The Paul Kagame I Know

Rwanda's president fought to end the country's 1994 genocide -- then used it to justify his own awful rule.

On Aug. 9, Paul Kagame's mandate as president of Rwanda will be renewed in an election in which he will probably receive, as before, about 94 percent of the vote. Rwandan journalists who criticized him are in prison; some of his earlier would-be opponents are dead, in prison, or in exile. Rwandan elections have no more uncertainty than those in the Soviet Politburo of Brezhnev's day.

Some American church leaders will be pleased that Kagame, whom they see as a God-fearing man, will continue to lead a nation that suffered the planet's worst genocide in the last 20 years. Many corporate leaders and economists will be pleased that the government of a Central African country claiming the fastest economic growth in its region has won again. Only justice, democracy, and the silent and terrified majority of the Rwandan population will have lost.

I first met Kagame in September 1994, just two months after the Tutsi forces of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had defeated the Hutu genocidaires and captured the capital city of Kigali. As U.S. ambassador to neighboring Burundi, I had been invited to join U.S. Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth and U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda David Rawson for a two-hour meeting with Kagame, then the leader of the RPF. On the drive to his headquarters in downtown Kigali from the airport, half the buildings in the capital still lacked windows; shattered glass littered the streets.

We entered a large, shadowy office with cement floors and walls. The most striking thing in the room was Kagame himself, a man with a sorcerer's air about him, dressed in a dark suit too large for his rail-thin body. (Fine tailoring is often a victim of civil war, especially for guerrilla leaders.)

My perceptions of Kagame undoubtedly had been shaped by my earlier interviews with some of the 100,000 Rwandan Hutu refugees who had arrived in Burundi over the previous two months. They had been coming at a rate of more than 1,000 a day since Kagame's victory, and were living on bare ground under blue plastic sheeting provided by the United Nations, stretched over branches torn from surrounding trees. When I asked them when they would return home, they invariably replied, "Whenever the RPF stops killing us." A counter-genocide by Kagame's all-Tutsi force, they said, was mercilessly slaughtering the Hutu population.

Kagame surely knew all that, but of course refused to admit it when I questioned him. I found him to be shrewd, well spoken, and careful. He never directly denied my statements, but always refused to take responsibility for the RPF's campaign of revenge. And the United States and the U.N. preferred to believe that the Tutsi victors were better than the defeated Hutu forces. Emerging from the meeting into the darkened streets of Kigali, I knew there would be no equal justice or real democracy as long as Kagame held power.

Several months later, I visited a missionary couple in Burundi who lived only three miles from the Rwandan border. At night, we heard gunfire from Rwanda. In the morning, we found four bodies floating in the stream, and more than a hundred Rwandan refugees who had crossed the border to find shelter at the mission. They reported that the RPF had surrounded their encampment and slaughtered approximately 750 people during the night. The U.N. mission nearby, which refused to send troops to assist, claimed only 12 casualties occurred. The numerical discrepancy was so great that I received the State Department's permission to inspect the massacre site in Rwanda personally. But when I was flown by helicopter to the site, the U.S. military attaché on board refused to allow the helicopter to land, making inspection impossible.

This unwillingness of the American military to allow any re-examination of the actions of Kagame's RPF was regrettably characteristic of U.S. policy then and now. Kagame has enjoyed a long relationship with the Pentagon: He was trained at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and later headed the intelligence operations of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, a U.S. ally. The Pentagon has praised Kagame often for his military successes; clearly U.S. military leaders want no shadow of human rights violations to touch his reputation.

Washington's deference to Kagame extends beyond the military as well. In 1994, shortly after the end of the genocide, the United States and the U.N. suppressed a report prepared for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees by conflict consultant Robert Gersony, who estimated that the RPF had slaughtered between 25,000 and 45,000 people in four months. That same year the United States successfully offered a motion in the U.N. Security Council to reduce from 5,000 to 100 the number of U.N. troops to be sent to Rwanda -- a 98 percent cut.

Over the past decade and a half, Kagame has masterfully exploited the benefit of the doubt he receives from the international community to consolidate his power. Today, journalists and former high-level leaders who have broken with Kagame have "disappeared," been shot in South Africa, or been imprisoned in Rwanda. (The Rwandan government denied any responsibility for the killings today.) Even an American attorney who sought to defend a Rwandan opposition candidate was briefly imprisoned. Censorship is widespread, and some citizens have been imprisoned for suggesting that Tutsis have killed Hutus for ethnic reasons, just as Hutus have undoubtedly killed Tutsis. When I asked a Scandinavian missionary who had lived over 30 years in Rwanda and Burundi to share his opinion of the president, he replied, "Paul Kagame is one of the greatest murderers on the continent of Africa. There is blood all over his hands."

Like others, I have no doubt that Paul Kagame will be reelected president of Rwanda. The nation he leads with Western assistance has become more efficient and neatly run than other Central African countries, and many Americans will undoubtedly be pleased for the seeming economic dynamism under Kagame's government to continue. But we must not suppose that it is a free society.



The Ministry of Oil Defense

It's not polite to say so, but if Americans understood just how many trillions their military was really spending on protecting oil, they wouldn't stand for it.

Shortly after the Marines rolled into Baghdad and tore down a statue of Saddam Hussein, I visited the Ministry of Oil. American troops surrounded the sand-colored building, protecting it like a strategic jewel. But not far away, looters were relieving the National Museum of its actual jewels. Baghdad had become a carnival of looting. A few dozen Iraqis who worked at the Oil Ministry were gathered outside the American cordon, and one of them, noting the protection afforded his workplace and the lack of protection everywhere else, remarked to me, "It is all about oil."

The issue he raised is central to figuring out what we truly pay for a gallon of gas. The BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico has reminded Americans that the price at the pump is only a down payment; an honest calculation must include the contamination of our waters, land, and air. Yet the calculation remains incomplete if we don't consider other factors too, especially what might be the largest externalized cost of all: the military one. To what extent is oil linked to the wars we fight and the more than half-trillion dollars we spend on our military every year? We are in an era of massive deficits, so it pays to know what we are paying for and how much it costs.

The debate often hovers at a sandbox level of did-so/did-not. Donald Rumsfeld, the former defense secretary, insisted the invasion of Iraq had "nothing to do with oil." But even Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, rejected that line. "It is politically inconvenient to acknowledge what everyone knows," Greenspan wrote in his memoir. "The Iraq war is largely about oil." If it is even partly true that we invade for oil and maintain a navy and army for oil, how much is that costing? This is one of the tricky things about oil, the hidden costs, and one of the reasons we are addicted to the substance -- we don't acknowledge its full price.

If we wish to know, we can. An innovative approach comes from Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University who in April published a peer-reviewed study on the cost of keeping aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf from 1976 to 2007. Because carriers patrol the gulf for the explicit mission of securing oil shipments, Stern was on solid ground in attributing that cost to oil. He had found an excellent metric. He combed through the Defense Department's data -- which is not easy to do because the Pentagon does not disaggregate its expenditures by region or mission -- and came up with a total, over three decades, of $7.3 trillion. Yes, trillion.

And that's just a partial accounting of peacetime spending. It's far trickier to figure out the extent to which America's wars are linked to oil and then put a price tag on it. But let's assume that Rumsfeld, in an off-the-record moment of retirement candor, might be persuaded to acknowledge that the invasion of Iraq was somewhat related to oil. A 2008 study by Nobel Prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz and Harvard University budget expert Linda Bilmes put the cost of that war -- everything spent up to that point and likely to be spent in the years ahead -- at a minimum of $3 trillion (and probably much more). Again, trillion.

Of course we would have to wait a long time before finding a PowerPoint presentation in the Pentagon or White House (no matter the party in power) on defense spending for oil. Just as cuts to Social Security are a third rail, an accounting of oil-related military spending is nearly unheard of in the halls of power. For politicians and generals, it is a slippery slope: Speak too loudly on the subject, and they risk undercutting the we-only-want-to-make-the-world-a-better-place notion of U.S. foreign policy. It's easier to let the debate idle at vague rhetoric rather than hard numbers.

You would have to go back nearly 20 years to get anything on the subject from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the investigative arm of the U.S. government that in 1991 estimated that between 1980 and 1990 the United States spent a total of $366 billion to defend oil supplies in the Middle East. The GAO report was just a snapshot of one region in a limited time frame a long time ago when America was not fighting a major war there or elsewhere. The study would have been a good start if it had been followed by other studies that went deeper and further, but that didn't happen (see Hot Potato, Department of).

So it has fallen to a cottage industry of out-of-government experts like Stiglitz and Stern to examine metrics that measure oil's connections to not just war but corruption and poverty. These experts include Paul Collier of Oxford University, who wrote The Bottom Billion, as well as Michael Ross at UCLA, Michael Watts at UC Berkeley, Ian Gary at Oxfam, and Sarah Wykes, formerly with the NGO Global Witness. Their areas of expertise -- economics, geography, political science, corruption -- as well as the metrics on which they focus, are similar to the unconventional backgrounds and ideas of the experts whom Gen. David Petraeus called on to rethink the metrics and practice of counterinsurgency.

Oil has yet to find its Petraeus; it remains a badly quantified problem. The abstraction of global warming, the pity of oil-soaked pelicans, even battlefield deaths in Iraq -- these have not occasioned real changes in our addiction to all things petroleum. The United States consumes more gasoline today than on the day Iraq was invaded and the day of the BP accident. If I had a dollar for every time a politician said, as President Barack Obama did in his Oval Office energy speech in June, "The time to embrace a clean energy future is now," I could build a wind farm. An honest accounting would do a lot more than tired platitudes because it would force us to confront the hidden costs that we don't see at the pump. And after all, the best way to get the attention of consumers is through their pocketbooks.