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US Might Have Avoided Rwanda Tragedy

THE Clinton administration's vigorous response to the crisis in Rwanda is heartwarming, but it does not begin to compensate for the near-complete inaction since the disaster began on April 6. Ironically, the United States is now deploying US troops in place of the United Nations forces it voted to withdraw from Rwanda last April and is spending 50 times the amount of money it balked at several months ago.

Finding out what went terribly wrong at the Clinton White House and the State Department won't bring back the hundreds of thousands who died while the US dithered, but it is an essential inquiry, nonetheless. Rwanda should be a worst-case scenario that is never repeated.

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We can identify at least three major failures in US policy throughout the Rwandan crisis: * The first, and most important, came on April 21, when, at US insistence, the UN Security Council voted to reduce its 2,500-man Rwandan peacekeeping force, known as UNAMIR, to a skeleton crew of just a few hundred. The decision came at the height of the massacres of the Tutsi minority and opposition Hutu political figures by the Rwandan Army and affiliated militias, sending an unmistakable signal that the world would stand aside while they completed their extermination campaign.

The US justified its opposition to UNAMIR on the grounds that the force should not be maintained in a civil war between Rwandan government forces and the advancing Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). Yet that excuse was premised on the false notion that the slaughter of civilians was taking place in the context of a civil war. In reality, the vast numbers of civilians exterminated - estimated at upward of 500,000 victims - died in areas of the country where there was no RPF presence and no civil war. If UNAMIR forces had been quickly dispatched with proper equipment to such areas, their presence would have deterred the militia and Army, whose only significant armed activity was to slaughter terrified men, women, and children cowering in churches and homes.

For the next month, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali strongly advocated redeployment of UNAMIR, and the US continued to resist.

* A second failing was the Clinton administration's refusal to publicly condemn by name those Rwandan civilian and military officials who were well known to have planned and implemented the genocide. Putting those individuals on notice that they could face an international tribunal for their monstrous crimes might have discouraged others from joining them. Yet the Clinton administration, although prohibiting representatives of extremist political parties from visiting Washington, demurred from denouncing those responsible for mass crimes by name and refused to characterize the situation as ``genocide'' for many weeks.

Moreover, human rights activists had hopes that a threat issued by Rwanda's donors - the US, France, Belgium, and the European Union - to withhold any foreign aid from the regime might encourage moderates within the Rwandan government and Army to disavow the genocide and move against those engaged in it. Such statements, broadcast widely in Rwanda, might have weakened the extremists' sway. They were never made.

Similarly, the rump Rwandan government was permitted to maintain its representatives at the UN and in Washington. The Rwandan Ambassador to the US used the embassy to solicit contributions for the Army and threaten Rwandan opposition figures in Washington. But the Clinton administration waited until the regime had been thoroughly routed by the RPF to withdraw recognition and close its embassy.

* A third missed opportunity was the US refusal to take action to jam Rwandan radio broadcasts, which played a key role in fomenting ethnic hatred and inciting mass killings. Rwandan Radio des Mille Collines on a daily basis exhorted Hutus to kill all Tutsis, including children. The messages gave extremist, machete-wielding militias orders to ethnically cleanse Rwanda of the Tutsi minority.

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After the RPF takeover of Rwanda in late June, radio broadcasts played another role, urging the country's Hutu population to flee certain slaughter by the RPF. Despite the RPF's largely professional behavior and the absence of massacres, literally millions of terrified Hutus - having witnessed what their own ethnic group had done to the Tutsis - took the radio at its evil word and fled into Tanzania and Zaire. The exodus created the greatest refugee disaster in history.

The US has the technology to jam the broadcasts in Rwanda and could have done so at no risk to Americans. According to Pentagon experts, the Rwandan broadcasts could have been jammed by an aircraft called ``Volent Solo,'' which was used to jam radio transmissions during the Gulf war. But the Clinton administration, citing technical and legal problems, never seriously investigated jamming the radios and Volent Solo stayed grounded at a Pennsylvania air base.

Now that the Rwandan tragedy has reached a new phase, and the American people are reacting in horror to the images of mass deaths in the refugee camps, the Clinton administration is conducting extensive humanitarian efforts, including the eventual deployment of thousands of US troops to Rwanda itself and the expenditure of $250 million in relief assistance. Yet such an effort might not have been necessary if the US had isolated those responsible for genocide and supported early deployment of non-American forces to protect victims.

The real reason the Clinton administration did so little on Rwanda is that it did not think that the American people cared about Africa or would support international intervention - even by non-Americans - to stop genocide. Yet the public's generous response to the refugee crisis suggests otherwise. The White House guessed wrong in Rwanda and about the American people. Something must be learned from this appalling policy failure so that it doesn't happen again.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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