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Deja vu

I happened to be reading this excellent Atlantic Monthly piece by Samantha Power on the Rwandan genocide which was published a couple of years ago. It's a horrible story, hard to even read, and it raises questions for which the answers are extremely difficult. Well, that's not quite right. The answers are very easy; they're just very discomforting. The questions about when and where the United States should intervene around the world, about how and when the United Nations should take action.

But the part that struck me was this analysis of the dynamics of diplomacy:

Second, before and during the massacres U.S. diplomacy revealed its natural bias toward states and toward negotiations. Because most official contact occurs between representatives of states, U.S. officials were predisposed to trust the assurances of Rwandan officials, several of whom were plotting genocide behind the scenes. Those in the U.S. government who knew Rwanda best viewed the escalating violence with a diplomatic prejudice that left them both institutionally oriented toward the Rwandan government and reluctant to do anything to disrupt the peace process. An examination of the cable traffic from the U.S. embassy in Kigali to Washington between the signing of the Arusha agreement and the downing of the presidential plane reveals that setbacks were perceived as "dangers to the peace process" more than as "dangers to Rwandans." American criticisms were deliberately and steadfastly leveled at "both sides," though Hutu government and militia forces were usually responsible.

The U.S. ambassador in Kigali, David Rawson, proved especially vulnerable to such bias. Rawson had grown up in Burundi, where his father, an American missionary, had set up a Quaker hospital. He entered the foreign service in 1971. When, in 1993, at age fifty-two, he was given the embassy in Rwanda, his first, he could not have been more intimate with the region, the culture, or the peril. He spoke the local language—almost unprecedented for an ambassador in Central Africa. But Rawson found it difficult to imagine the Rwandans who surrounded the President as conspirators in genocide. He issued pro forma demarches over Habyarimana's obstruction of power-sharing, but the cable traffic shows that he accepted the President's assurances that he was doing all he could. The U.S. investment in the peace process gave rise to a wishful tendency to see peace "around the corner." Rawson remembers, "We were naive policy optimists, I suppose. The fact that negotiations can't work is almost not one of the options open to people who care about peace. We were looking for the hopeful signs, not the dark signs. In fact, we were looking away from the dark signs ... One of the things I learned and should have already known is that once you launch a process, it takes on its own momentum. I had said, 'Let's try this, and then if it doesn't work, we can back away.' But bureaucracies don't allow that. Once the Washington side buys into a process, it gets pursued, almost blindly." Even after the Hutu government began exterminating Tutsi, U.S. diplomats focused most of their efforts on "re-establishing a cease-fire" and "getting Arusha back on track."

Sound familiar? Substitute the words "Oslo" or "inspections" in there, and she could be discussing Israel or Iraq. It's the diplomatic process, not the actual people, that become the focus of everyone's efforts. The overriding principle -- no, the only one -- is to avoid war. Or, rather, and more cynically, to avoid a formal state of war. (It doesn't matter whether there's fighting going on, whether people are being killed. All that matters is whether people admit there's a war, because that would be a failure on the part of the diplomats.)

In Israel, nobody cares whether Palestinians get a state, whether terrorism stops, whether Israeli "settlements" actually disappear; nobody cares whether the "peace process" is leading to peace at all. All that they care about is whether they can claim that there is a "peace process." (I've ranted against the use of the term "peace process" many times; there's no such thing. Peace is a state, not a process. If we're in the middle of a "peace process," then we're at war.) In Iraq, the primary purpose of the inspections isn't to find anything; it's to keep inspections going. To the extent we're being generous to the anti-war crowd and the French and Germans, this explains their position on military action. The reason they're proposing a solution that doesn't solve the problem -- inspections -- is because they're not trying to solve the problem; they're trying to preserve the process.

And generally, there's nothing wrong with that. Given that we have neither the resources nor the will to fight everywhere at once, we have to do everything we can to avoid war. But you have to be willing to admit when your efforts have failed. And then, you need to make a decision: to admit that you have nothing constructive to offer, or to be willing to use force. The problem with the French approach is that they won't do either. They pretend they still have a chance to succeed, thereby obstructing those who have moved past that delusion. And that just isn't acceptable.


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Comments (1)

daniel clark:

something similar in 82. in thatcher's autobiography, the chapters on the falklands war reveal how insistent the u.s. administration was on diplomacy and negotiating with the argentine leaders (junta?). all of which took place after argentina invaded. it took a lot of their lying, misleading, etc. for the US admin to stop giving UK a hard time about her majesty's insistence on using force to solve the problem.


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