- One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide
Those who have followed the debate on the international community’s failure in Rwanda might be forgiven for not wanting to read One Hundred Days of Silence: it appears to be yet another “finger-pointer” that chooses to excoriate the U.S. for its failure to prevent and end Rwanda’s genocide. However, while the general argument is not new—that the U.S. could have done more and in certain ways acted to make the situation worse—the author presents us with fresh, nuanced evidence and a convincing narrative to reinforce this claim.
The book’s chief strength is Cohen’s understanding of the inner workings of the U.S. government machinery; we learn as much about the decision-making process and culture of the individual bureaucracies as we do about the genocide. From his time as an intern at the State Department and Pentagon, Cohen is able to distinguish between the bureaucratic process and the personal culpability of individual policymakers. He takes us inside the monolith, identifying the individuals whose positions would have allowed them to do more than they did and exposing the claim that inaction was just the product of a systemic failure; he shows us instead that it [End Page 150] was the result of “a policy of calculated non-interventionism” (95). Cohen goes further and argues that the U.S. was not just guilty of choosing inaction. It worsened the situation in at least two ways. First, pushing for the draw-down of UNAMIR (the U.N. “peacekeeping” mission in the country) emboldened the extremists and removed the protection on which several thousand Rwandans were directly dependent. Second, and perhaps more debatably, by pressing for the inclusion of the extremist Coalition pour la Défense de la République et de la Démocratie (CDR) party in the Arusha peace process, the U.S. contributed to the breakdown of the talks with the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) movement.
Cohen also uses his insider knowledge to show that there was much the U.S. easily could have done that would not have involved putting boots on the ground. For example, in his most cogently argued chapter he claims that the U.S. could have severed diplomatic ties with Rwanda during the genocide or that the president personally could have called the principal organizers of the genocide to hold them responsible. As it was, there were no senior-level meetings or discussions of Rwanda inside the government, and he argues the U.S. failed to use its influence to raise the profile of Rwanda. In fact, Cohen does what he argues the U.S. should have done during the genocide: he names and shames those responsible. The U.S. ambassador on the ground, David Rawson, comes in for harsh criticism for failing to raise the appropriate level of alarm in Washington both before and during the genocide. Similarly, Dick Clarke, then director of Peace-keeping Operations at the National Security Council, is identified as the man responsible for “keeping Rwanda off the desks of the President, National Security Advisor, and senior officials” (6).
The author makes two other weaker claims for the book’s originality. First, based mainly on his three-week trip to Rwanda in 2002, Cohen says he intended “to capture Rwandan perspectives” (xix). In practice this meant the RPF viewpoint and the opinions of seven Rwandans who worked for the U.S. government in Rwanda at the time. It is unclear, however, how ethnically and politically balanced this choice of interviews is; in any event, the book itself is shy in its presentation of these perspectives and is dominated instead with quotations from U.S. nationals. The second claim is to situate the genocide “in the political context of decision-making in spring 1994” (xix). Cohen argues that Rwanda had a low priority in Washington policy circles because of a confluence of...