Op-ed by Stephen Kinzer–Boston Globe April 1, 2011
ONE OF THE most effective arguments in favor of American intervention in Libya is that it is necessary to prevent “another Rwanda.’’ But the situation in Libya has nothing in common with what happened in Rwanda. Repeat: nothing in common.
The insurgency in Rwanda was an effort by members of an exiled communal group, the Tutsi, to make an “armed return’’ to a country from which the Hutu majority had expelled it. Unlike the ragtag bands of Libyans the West amorphously describes as “rebels,’’ the Tutsi army was one of the most disciplined insurgent forces ever seen in Africa. It had a clear leadership, headed by the visionary Paul Kagame, who today is president of Rwanda.
Kagame was a well-known figure who was in constant contact with United Nations officers and foreign leaders. Many came to admire him, and few feared what might happen in Rwanda if he took power. In Libya, it is impossible to predict what kind of a regime, if any, might emerge to replace the current tyranny. The possibility that Libya will become another Somalia, fragmented among its 140 tribes and a base for crime and terror, is vividly real.
Regimes that seize power by force reflect the insurgencies from which they spring. A strong, unified, and clearly focused rebel movement, like the one that took over Rwanda in 1994, is likely to run that kind of a government. A fractured, leaderless one cannot be expected to do so.
In the months before the Rwandan genocide, and as it was unfolding in the spring of 1994, no one expected or asked the United States to intervene by arming the insurgents or bombing government positions. All that was necessary was for the UN to reinforce its peacekeeping presence on the ground. The UN commander, General Romeo Dallaire, literally drove himself mad with frantic appeals to New York for reinforcements. He believed that just a few thousand peacekeepers could end the killing.
This was because the killing was not, as the West was led to believe, a spontaneous and uncontrollable spasm of “tribal violence,’’ but a calculated effort by a handful of Hutu politicians who saw it as their best hope to keep power. Robust policing by blue-uniformed soldiers would probably have stopped it. Such policing would have no effect in Libya, where there is no UN force on the ground and no one has a clear idea of who the “rebels’’ really are.
When the Rwandan genocide began, the ruling clique had been in power for less than 24 hours — not 42 years, like the current Libyan regime. General Dallaire was undoubtedly correct to believe that it would have been easily intimidated by a show of force. Staring down Moammar Khadafy will not be that easy.
Another key difference between Rwanda and Libya is that Rwanda was a wretchedly poor country with no resources. No one who intervened there could be accused of wanting to loot or pillage. Libya — surprise! — is rich in energy resources the world covets. No big power ever makes policy decisions about the Middle East without considering the oil-and-gas factor. Some, like Britain and the United States, want access to Libya’s resources, while others, like Russia, live off oil and gas exports and support intervention in the hope that it will throw the country into chaos and thereby remove a competitor from the market.
Preventing humanitarian disaster is a praiseworthy goal, but there is every chance that if Libya is engulfed in civil war, more people will suffer and die in coming years than Khadafy would have killed in reasserting control over his country. Nor is it reasonable to believe that if Western power helps install a new Libyan regime, that regime will be pro-Western.
Military interventions always end badly. They may be justified on rare occasions when the result of not intervening would be even worse than the result of intervening. Never, though, should the United States or any big power use force to change the course of events in another country and presume that things will work out well. The real winner in Libya may turn out to be Al Qaeda, which profits whenever chaos engulfs a Muslim country.
There may be urgent situations that force the United States to wage war. Libya may even be one of them. Americans should be told frankly, however, that war — not a “kinetic military action’’ — is what we are waging. Perhaps we, and our representatives in Congress, don’t want to hear this truth. Far easier to reach back into history for a parallel like the Rwandan genocide, which is as heart-rending as it is irrelevant. Libya is not Rwanda. In fact, one of the most daunting realities of this war is that Libya is Libya.
Stephen Kinzer teaches international relations at Boston University and is the author of “A Thousand Hills: Rwanda’s Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It.’’