One of the newly released Clinton Library documents shows an administration scrambling to answer criticism of its handling of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda — a tiny African nation where nearly one million people were killed in the span of less than two months.
The two-page memo from September 1994 — the genocide was in April and May of that year — featured talking points Clinton special assistant Tara Sonenshine drafted as preparation for an upcoming Washington Post interview with the president. The memo acknowledged that the interview was likely to be critical of Clinton’s stance on Rwanda, blaming the failed “Black Hawk Down” intervention in Somalia the year before.
In the memo, Sonenshine suggests the president refute that the U.S. experience in Somalia hindered his administration’s Rwanda response.
“If anything, this is a case where our experiences in Somalia did NOT prevent us from doing the right thing,” said the memo. “If we were truly spooked by Somalia we would have turned away entirely, instead of committing 4,000 American troops and spending $500 million to give the people of Rwanda humanitarian help and a breathing space. We put Somalia behind us and moved into Rwanda in full force.”
The memo also suggests the president argue that the United States took appropriate and swift action in Rwanda after it was clear there was genocide, and that the U.S. was one of many countries who authorized the United Nations to pull out of the country right before the atrocities began.
In short, says the memo, the U.S. “did the right thing” and shares no responsibility for allowing the genocide to occur.
Clinton himself echoed these sentiments in comments to the press a few months earlier where he said he had “done all he could do” to help the people of Rwanda, pointing out the United States had provided 40 percent of the total aid given to help the refugees from the conflict.
“We have worked on this for months. We are doing the best we can. We are going to do more,” he said.
But in the years since, the former President Clinton has called the failure to intervene in Rwanda one of his biggest regrets.
“I do feel a lifetime responsibility,” he told ABC in 2008, while on a trip to the country. “I feel like a lot of people … had something to do with it.”
In March 2013 Clinton again talked Rwanda, when he told CNBC that he believes had the U.S. intervened, even marginally, at the beginning of the genocide at least 300,000 people might have been saved.