Archive for category Rwanda

What Next in Ukraine


The downing of Malaysia Flight 17 by Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine put the Ukraine crisis back into the world’s attention, and marked a dramatic escalation in the seriousness of the crisis.  295 people were killed, a civilian airliner shot down, and Russia appears to be at least indirectly responsible through its arming of the separatists.   So where do we go from here?

Here’s the situation: Vlad the improviser stumbled into his Ukraine policy with a series of reactions to the downfall of former Ukrainian President Yanukovych.  Suddenly Ukraine shifted from a tilt toward Russia to a strong lean towards Europe, and Putin’s reaction was to grab Crimea, and then foment unrest in the ethnic Russian regions of eastern Ukraine.   Personally, I get the Crimea gambit.  Crimea was traditionally Russian and give to Ukraine by a misguided Khrushchev in 1954.   But the rest?

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down.    Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

Plane parts are spread out over a wide area, consistent with it having been shot down. Here people in Grabovka, Ukraine wander among crash remnants.

For Putin, who was losing his luster at home, it was an unexpected political opportunity.   He could play the Russian nationalist anti-American card and watch his popularity grow.   Though the West feared an effort to grab all of eastern Ukraine, Putin instead tried to maintain a balancing act.

Knowing that the Russian economy in the era of globalization needs to keep reasonably healthy ties with the EU, he avoided the massive land grab that could have forced the EU into more draconian anti-Russia sanctions.   However, he also sent units from Russian intelligence there to start/support an indigenous uprising, knowing it might flounder, but counting on it destabilizing the hated Ukrainian government and helping keep his nationalist bona fides in place.

For awhile, it seemed to work.   The West seemed to be losing interest in the conflict, especially as it was clear the Russian separatists were not faring well against the Ukrainian military.  At home his stoking of Russian nationalism kept his popularity high. The balancing act seemed to be a bit of political genius.

However, supporting a rebellion is tricky.   While Putin might have been OK with the crisis dragging out indefinitely, the rebels were fighting for a cause.  Angry that Russia seemed to be “deserting them” (read: just giving them weapons and support, but not actively participating in the effort to build New Russia), they exercised more autonomy and, as we know, brought down Malaysian Flight 17.

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

Obama on the phone with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko after the crash

So what now?  First, the US has to recognize that there are limited options and all require serious cooperation and even leadership from the EU.  While some in the US huff that Obama hasn’t done enough, blaming the American President for what goes on in the rest of the world, the reality is that US power is limited.

The key is that Russian President Putin knows that the Soviet Union fell primarily because its economy was isolated.   Globalization began in earnest in the 80s, and the rapid connections in the West combined with the economic failures of Communism in the Soviet bloc made economic disintegration inevitable.    If Putin severed ties and focused on building his own internal empire, the result would be disaster.

Moreover, Russia’s future is very much connected to the EU, and Germany in particular.   Earlier this month Germans, already incensed by the monitoring of Chancellor Merkel’s phone calls for years, kicked out a CIA agent who was spying on Germany from the US embassy.   German Chancellor Merkel is clearly not an American proxy; the Germans have become more independent in crafting a foreign policy to serve European interests.  The Cold War is long dead.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

Putin and Merkel consult in Brazil during the World Cup finals.

It is Germany and the EU that can put the most pressure on Putin, and Merkel’s leverage with the Russian President has been increased by this tragedy.   Not only are the Europeans feeling more pressure than ever to turn up the heat on Russia, but Putin has to recognize that his balancing act is a very dangerous one.

President Obama needs to keep rhetorical pressure on Russia and be in close consultation with Merkel, crafting a plan to both pressure the Russian leader but also give him a face saving way to withdraw support from the rebels.   What we do not need is rah rah Cold War style chest thumping, nor do we need to up the ante by dramatically increasing military aid for Ukraine.   That would force Putin into holding firm – he will not allow himself to be seen as giving in to the US.  At best, it would only deepen and lengthen the duration of the crisis.  At first, things could spin out of control.

That’s in no one’s interest, saving the hyper-nationalists on either side.   A gradual reduction in tension, with action more behind the scenes than in the public eye, is the best way out.   So far, the Obama Administration has behaved admirably, keeping up pressure but not being belligerent.   More importantly, the US has learned that we do not need to lead, especially not when our direct interests are not at stake.

Ultimately it is up to Putin – he is a very vain politician, and the West needs to construct a path to de-escalate the crisis so that he saves face.   Recognizing that the Crimea is part of Russia is perhaps part of the calculus.   Putin giving up on any further annexation of eastern Ukraine must be another.


Rwanda as a Case for Non-Intervention?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Paul Kagame thinks so – or at least he made a case for it Monday as Rwanda marked twenty years since the outbreak of perhaps the most horrific genocide of history.

Within 100 days over 800,000 were killed, nearly three quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in Rwanda.

Rwanda had been colonized the Belgians who took a minor social distinction – whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi – and turned it into a way to privilege some over others.  Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried and got along peacefully for centuries.  Now the Belgians claimed the Tutsis were “more evolved” and thus were entrusted with positions of privilege and power.   They helped run the colony for the Belgians, and soon looked down at the “lower” Hutus.

It wasn’t just Belgian racism, but also a rather smart way to keep a colony under control.    The Tutsis were the minority, and thus had to rely on the Belgians for protection and support.  Alas, once democracy and independence came, the Hutu majority quickly grabbed all power and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of mistreatment.   This led to protected conflict for over three decades before Hutu extremists decided the final solution would be to simply eliminate all Tutsis from Rwanda.

They did not fear western intervention.  After all, a year earlier the US left Somalia after 18 army Rangers were killed when their black-hawk helicopter went done.  As their bodies were dragged through the streets Americans were furious that US military personnel were even over there.    In any event, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the time, and it could gauge whether or not the UN had the stomach to intervene.

It almost worked.  The UN had 3500 troops there to implement the Arusha accords designed to create a power sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis, but when the genocide began all but about 400 of those troops were pulled out.   The US and UK wanted a complete withdrawal – UN blue helmet forces are not supposed to remain if there is no more peace to keep – but the UN mission commander General Romeo Dallaire refused to leave, since that would mean certain death to over 30,000 people under UN protection.

Common scenes in that three months of hell

A common scene in that three months of hell

The story line usually goes like this:  Dallaire begged for UN intervention to save Rwanda, the UN refused, and thus his small force with virtually no supplies could only protect a small portion of Tutsis.   Salvation came when General Paul Kagame’s RPF – Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis who had fled Rwanda after independence – invaded from Uganda and defeated the Rwandan military – the RPG.    This shameful acceptance of the fastest genocide in history – one undertaken with guns and machetes at close range by large groups of Hutus, especially teens – was justified by saying the Rwandan government had no control and the Interhamwe militia was doing the damage.   In reality, the military and Interhamwe worked together.   France in fact supported and even supplied the Rwandan military during the three month genocide.

But here’s what Kagame said in his speech:

Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state.   Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up.   We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate, with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood.   We could have allowed the country to be physically divided, with groups deemed incompatible assigned to different corners.   We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated.  But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.

It appears that Kagame is saying that if the UN had intervened, it could now be a failed state – that it would have been impossible to create the kind of future Rwandans now consider possible – one where ethnicity no longer is supposed to matter, and the Rwandans are one people.

To be sure, Kagame’s government talks a better game than it walks.   Ethnic Tutsis dominate, there are human rights abuses, corruption, and no viable opposition.  Some consider Kagame a dictator, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.   Yet given the conditions Rwanda found itself in twenty years ago, on going Hutu extremism based in the Congo, and the need to create a foundation for a long term peace, it would be wrong to judge too harshly.  After all, too quick a move to total democracy can be a disaster if a country is not ready.

More intriguing is the possibility that while the motives were wrong, UN inaction actually was better for Rwanda.   A quick brutal climax to a century of ethnic hostility and violence might be what Rwanda needed to create conditions where they could move beyond the damage done by the European colonizers.   Yes 800,000 died, but if the UN had stopped the genocide early, how many would be continually dying in on going ethnic strife?

I don’t know.   To me Rwanda has always been a classic case proving that sometimes military intervention is justifiable – that humanity must agree to say “never again” to genocide, and act forcefully to stop it.  I still believe that – but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures, creating conflicts where none had existed.   It’s worth thinking about.


Gandhi and Libya

Last night we watched the film Gandhi, the 1982 classic starring Ben Kingsley.  I haven’t seen the film since it came out almost thirty years ago, but shortly into it I recall how inspiring the person and message of Gandhi was to me when I first saw it, and then subsequently read more about the great spiritual teacher.

His message was clear:  love is truth, and truth ultimately is more powerful than hate, fear and anger, which are untruths.   When confronted with “untruth” it is best to respond with truth.   That is not passive resistance but active non-violent resistance.  Violence and anger only increases the scope and depth of the violence, and ultimately reinforces the problems one is trying to confront.

Gandhi also had real respect for all faiths.  He was close friends with Muslims, Christians and of course fellow Hindus.   He saw truth in the core teachings of each, even if the humans professing those faiths often veered from them.    He was fond of quoting the New Testament and when asked about Christianity at one point he said he only wished Christians were more like their Christ.

I’ve always believed that life is at base spiritual.   What matters is the spirit, the flesh is simply a vehicle which we are using in this limited existence to learn lessons and have some fun.    All of that requires cooperation — we learn with help from others, we help others learn.   We enjoy life and have fun with others.   That is a view that helps me stay grounded, especially if material and daily concerns get intense.  Ultimately the “stuff” of the world doesn’t matter, the spirit does.  I’ve internalized that view and believe that right or wrong it helps me live with a bit less stress, an easier time forgiving others (and myself) and perspective about the world in which I find myself.

Which brings me to Libya.  I’ve always found Gandhi’s notion of non-violent resistance to be powerful, and his argument that violence begets violence persuasive.   I’ve not supported US foreign policy, especially military actions, for as long as I can remember.   Whether Clinton in Bosnia or Kosovo or Bush in Iraq and Afghanistan, it seemed to me that violence did more harm than good.

I don’t believe in coincidence (that comes from my spiritual world view).   The fact that I’ve generally supported intervening in Libya coincides with the unexpected arrival of Gandhi from netflix.   That leads me to rethink my view on the conflict.

Ambiguity about the use of military action for humanitarian purposes has been something I’ve always grappled with.   As former German foreign minister Joshka Fischer said, “no more war, but no more Auschwitz.”    President Obama cited Bosnia, but to me Rwanda is the strongest case for intervention.  Ever since teaching about the details of that genocide, with students reading Romeo Dallaire’s book and myself obsessed for awhile with gathering the details and arguments around that event, it seemed to me that the international community simply let the Hutus slaughter 800,000 Tutsis when a well equipped international force could have ended the violence.

Following the news of the non-violent revolt in Egypt, and then hearing about protests growing in Libya, my reaction to the news that Gaddafi was using mercenaries to brutally terrorize citizens and then taking heavy military equipment to bombard them and promise that his attack on Benghazi would show “no pity and no mercy” was emotional.  My anger at a dictator who for over 40 years stole the oil wealth of his country to sponsor terrorism, train mercenaries, engage in foreign policy adventurism in Africa and brutally repress his people turned into contempt.  When someone of such obvious evil clings to wealth and power by threatening massive death and destruction, how can the world stand by?   When now Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire called for intervention, comparing the case directly to Rwanda, that intensified my emotional desire to see NATO hit back.   When the UN Security Council approved military intervention, making it a legal action driven by humanitarian concerns, it seemed to me the right thing to do.

In terms of national interest it also seems to make sense; the region is changing, this will help get the US on the right side of change and undercut the ability of al qaeda or extremists to guide the future of the Arab world.  Moreover, it is a true multi-lateral action, while Iraq was clearly a US-UK action with small states going along in exchange for favors.  This might put the US on the side of cooperative efforts to secure the peace rather than what appears to be neo-imperial efforts to control world affairs.  It takes President Bush’s idealistic but likely accurate belief that democratic change and modernism is needed in that region and supports those in the region who want to make it happen.

Yet, thinking about Gandhi, I realize that as strong as those emotion beliefs are, they carry with them a veil of abstraction.  Military action is easy to talk about, but it kills people, including innocents — there has never been a clean intervention.   Moreover, if Gaddafi had subdued the rebels, perhaps a lot less life would be lost overall, and the international community could still do things like boycott Libyan oil, freeze assets, and essentially deny the Libyan leader the right to act effectively on the world economic stage, pushing him to choose to leave on his own — he is in his eighties after all.

Though my world view is essentially spiritual, I don’t think the material world is useless.   Even Augustine distinguished between what he called the “city of man” and the “city of God,” and the definition of violence is arbitrary.   Structural violence is as real in its impact as is actual use of force; to focus on only one as wrong is arbitrary whim.   Yet in this case I come to the conclusion that the emotional desire to strike led me to be too willing to rationalize military force, and that it would have been better to let Gaddafi take back the country and then use other means to try to bring about change.    The post-Ottoman world is still scared by 600 years of military dictatorship followed by corruption and ruthless leaders.   Adding more death and destruction may well do more harm than good.