More than twenty years after its ignominious formation, the mainstream cult of thought surrounding the Rwandan genocide is still going strong. If you doubt it, just observe how easily any outrage of a tinpot dictator or maniacal insurrectionary or estranged Western ally can trigger a fresh torrent of feverish insistence that “another Rwanda” is nigh and that the U.S. military simply “must” institute a no-fly zone or deploy troops or do something to forestall an atrocity that, like the Rwandan genocide, could tarnish Washington’s moral record forever. Unfortunately, it’s a sanctimonious charade quite difficult to miss.
Perhaps this shameless exploitation of human tragedy would be slightly less irksome if we could content ourselves with the knowledge that it’s an isolated phenomenon. But alas, the Rwanda evangelists constitute just one contingent of a hegemonic, even more manipulative and insidious network of thought cults, together dubbed the “Grand Cult of U.S. Empire.” No matter who you are, you have probably encountered this cult at some point in some form or fashion, as there’s hardly a people in the world that’s been spared its truly putrid concoctions of turgid proselytizing, saccharine cajolery, and – when push comes to shove – “humanitarian” warmongering.
Departing from the custom of cults at large, the Grand Cult of U.S. Empire actually permits occasional criticisms of its venerated deity. There’s a catch, though: to remain an imperialistic votary in good standing, the essence of one’s gripe with the beneficent imperial god must usually be that he-the-almighty does too little. So, for instance, it is A-okay for Barack Obama to express misgivings about NATO’s war in Libya, because his regret is that the U.S. and its partners planned inadequately for the intervention’s aftermath, not that they invaded in the first place. And, as is relevant here, it is fine for Bill Clinton to flagellate himself for failing to send troops to Rwanda, because that, too, reinforces the core religious tenet that the U.S. empire is basically salvific, even if our imperfect leaders sometimes fail to kick the empire’s redemptive machinery into gear. But woe betide anyone who dispassionately assesses the evidence and concludes that the fundamental problem with the U.S. imperial behemoth is not its laziness (if only!), but rather its hyperactivity as a dictatorial global hegemon that incinerates enemy lands with near-total disregard for due process and civilian lives.
Now, it is true, as they say, that the United States wronged Rwanda in the 1990s. However, Clinton’s alleged sin of omission – the one that so preoccupies imperial partisans – was not the United States’ primary transgression. In fact, were it not for the Americans’ more serious crime, failing to stop the Rwandan genocide may have been no problem at all – because, absent their more grievous offense, there may have been no genocide to stop.
Let us recall that this conflict pitted the Hutus against the Tutsis, two peoples of the African Great Lakes region, both formerly ruled by Rwanda’s German and Belgian colonizers. The Europeans generally favored the Tutsis, whose exploitation of their privileged social status became a source of tremendous social friction over the years. In 1959, this tension came to a head when Hutu rebels’ “Wind of Destruction” unleashed hell upon Tutsi communities and forced the Belgians to put more Hutus in power. With the political tides turning against them, tens of thousands of Tutsis departed for other parts of Africa over the next decade, but it remained the high hope of many a Tutsi to reconquer Kigali some day.
In 1986, the warlord Yoweri Museveni took over neighboring Uganda and launched a successful public relations campaign to ingratiate himself with U.S. President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George H.W. Bush. While Washington lined his coffers, Museveni succored a gang of Rwandan Tutsi exiles who had reset their sights on Rwanda after helping Museveni to power. Much assistance to the Tutsis’ “Rwandan Patriotic Front” came in the form of land that Museveni – no gentleman, he – wrested from Ugandan landlords left to fend for themselves.
As the Tutsi exiles congregated on Uganda’s southern border, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana at first refused to let them cross, pleading that his country was jam-packed already. Eventually, though, he succumbed to pressure from other world leaders to negotiate the exiles’ return – only to discover that they, Tutsi exiles in the RPF, did not much care to talk it out. Armed to the teeth by the unrestrained U.S. client Museveni, they apparently felt emboldened to waltz into northern Rwanda on their own terms, Habyarimana and the Hutus be damned.
It is here that the recklessness, or downright malignity, of Washington’s approach becomes glaring. Instead of reining in Museveni, by cutting off weapons shipments outright or at least until the RPF reached a modus vivendi with Habyarimana, the U.S. proceeded with business as usual, selling materiel to its chums in Uganda as their Tutsi allies overran northern Rwanda in the early 1990s.
Before the exiles’ invasion in 1990, class divisions in Rwanda had actually been pushing ethnic tensions to the political periphery. But when the RPF rampaged through the country and forced Habyarimana’s enfeebled government to accept a power-sharing agreement in 1993, deep-seated Hutu paranoia about Tutsi intentions returned with a vengeance. Pandering to the fears of their co-ethnics, Hutu extremists invoked the specter of a full-scale resurgence of Tutsi power and, now infamously, likened the whole Tutsi race to cockroaches. The mysterious downing of an airplane carrying Habyarimana brought this heightening antagonism to a boiling point in April 1994, when the indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis began.
Well, we will be told, no matter if the U.S. erred in the years leading up to the genocide, Washington could have – and should have – knocked out the Hutu genocidaires once their diabolical intentions became clear. It’s an enticing suggestion, I suppose, just as fantasies of “sticking it” to the murderous Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi at one point held a potent allure for decent people everywhere. Even with the purest of intentions, though, U.S. commanders in Rwanda likely would have discovered, as many of their peers in Iraq and Libya did, that the “beneficiaries” of U.S. interventions don’t always appreciate Washington’s kind gestures. In fact, to prevent a foreign interlocutor from forcing an unideal power-sharing agreement upon his men, RPF leader Paul Kagame pledged outright to fight any outside force that might invade Rwanda.
Assuming, though, that the U.S. theoretically could have made common cause with Kagame by pledging total allegiance to the RPF, the West’s “humanitarian” crusade still may have gone awry for the simple reason that Kagame and his underlings were themselves threatening genocide, or something like it, against the Hutus. As the State Department’s George Moose acknowledged in a 1994 memorandum, the U.N. Refugee Agency determined that “RPA and Tutsi civilian surrogates had killed [approximately] 10,000 or more Hutu civilians per month [in July and August]” as part of a possible “campaign of ethnic cleansing intended to clear certain areas in the south of Rwanda for Tutsi habitation.” Had Washington intervened decisively on behalf of these Tutsi criminals, whose sadistic streak was well-established by 1994, they could have made a farce of the entire “humanitarian” mission by (further) implicating the United States in a slew of grisly crimes against the Hutus.
To be clear, doubting the wisdom of this U.S. war-that-never-was is not the same as condoning Clinton’s total nonintervention in Rwanda. Surely it comes as a surprise to the pro-war phalanx, but an “intervention” can be an intervention, and a meaningful one, even if it doesn’t leave muddied craters and shrapnel in its wake. In this case, U.S. officials – who were alerted as early as 1992 that the Tutsis were in serious danger – could have intervened by facilitating Tutsi migration to friendly countries, perhaps even organizing a series of Saigon-styled airlifts to deliver Tutsis to safety. Though hardly a panacea, that may have saved a good many lives without the usual bloodshed of war – and that, perhaps, is why the Rwanda cultists will be forever disinclined to dignify it, or any similarly nonviolent proposal, as anything more than a hippie-dippie pipe dream. For the Rwandan case study, as we know, would lose all political utility to the Grand Cult of U.S. Empire if Americans realized, despite all the countervailing propaganda, that militarily meddling in Rwanda may not have been the most prudent course of action in 1994.
Bearing all of this in mind, we might think it strange that Clinton would so eagerly incriminate his own administration by insisting that an armed intervention really could have been effective. But let’s remember that we’re dealing with a cult here, and a cultist’s “apology” is hardly ever the earnest self-reckoning that appearances may suggest.
Recall that as the horrors of the genocide came to light, it became plain that someone, somewhere, messed up big time; it was inevitable, too, that all scrutinizing eyes would soon enough land on Washington, that bloated imperial octopus with an arm everywhere. Seeing the writing on the wall, the Clintonistas may have decided that the only way to dominate the conversation was to plead guilty, at the top of their lungs, to the relatively minor offense of “failing to stop” Rwanda’s genocide. Perhaps to make this a credible admission of guilt, they also contrived a dubious story about how their strategic uses of violence really could have saved Rwanda, if only they had mustered the will to follow through. Likely by design, this phony mea culpa has for decades served to deflect attention from Washington’s actual and more heinous offense: backing the Tutsi marauders who sparked a genocidal backlash.
Why, though, does Clinton assume that it looks better to have done too little in Rwanda than to have done too much? That part is easy: failing to stop a crime, by just about any moral standard, is less egregious than instigating the commission of the crime itself. More importantly, if the U.S. did too little in Rwanda, then the clear lesson is that the U.S. should be more “vigilant” (i.e. bellicose) in the future, whereas if the U.S. did too much in Rwanda, then the clear lesson is that Washington’s military apparatus would do well to stop poking its nose in everybody else’s business. That latter lesson, of course, would strike at the heart of the grand imperial deity, calling the very raison d’etre of Clinton’s beloved cult into question. That’s precisely why Clinton and his co-religionists work so assiduously to suppress this lesson – and precisely why we must embrace it.
Helen Epstein’s Another Fine Mess: America, Uganda and the War on Terror provided much of the background information used to write this piece. Antiwar.com published it first. Adam Jones produced the original version of this photograph, which is available here.
Inveterate bomb-’em-all neoconservatives are now consorting openly with liberal establishment types, even parroting their new chums’ criticisms of Donald Trump’s political incorrectness. What’s going on here?
It seems that the neoconservatives are finally acknowledging that they are indeed cut from the same cloth as the neoliberal foreign policy intelligentsia, that their occasional disagreements do not negate the fact that, at the end of the day, neocons and neolibs share a fundamental commitment to keeping the United States military leviathan alive and well.
Just like that, then, old animosities have faded in service of a greater cause – nay, a crusade! – to be spearheaded by a mishmash of political professionalists who, God willing, will wrest U.S. political discourse from our provincial president’s tiny hands and return it to the vaunted realm of “reason.” In the comfy kingdom of reason, see, it is perfectly fine to debate how many sanctions to place on Russia, how many Islamists to arm in Syria, and how many troops to deploy to Afghanistan. But to suggest, as Trump has, that the U.S. should actually start to leave the Middle East and pursue peace with Russia? Why, that’s crazy talk! That’s isolationism or appeasement or treachery or something! That cannot be tolerated!
In their distaste for our president’s heresy, the neocons and neolibs have mobilized to take down The Donald by tying him to such profound societal ills as racism. In an illustrative turnaround, even the American exceptionalist Max Boot admits that “Trump’s victory has revealed that racism and xenophobia are more widespread than I had previously realized.” Jennifer Rubin, a foreign policy commentator of like mind, condemns the “enablers” of our “racist president.” George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Madeleine Albright have all invoked the specter of racism as well, the apparent plan being to drag Trump’s name through the mud until our country replaces him with someone more to the liking of the neocon-neolib phalanx.
Of course, there is much to despise about Trump’s behavior, and the militarists have even identified some of it. His birtherism was sheer malevolence; his “shithole” (or was it “shithouse”?) comments were repulsive; his “Muslim ban” is pure garbage. Our now-president has been a purveyor of racial bigotry since the beginning, and it is absolutely necessary to push back against it.
The issue is that the neocons and neolibs, while flaunting their radical chicness by calling Trump a racist meanie-bo-beanie, expect us to ignore the fact that their ideal paradigm is not and never was liberatory in the slightest. In their nostalgia for those halcyon days of “polite” politics, they pine for a culture that punishes impertinent upstarts like Trump for defying imperial dogma, for arguing that the U.S. spends too much on NATO, for example, for advocating a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and for doubting the wisdom of “protecting” South Korea. They may be shrouding it in the lingo of “#TheResistance” now, and maybe they have even convinced themselves that they actually take offense at our president’s prejudice. But their raison d’etre, part and parcel of their commitment to political correctness generally, is to shield Washington’s imperial project from the sort of perilous scrutiny that an unhinged Trump is wont to dish out.
Were it coming from almost anyone other than the habitual interventionists, this charade would not be so preposterous. Virtue signaling is annoying, but it is an inevitable and generally venial offense, the sort of low-level irritation that one simply accepts as part of public discourse. It is the militarists’ race-baiting, rubbed in our faces without so much as a hint of irony, that is simply too outrageous to ignore.
See, some of us actually remember the hell that these “resisters,” these budding champions of “inclusive and energized democracy,” unleashed upon brown people when the interventionist consensus was still virtually unquestioned in Washington. It was the “anti-fascist” Albright and co., not Trump, who starved Iraq with sanctions in the 1990s, provoking accusations of genocide from the country’s United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator. It was they, the neolibs, who signed off on a U.S. troop surge to support the pedophilic Afghan military in 2009; who dismembered Libya in 2011; who bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in 2015; whose pathetic prostration before Tel Aviv hardliners enabled decades of violence against civilian Arabs; whose rule, generally speaking, ushered in ever more tumult, ever more desolation, ever more heartbreak behind the veneer of U.S. “assistance” and “order” and “leadership” in the world. Before the judges of history, that will be theirs, not Trump’s, to defend.
Meanwhile, the neocons have acted like neolibs, only more so. Politics would be no fun without all of the carping and grandstanding, so the neocons’ permanent role is to trash those weak-willed Clintonistas for not being bellicose enough. Deposing Muammar Gaddafi was insufficient, say they; we should have stayed in Libya longer! And sure, deploying 30,000 troops to Afghanistan was noble of the Obama administration, but what was with that subsequent decision to withdraw troops? Silly Barack! Was he never taught? ’Murica doesn’t end wars – we start them.
That was all nitpicking, though. Whatever their sins in the neocons’ eyes, Obama, Clinton, Rice, and the other neolibs at least played in-bounds, never much questioning the necessity of our costly “alliances” or the essential goodness of the U.S. war state.
Trump is different: crass, contemptuous, and occasionally brutally honest about the folly of U.S. imperialism. If he feels like it, he’ll rail against the “disastrous” Iraq War, call NATO “obsolete,” announce a military withdrawal from Syria, and imply a moral equivalence between U.S. and Russian depravity. Such iconoclasm infuriates the neocons and neolibs, who believe that peddlers of approved platitudes – about multiculturalism, U.S. military power, and everything else – should run the world forever.
Unfortunately, the anti-interventionist instinct that has gotten Trump into so much trouble hasn’t actually yielded much practical change. The U.S. is still in Afghanistan, still in the Levant, still bolstering dictatorships – in short, still sowing discord in other countries, not least in brown countries, the destruction of which we would expect our new “anti-racist” crusaders to condemn consistently (if they were honest). Instead, in the same breath that they call Trump an apologist for racism, the neocons and neolibs lambast him for his dereliction of imperial duty, for pulling punches against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, for example, and for offering to meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un. However ironic this approach may seem, it is perfectly sensible in Bush-Clinton-Obama land, where racial slurs are verboten but incinerating Pakistani children is not.
So a bunch of P.C. warmongers are out to destroy an irreverent one. What’s a peacenik to do? Call out the sanctimonious interventionists for their phony “anti-racism” – which serves largely to pretty up the oppressive U.S. imperial giant – and then push our wobbly president to become the military “isolationist” of neocon-neolib nightmares. And when the going gets tough, as it inevitably will, keep the long game in mind. If their recent writhing is any indication, even career interventionists are beginning to realize that the empire is mortal.
The Trump administration confidently asserts that the Kremlin poisoned Russian ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, on a public bench in Salisbury, England, at the beginning of March. The actual evidence appears inconclusive, though; as of Tuesday, investigating scientists at the Porton Down research laboratory had not uncovered any proof of Russian involvement.
Are our leaders making up “facts” again?
Particularly strange is how much they emphasize that “Novichok,” the poison reportedly used at Salisbury, first emerged in the Soviet Union. True enough, the Russians invented it during the Cold War – but the chemist Vil Mirzayanov later published the formula for Novichok in State Secrets, a widely available book about Moscow’s chemical weapons program. According to Mirzayanov himself, anyone with the book and requisite components could have concocted the nerve agent allegedly unleashed on the Skripals. How does that incriminate Russia?
The official narrative is questionable on other grounds, too. The Russians vehemently deny committing this crime, meaning that if they did it, they probably did not want the world to know. Why, then, use a nerve agent that everybody associates with Moscow? Are the Russians really that harebrained?
Maybe the Trump administration theorizes that the Kremlin’s master plan was to insist upon Russia’s innocence while still scaring the bejeebers out of Moscow’s detractors by using an obviously Russian poison that – in spite of Vladimir Putin’s face-saving denial – would inevitably trigger unease among Russian dissidents. According to this theory, Moscow was striving for a delicate balance, seeking to inspire fear of the Kremlin without jeopardizing Russia’s plausible deniability.
This “balancing act” theory is not ridiculous, but surely the Russians realize that any mysterious crime against a Russian ex-spy – conducted with or without a recognizable Russian poison – is enough to provoke suspicion (and therefore fear) of Russia. If the Russians wanted to intimidate their critics without sparking a huge Western backlash, then, they probably would have had reservations about choosing a poison that screams “Russia!” for the entire Western world to hear.
Okay, but who other than the Russians would have wanted to poison the Skripals? Gee, I don’t know – maybe someone keen to frame the Kremlin by engineering an attack that the impetuous “Confront Russia” crowd would happily blame on Moscow? In case it is not yet clear, there are bellicose people on both sides of the Atlantic eager to portray the Kremlin as a dire threat to Western civilization. Is it really so absurd to wonder whether some group of them, perhaps with the connivance of high-ranking U.S. or British officials, perpetrated this attack as a pretext for “retaliation” against Russia?
Of course, as time has passed and the government-peddled falsehoods about Saddam Hussein have faded from public view, it has become increasingly taboo again to acknowledge the mere possibility that Western officials lie. And yet they do lie, and some have indeed gone to the extraordinary lengths of hatching criminal plots to pin on their adversaries. The CIA’s Operation WASHTUB, for example, had operatives plant Soviet materiel in Nicaragua in 1954 in order to “prove” that Moscow was supporting Guatemalan Prime Minister Jacobo Árbenz. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lyman Lemnitzer followed that up in 1962 with Operation Northwoods, a proposal to overthrow Fidel Castro “in response” to a series of “Cuban” terrorist attacks to be conducted clandestinely by the U.S. government. It never came to fruition, though not for a lack of commitment on Lemnitzer’s part.
If it could happen during the Cold War, then why not today? Human nature hasn’t disappeared since then, and neither has the fraught U.S.-Russian relationship. The Cold War era’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization is still alive and kicking, and proxy wars between the U.S. and Russia have returned with a vengeance, accompanied by frenetic suggestions that we “need” to confront our dreaded enemies overseas. Admitting it may be uncomfortable, but the environment is ripe for U.S. and British chicanery.
To be sure, we may discover some day that this particular act of chicanery was Russian after all. But with the New Cold War fully on, it would be foolish just to take the Trump administration’s word for it. As we know by now, there are power brokers in Washington who, if given a free pass, will use even the most dubious accusations of Russian misconduct to intensify the drumbeats of war. We cannot let them get away with anything, lest the worst come to pass.
When will we learn? War is quicksand. The destruction of one evildoer usually gives way to a second evildoer, the latter of which we find ourselves “obligated” to fight for the same reasons we were “obligated” to fight the former.
Look at Syria, where ISIL’s downfall has left the region’s other competitors squabbling for control. Tehran and Tel Aviv are feuding after an Iranian drone allegedly drifted into Israel’s airspace and triggered a confrontation with Syrian troops that brought down an Israeli F-16 on Saturday. Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has proceeded with Operation Olive Branch, an offensive he began in January to counter the Kurds in Afrin before his probable incursion into the Kurdish territory of Manbij.
Atop it all, Bashar al-Assad has continued fighting anti-government holdouts—and his Russian patrons have continued supporting him—as civilians in the Idlib war zone find themselves caught in what The Washington Post on Wednesday characterized as a “death trap.”
Still hankering for war after ISIL’s defeat, the United States military apparatus has stuck around for this slugfest as well. The ostensible purpose of our government’s continued involvement, beyond engaging in general “counter-terrorism,” is to bolster the Kurds’ Syrian Democratic Forces, even though that puts the U.S. on a direct collision course with the Syrian, Russian, and Turkish governments. For its part, the Syria-Russia tandem wants to rout the Kurdish fighters so that Assad can tighten his grip on the country, while Erdogan continues to view any Kurdish stronghold in Syria as a potential breeding ground for attacks on Ankara.
Neither Assad loyalists nor Turkish leaders have hesitated to make these feelings known, by the way; Syrian troops have already battled the Kurds’ U.S. allies, and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu demanded last month that U.S. personnel evacuate Manbij so the Turks can overrun it.
Against that backdrop, with the U.S. sticking to its guns, it is difficult not to wonder what the point of all of this is. Our leaders (in this century, anyway) first dragged us to the region to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq; when ISIL replaced him, our leaders decided to stay for more. Now that ISIL is greatly weakened, they want more still, perhaps in order to defeat Assad, the Kurds’ Turkish adversaries, and pockets of Islamist stragglers in Syria. But new rogues will crop up after them, and then what? Will this game ever end?
Our only hope is to abandon the logic of a Pax Americana, which holds that malefactors abroad—through an apparently permanent US war footing—generally can and should be eliminated. It is a tempting system of thought, not least for its simplicity, but history suggests that it is more likely to produce carnage than to bring peace.
If it is peace we want for the people of Syria, then we should heed the advice of libertarians, progressives, and certain conservatives who advocate opening the United States to innocent refugees. Save for that, let us leave the Syrian matter alone.
This piece originally appeared at CounterPunch.org the morning of February 16, 2018.