The memories of the genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia Herzegovina in the mid-nineties must never be extinguished from our hearts. The reason why the ending of one was successful, and the failure to end the other is the darkest page in post-war US foreign policy, is banally simple. Bosnia stirred the conscience of the West, and Rwanda – at the heart of Africa – did not.

 While both genocides took place during the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, the US’s foreign policy must be evaluated within the context of her changed role in the post-Cold War era, and before the September 11, 2001 terror attacks in the US.

 A successful combination of the use of force and diplomacy, private and public, brought an end to the Bosnia genocide in which the late Richard Holbrooke played the star role. He and his team were allowed to “engineer” the process to serve a clearly defined interest of the US to halt the violence as quickly as possible.

In Rwanda, more Tutsis died in the three-month massacre than in the five-year former Yugoslav war. There was no outside military intervention or Richard Holbrooke. The US chose to abdicate any responsibility to lead or galvanise the international community. In the uncompromising words of British historian Niall Ferguson: “Those who are sentimentally attached to the United Nations should be forced to study its abject failure to respond to the ghastly events that unfolded in Rwanda.” Ferguson lists the litany of America’s failures: the Clinton administration’s insistence that any UN force be kept small; delaying tactics over proposals to send forces; the requirement that any deployed US troops be paid by the UN in advance and the refusal to jam Hutu radio broadcasts for cost reasons.

 Far away from Rwanda, communism, albeit of a benign variety, had been the adhesive that had held Tito’s Yugoslavia together. Yet, as David Halberstam wrote, the ingredients of civil war were present. “In retrospect, it was not a surprise that the first great test of the post-Cold War era would take place in Yugoslavia … an uneasy composite of smaller, tribal factions rather than one true nation”.

President George Herbert Bush was in the last lap of his faltering presidency when his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, briefed the president as Serbia’s aggression gathered pace against neighboring Croatia and particularly upon Bosnian Muslims. Jim Baker aptly expressed the Bush administration’s policy after he undertook a trip to Yugoslavia in June 1991 when he infamously said “we don’t have a dog in that fight”.

Bush lost the 1992 election and was replaced by America’s first baby boomer president, Clinton. The new president was focused on reviving the moribund economy. His spin doctor, James Carville, coined the legendary soundbite “it is the economy, stupid”. Domestic policies were Clinton’s priority. In this he read the nation’s mood correctly, after the “long twilight struggle” of the Cold War. He also lacked any significant foreign policy experience and his predecessor’s diplomatic savoir faire.

David Gergen of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government said that under normal circumstances a president spent 60% of his time on foreign policy matters. Bush because of his passion for it, and because of the historical events taking place during his administration, had upgraded that to about 75%. But Clinton, Gergen believed, because of his lack of interest, brought it down in the early years of his administration to 25%.

Clinton had intermittently exhibited interventionist tendencies in the 1992 election campaign. He excoriated Bush’s inaction in the Balkans and committed himself to intervention in Bosnia by pledging to arm the Bosnian Muslims, and to even sanction airstrikes against Serbian targets. It was an inescapable reality that the Serbs were committing the worst crimes in Europe since the Nazis in Holbrooke, the broker of the Dayton Accords, urged an end to the arms embargo that punished the Bosnians but not the Serbs. He asked the pointed question if the West would respond faster if the religious convictions of the combatants were reversed and a Muslim force was trying to destroy 2 million beleaguered Christians and Jews. Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain made an impassioned plea on British television, but the Conservative government remained as indifferent as the US Administration.

Clinton, the Svengali of opinion polls and focus groups, was ever sensitive to the fragile lacework of public opinion, which had become weary of military adventures, especially after the Somalia debacle, which was immortalized in the motion picture Blackhawk Down. Was this Clinton’s (and Bush’s) Munich?

It is not difficult not to recall Prime Minister Neville Chamberlin’s homespun description of Nazi Germany’s invasion of Czechoslovakia as “ a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing”. The Clinton administration was deterred by the specter of body bags and casualties.

Within the context of the schizophrenic uncertainty about America’s new role as the remaining superpower, there was an understandable belief in the White House that, after underwriting the peace (or absence of war) in the cold war, it was time for the Europeans to assume responsibility for their House.  

Adding to the complexity of Bosnia was the role of the UN that had seen its role change from protecting humanitarian convoys to protecting entire Muslim communities, including Sarajevo, known as “safe havens”. The cloak of “humanitarianism” was compelling governments’, like America, to intervene, while also providing a cover for inaction and a lack of political will. Paradoxically, in the law of unintended consequences, this meant that while UN humanitarian aid provided relief to some, intervention was prolonging the conflict.

The siege of the Mitteleuropa town of Sarajevo came to symbolize the war, and even inspired the opera singer Luciano Pavarotti to record the haunting Miss Sarajevo. Especially in times of war, people require an easy-to-follow narrative. After all, was not Sarajevo’s Latin bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated plunging an entire continent into WWII.

While the world was transfixed by the pathos of Sarajevo, the Bosnian government reported that seventy-two hundred people were known dead and some thirty thousand more were missing. The real campaign was taking place elsewhere in small villages across Bosnia, where a well-organized campaign of ethnic cleansing was under way. This was the modus operandi of the Serbs.  While the West focused on Sarajevo, Bosnia was literally disappearing off the map.

Clinton had, apparently after reading Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, come to his predecessor’s view that the Balkans crisis was unsolvable. Clinton knew that few Americans had passionate feelings one way or another about the Serbs, Croats, or Muslims, and that the politics of the Balkans was either too remote or too complicated to understand. Unfolding events of barbaric savagery, however, made inaction more and more untenable by the day.  By the end of 1994, the Serbs had divided Bosnia up and had taken nearly 70 percent of the country.

Then came the massacre of Srebrenica. There are watershed moments in the history of mankind when public opinion crystallizes around shared values of justice and decency, and military intervention becomes inevitable. This was one such moment. “Srebrenica was about genocide”, Halberstam succinctly observed, “but it was also about the very fabric of the West”.

Nicholas Burns, Richard Holbrooke’s spokesperson, cites the Dayton Accords as the culmination of “the right combination of diplomacy and the use of force”. In his Diplomacy class at Harvard, Burns describes this process as the husbanding of a clear strategy and brilliant tactical maneuvering. One country, the US, took the lead and all the risks. Holbrooke’s energy, drive, determination, self-confidence, and more than a touch of the theatrical, made all the difference. Within a timeframe of six weeks, America had launched military action; lifted the siege on Sarajevo; negotiated a cease-fire; agreed the principles for settlement, and set up a peace conference.

On August 30 1995, NATO began the heaviest bombing campaign in its history, bombarding Serbian targets with Tomahawk missiles. This weapon had not only produced a devastating effect on the ground, taking out the Serb communications centre for the entire region, but a devastating psychological effect as well. The Tomahawk might have done more to focus Milosevic’s mind than tactical reasoning. The military intervention transformed the balance of power on the ground and prescribed the conditions for the upcoming peace conference; the offensive made the conference possible. When the peace process began, the Serbs occupation of Bosnian territory had been reduced to only 45 percent. The real negotiating had already been done on the battlefield. The artfully crafted myth of Serb invincibility had finally been shattered.

On 21 November 1995, after three and half years of war in which 200, 000 people were killed and millions were left homeless, Holbrooke brokered a peace agreement: the Dayton Accord. Bosnia, the Accord stated, would be divided into two almost equal parts: a Muslim Croat federation and a Serb Republic. Milosevic, however, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq after Gulf War I, soon reverted to type as a violent ethnic entrepreneur.

What caused the change in policy in the Clinton White House? The administration dealt with Bosnia because it had the potential to morph from foreign policy disaster to a domestic political problem. Public opinion shifted the debate. However, to be fair, the president took a big political risk in sending more than twenty thousand American soldiers to Bosnia on the eve of the 1996 mid-term elections. When he committed American troops to peacekeeping in Bosnia, the polls were running roughly 70 percent against the idea. He, perhaps, discovered the distinction between a short-term politician and a statesman. But, with characteristic luck, he was able to chalk up his first major foreign policy success.

Neither prose nor epic motion pictures like Hotel Rwanda can capture the magnitude of Rwanda’s genocide. In the three months following the shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane on its descent to Kigali airport, as many as 1 million Tutsis were shot in cold blood, burned, starved, tortured, stabbed or hacked to death by machetes. America and the international community did nothing.

Samantha Powers’ blood curdling Bystanders to Genocide establishes that not only did the US government know enough about the genocide early on; it also passed up many opportunities to intervene. Non-intervention was an “explicit” U.S. policy objective, not the byproduct of incompetence, although incompetence characterized the decision-making process. Moreover, the US not only failed to intervene, it actually worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. US officials steadily resisted the term “genocide”, so as to avoid being compelled to intervene.

Here precise definitions are important. America’s and the international community’s reluctance to use the term ‘genocide’, like early on in Bosnia, was easy to explain. The 1949 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide requires it signatories, which included the US, all permanent members of the Security Council and, perversely, Rwanda itself, to “prevent and punish” genocide – defined as acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group – as “a crime against humanity”.

Powers avers: “The story of US policy during the genocide in Rwanda is not a story of willful complicity with evil. US officials did not sit around and conspire to allow genocide to happen. But whatever their convictions about “never again”, many of them did sit around, and they most certainly did allow genocide to happen”. The US in October 1993 had suggested a paltry force of five hundred for the establishment of the UN Assistant Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR).

The Mission was a poor relation of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia, which in itself revealed that Rwanda did not even lie in the narrow margins of the West’s strategic interests. While Rwanda was of little concern in the State Department, “the testimony of U.S. officials who worked the issue day to day indicates that the plenty was known” about the Hutu designs on Rwanda’s Tutsi. To add insult to injury, the decision to send two hundred US troops to Kigali airport in 1994 was based on the repugnant hyper realist calculation that “one American causality is worth about 85, 000 Rwandan dead”.

Even though less than two decades has passed, it is difficult to now comprehend the efficient speed with which the Hutu militia were able to butcher their fellow countrymen in acts of Hobbesian regression: despicable acts that were prosecuted faster than those in the Nazi concentration camps.

Thus, speed and political leadership were of the essence and outside intervention would have had to take place by the end of April 1994. Powers concurs, “If the major powers had reconfigured the thousand-man European evacuation force and the U.S. Marines on standby in Burundi, and added them to the peacekeepers in Rwanda, Major General Dallaire [the Canadian mission head] would have had the numbers on his side”. While the responsibility lay with the entire international community, the force could not have created without the willingness, at least, of the US to take the lead in generating resources and transporting the troops to Rwanda. It had no interest in doing so.

Rwanda had, I believe, the bad luck of being located in the ‘wrong part of the world’: a poor country in the heart of Africa of scant geo-political, and no commercial consequence to the West. African literate minds in the State Department were more likely to be influenced by Conradian notions of The Heart of the Darkness than by the contemporary complexities of central Africa. Was latent racism present? Insofar that Africa received any attention in April 1994, most of it was focused on the high-wire drama of South Africa’s first democratic election and the election of Nelson Mandela. It was difficult not to conclude that the Nigerian Ambassador to the US, Ibrahim Gambari, was right to ask: “Has Africa dropped from the map of moral concern?”

The horrors and policy failures of Bosnia and Rwanda helped shape the contours of the evolving doctrine of ‘The Responsibility to Protect’. The Millennium Report of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan posited the question: “If Humanitarian intervention is indeed an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda or a Srebrenica – to gross and systemic violations of human rights that offend every precept of our common humanity?”

It was the leader of America’s closest ally, Great Britain, not an American President, who first articulated the ‘Doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect’ on American soil in 1999. “We are witnessing the beginning of a new doctrine of international community,” Prime Minister Tony Blair boldly informed a well-heeled Chicago audience. “We are all internationalists now, whether we like it or not. We cannot turn our backs on conflicts and the violation of human rights within other countries [my italics] if we still want to be secure”.

In this schema, human rights trump national sovereignty, upending the Westphalia Order. While this, at first glance, is an attractive proposition to internationalists, its arbitrary application, as present day Libya illustrates, presents multiple ethical dilemmas and unpalatable choices. Rwanda’s genocide did not receive the top-level attention it merited because of, in part, the unfolding crises, like Bosnia, in other parts of the world.  Statecraft, even in its noblest incarnation, will always be subject to scant resources and the exigencies of real politik. The less-than-perfect tests of proportionality, discrimination of means, and chance of reasonable success must therefore be applied. As Joe Nye points out, “noble causes can have terrible consequences if they are accompanied by excessive optimism or willful blindness about the probabilities of success”.

These caveats aside, in 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICSS) formally outlined the concept of the ‘responsibility to protect’ (“R2P”). R2P was formally adopted at the UN General Assembly during the 2005 World Summit. Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa played a major role in the process. The co-chair and former Foreign Minister of Australia, Gareth Evans claimed that R2P’s adoption represented a paradigm breakthrough: “We sought to turn the whole weary – and increasingly ugly – debate about “the right to intervene” on its head and re-characterize it not an as argument about the “right” of states to do anything but rather about their responsibility – in this case, to protect people at grave risk. If any “right” was involved, it was of the victims of mass atrocity to be protected”. Yet, to the present time, the UN has done little to make its promise operational.

Of equal substantive and symbolic importance, the international tribunals for former Yugoslavia, both established by UN Security Council Resolutions – the first since Nuremburg and Tokyo – were the first tribunals created to deal with atrocities in non-international armed conflicts. The dispensing of justice, albeit justice delayed, coupled with the swift ascendency of the doctrine of The Responsibility to Protect’ in the first decade of this century represents, for once, an appropriate filching of Victor Hugo’s “idea whose time has come”: an idea that was largely written in the blood of the countless innocent victims of Bosnia and Rwanda.

Powers draws out a key observation that was true of Bosnia as it was of Rwanda: “When country-specific knowledge is lacking, foreign governments become more all the more likely to employ faulty analogies and to “fight the last war””. Clinton’s refusal to respond to respond to the genocide in Rwanda was due in part to America’s retreat from Somalia in 1993. Likewise, in Bosnia, UN peacekeepers under fire from or taken prisoner by Serb forces were expected to turn the other cheek for fear of “crossing the Mogadishu line”. This expression, reportedly coined by Lt General Sir Michael Rose, former commander of UNPROFOR, describes the need to maintain neutrality in the face of all provocation for fear of becoming an unwilling participant in a civil war (once again, an argument often employed in the present Libyan crisis). The tendency to fight the “last war” can hubristically turn the wheel the other way too. David Halberstam’s The Best and Brightest and Robert McNamara’s In Retrospect recounts how President John F. Kennedy’s administration skillfully navigated the Cuban Missile Crisis, only to then lead the U.S. into the quagmire of Vietnam.

In both Yugoslavia and Rwanda – and, at that time, in the so-called black-on-black violence in South Africa, and in today’s Iraq and Afghanistan – commentators were quick to paint the genocide as “ancient ethnic hatreds”. While the violence in both countries had historical ethnic dimensions, it required violent ethnic entrepreneurs – like SA’s former homeland leaders – to flick the switch on and off. Violence was the political modus operandi of Milosevic and the Hutu militia, not an inevitable consequence. 

To his students at the HKS, Father Bryan Heir espouses his belief that one of the biggest dangers in statecraft is when the decision-maker has not considered the ethical dimensions of military intervention before the first occasion when they are faced with such a crisis. Sarah Sewall, a former Pentagon official who teaches at HKS, extends this principle to civilian protection: “It’s only prudent to study mass-atrocity response operations, plan for them and, perhaps most important, conduct exercises with the civilian leaders who would make decisions about potential interventions”.

While not condemning or exonerating Clinton, the chronological proximity (they actually coincided) of Bosnia and Rwanda stretched Washington’s overstretched foreign policy makers. Likewise, today the US and her allies are exhausted from fighting two prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and have now been drawn into intervening in Libya. President Barack Obama must have felt the cold presence of the ghosts of Sarajevo and Rwanda in the Oval Office as he watched loyalist forces advance on Misrata.  It is well known that Samantha Powers’ has been a persuasive voice to the President on the Libyan issue.

Nor is this a story of ‘angels and demons’. There exists an ample body of evidence that President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill both knew about the genocide visited upon the Jewish people by the Nazis in WWII. Then, such information could be concealed from the general public. Clinton could not, even if he so desired, turn a blind eye. 

The 1990s also saw the beginning of the 24 hours new cycle in which citizens often knows about a calamitous development before the Secretary of State. Consequently, leaders often can no longer draw upon or refresh a veritable intellectual hinterland. South Africa’s wartime prime minister and a principle architect of the United Nations at San Francisco, Jan Smuts, would ascend the cool slopes Table Mountain to reflect and read. Winston Churchill, no slouch, famously got out of bed late and lubricated his duties with copious amounts of champagne. Today, responses are instance, and action must be dispatched immediately.

America preponderance of resources, military capability, diplomacy and soft power from Hollywood to Yale means that she will continue to be expected, in John F. Kennedy’s elegant words, to live up to the promise to “bear any burden”.  Halberstam, whose magisterial tomes spanned Vietnam to the Balkans, believed that post cold war America “sought to be the internationalist on the cheap and to remain partially isolationist, sure that it had the right to dictate policy for every other country all over the world”.

So America will continue to be chastised for inaction, and accused of ‘imperial overstretch’ when she intervenes. This, perhaps, is the fate of a great power. The European powers, especially France, were more culpable than America in more quickly preventing the Bosnian genocide. Like her late, but game transforming entrance into WWII, the US fought ‘Europe’s war’ in Bosnia. Adolf Hitler and Slobodan Milosevic would have, in all likelihood, prevailed if not for the prowess of America’s military, and the selfless sacrifice of its men and women on the battlefield.

Six years after Rwanda, President Thabo Mbeki of South Africa eloquently set forth his vision for an ‘African Renaissance’. Yet, the African Union, for the time being, lacks the military capability to intervene in Africa’s trouble spots like Darfur and the Central Lakes region. It was an American actor, George Clooney (the hand of soft power at work again), not an African leader, who brought the plight of the people of Darfur to the world’s attention and the Oval Office. Yet, Mbeki has toiled recently, almost unnoticed, even in South Africa, to cajole the Sudanese parties towards a peaceful solution.

The retort to those who say that America had no business in intervening in Rwanda and other African crises undercut their own argument: American interests cannot be separated from the security of this vast continent in the age of terror. The late Osama Bin Laden’s attacks on the US military in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi in 1998 made this clear.

Rwanda recast US foreign policy in relation to genocidal intervention. In March 1998, Clinton delivered his mea culpa: “We in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred”. Neither Obama, nor his successors, are likely to choose not to intervene if a crisis of, at least, the proportion of Rwanda, occurs again. After all, one can draw a global arc of internecine conflicts; it would dissect through Africa’s heart. Although America will not be able to intervene in every incident of genocide and ethnic cleansing, the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ is today embedded in the matrix of US foreign policy. The flame of John Winthrop’s ‘shining city on the hill’ flickered, yet it was not extinguished by the genocides at the heart of Europe and Africa.


  • Jon was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 - 2011, and holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He was awarded the Gundle South African Public Service Fellowship. Jon is the speechwriter to Democratic Alliance Leader, Helen Zille. He has also served as the speechwriter to the leader of the official opposition, private secretary to elder statesman, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and, briefly, as the Head of Ministry of Transport and Public Works in the Democratic Alliance-led Western Cape Provincial Government. He spent time at the Tony Blair Faith Foundation in London in 2011 working on the Faith and Globalisation, and Faiths Acts programmes. In 2000 he worked as a consultant policy writer for the then Democratic Party. [email protected] Twitter: jonthekaizer


Jon Cayzer

Jon was an Edward S. Mason Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 - 2011, and holds a Masters Degree in Public Administration. He was awarded the Gundle South African Public Service...

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