” had already been murdered, with corpses piled “in the houses, in the streets, everywhere.” The Clinton White House, meanwhile, was receiving detailed intelligence about the killings from its diplomats on the scene as well as other sources.
How did the administration respond? In the years since the Rwanda genocide, there have been some disturbing revelations about what senior U.S. officials did when they learned that mass murder was underway.
The first revelation came from Samantha Power, who today serves as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 book, “A Problem from Hell,” Power revealed a Defense Department memo showing that the State Department was “worried” that acknowledging the Rwanda genocide “could commit [the U.S.] to actually ‘do something’.” Susan Rice –today President Obama’s national security adviser, but in those days director of Africa Affairs for the National Security Council– asked her colleagues: “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] elections?”
Rice’s appalling suggestion that electoral considerations should shape America’s response to genocide briefly attracted attention in 2013 when she was nominated as National Security Adviser. Asked by reporters about her Rwanda-elections remark, Rice claimed not to recall having made the comment, adding that if she had indeed said such a thing, it would have been “inappropriate.” To say the least!
In 2014, the release of some 300 cables between the U.S. and other governments during the weeks that the genocide raged raised new questions about the response of senior American officials–especially Madeleine Albright.
The cables concerned the United Nations peacekeeping force stationed in Rwanda. Ten members of the force were murdered during the first days of the slaughter, and some of the participating nations wanted to cut and run. That meant leaving the Tutsis without any protection and in effect giving the Hutus a murderous green light to perpetrate genocide.
Mrs. Albright, who was America’s ambassador to the United Nations at the time, was a pivotal figure in those discussions. Later, in her autobiography and in media interviews, Albright blamed the State Department and the National Security Council for urging the withdrawal of the U.N. forces from Rwanda. She also falsely claimed that “we didn’t know about the massive aspect [of the killings]” at the time of the discussion about withdrawing. But the newly released cables told a different version of events.
It turned out that on April 12, 1994, Ambassador Albright sent a cable to the State Department, urging that the U.S. take the lead in advocating a withdrawal of all the peacekeepers except for “a skeletal staff.” Albright was not thinking about intervening against the genocide or aiding the victims. Instead, she was focused on the “window of opportunity” for U.N. forces to escape through an airport that was still under Belgian and French control.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher followed Albright’s advice. He threw his support behind the withdrawal proposal, and the U.N. Security Council then voted to pull out nearly 90% of the 2,548 peacekeepers. During the course of the next three months, Hutu death squads slaughtered some 800,00 Tutsis–while the world watched in silence.
Albright went on to serve as secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. Even after retiring from government, she has remained an influential figure, and reportedly serves as an unofficial foreign policy adviser to Hillary Clinton.
Ironically, Albright co-chaired a Genocide Prevention Task Force in 2007-2008. Its final report urged the international community to make greater efforts to intervene against genocide. That recommendation would have had more credibility if Albright had publicly acknowledged her error in pushing for the withdrawal of UN forces from Rwanda, and if she had apologized for misrepresenting that episode in her book and in various interviews. But she has done neither.
Does that make Madeleine Albright “a genocide enabler,” to cite the term invoked by Scripps student activist Kinzie Mabon in media interviews?
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines ‘enable’ as “to make someone able to do something” and “to make something possible, practical, or easy.” Albright’s recommendation that the U.S. push for withdrawal of the United Nations forces from Rwanda was not the direct cause of what followed. Secretary Christopher could have rejected her advice; unfortunately, he chose to follow it. Even had the UN forces remained, it cannot be assumed they would have prevented the genocide entirely; presumably they might have interfered with it in some way, and rescued some would-be victims.
Hence it would be going too far to say that Albright made the genocide “possible” or “easy.” What can be said–based on what is known–is that she played an important part in a policy decision that made it easier for the Hutus to carry out the slaughter; or made it more possible for the killing to extend further. That may not make her a “genocide enabler,” but what it does make her is awful enough.