Darkness and Light

Barack Obama promised to end "the color-coded politics of fear." But we're still living in the shadows.

On Aug. 1, 2007, I heard Barack Obama, whose presidential candidacy was feeling increasingly quixotic, deliver a foreign-policy speech in Washington. The speech would become instantly famous for Obama's chesty declaration that as president he would attack "high-value" terrorists in Pakistan even without Pakistani approval. That was the red meat; but it wasn't the theme, and it wasn't what I recalled later.

"After 9/11," Obama said, "our calling was to write a new chapter in the American story... Instead, we got a color-coded politics of fear." He promised a post-post-9/11 foreign policy that would replace the fearfulness and belligerence of the George W. Bush era with a new sense of openness and opportunity. One reason voters ultimately flocked to Obama was that he promised to liberate Americans from the darkness into which they had been plunged by the terrorist attacks.

Now that the ninth anniversary of 9/11 -- the second under President Obama -- has arrived, it is fair to ask: Has he succeeded? Has Obama lifted that pall of fear and the overweening obsession with Islamic terrorism? Obama has been -- for the most part -- true to his words. But I think the answer to the larger questions is no.

The "color-coded politics of fear" represented only one side of the "war on terror" that Obama inherited. That side -- the dark side -- meant the torture of detainees, imprisonment without recourse, "extraordinary rendition," the vast and sometimes inhuman machinery of homeland security. The visionary element -- the Bush side, as it were, rather than the Dick Cheney side -- involved the hoped-for transformation of the Islamic world through regime change and democracy promotion. What is really remarkable, and deeply disturbing, about the public mood today is that despite al Qaeda's failure to mount an attack on American soil since 9/11, the dark side -- Cheney's legacy -- has persisted, while the transformative vision has come to seem like a fable, the artifact of an old naivete.

In that 2007 speech, Obama explicitly repudiated the use of torture, saying that "the days of compromising our values are over." And he has, in fact, ended the practices he considers torture. But he has not convinced the public. At the height of Obama's popularity, in April 2009, a significant plurality of Americans asserted in a CBS News poll that waterboarding was justified -- even though an overwhelming majority agreed with the president that the practice constituted torture. Even Cheney never made so bald a claim. Between half and two-thirds of respondents consistently oppose closing the Guantanamo Bay facility. Americans actually have a more negative view of Islam today than they did five years ago; perhaps the reason why a rising fraction of the public believes that Obama is a Muslim is that they can think of no worse an epithet.

On the other hand, the appetite for transformative adventures has evaporated. The public views the war in Iraq as a failure. A full 43 percent now say that even the war in Afghanistan was a "mistake" from the outset. And large majorities take a dim view of democracy promotion in general. This, then, is the national mood nine years after the terrorist attacks: sullen, suspicious, defensive, borderline isolationist. (For more on this, see Scott Malcomson's fine new memoir on the subject, Generation's End: A Personal Memoir of American Power After 9/11.) I'm beginning to wonder if, back in 2007, I should have paid less attention to Obama's sweeping new formulation and more to his hyperbolic attempt to prove to a wary public that he wasn't going to be soft on terrorism.

Obama has trod carefully -- perhaps too carefully -- on issues like the closing of Guantánamo or the detention of alleged terrorists without trial; but these are intrinsically hard questions, and in neither case would be it fair to say that he has trafficked in the color-coded politics of fear. Nevertheless, the administration's policies have had the inadvertent effect of enhancing the national preoccupation with the threat from the Islamic world. From the very outset of his tenure, Obama has seen his great mission to be undoing the harm that his predecessor did in the Middle East. He gave his first interview as president to news channel Al Arabiya; he made his first phone calls to Middle Eastern leaders. By far, the most important speech of his first year in office was the Cairo address in which he promised a "new beginning" in the Middle East. And the consuming foreign-policy issues of his tenure have been the nuclear standoff in Iran and the war in Afghanistan -- a war, Obama has consistently argued, that America cannot afford to lose.

Unfortunately, the Middle East is the world's most intransigent region, a place where U.S. efforts of any kind produce the most modest outcomes. Obama has "succeeded" in Iraq by redefining success as getting out. Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the United States is spending $100 billion a year, and of course precious lives, while the effort to persuade the Afghan people that their government is worth defending is, if anything, going backward. Obama continues to insist that Afghanistan is the central front in the real war on terror, but the recent report of the Afghanistan Study Group concludes flatly that "the U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice."

George Friedman, head of the global intelligence firm Stratfor, recently wrote that "the most significant effect of 9/11" was that "the United States became obsessed with a single region." He concedes that this was inevitable in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Today, though, he argues, it is necessary to ask: "What does the United States lose elsewhere while it focuses on the future of Kandahar?" Friedman shares the Afghanistan Study Group's skepticism about the consequences of military failure there, but he also makes the cold-blooded assertion that "the United States cannot subordinate its grand strategy to simply fighting terrorism even if there will be occasional terrorist attacks on the United States."

Kibitzers like Friedman, or me, don't have to deal with U.S. public opinion, of course. Another terrorist attack would make it even harder than it already is for Obama to advance a post-post-9/11 strategy. And I don't think Friedman is right in claiming that, for example, Russia exploited U.S. preoccupation with the Middle East to attack Georgia in 2008. But there are undeniably grave costs to that preoccupation, and not only in blood and treasure. Doubling down in Afghanistan has further ratcheted up the public sense of menace -- they'll attack us here if we don't stop them there -- while the failure to make headway has deepened public cynicism about America's capacity to shape a better world. Obama has adopted from Bush the premise that the United States must find a way to tame the Islamic world, though he has tried to go about it in a very different way. But though this may be true in the long run, in the short run it has turned out to be a thankless task.

The Obama administration cannot, of course, abandon the Middle East peace initiative it has just helped foster, or ignore Iran's nuclear aspirations. But it can pivot from the "arc of crisis," as Zbigniew Brzezinski once dismally labeled the broader Middle East, to the world of opportunity that Obama, as candidate, so successfully invoked. In this regard, I took heart from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's speech this week at the Council on Foreign Relations. After a ritual mention of Middle Eastern crises, Clinton moved on to relations with European allies and NATO, development assistance, the need to incorporate emerging powers into the global order, regional cooperation, reform of the United Nations and other global institutions, and the obligation to defend and nurture fragile democracies. (Of course, she ended by talking about Iran policy as the successful consummation of all these initiatives.) This is the long-term agenda that has been obscured by crisis.

Are the American people in the mood to hear about global architecture? I don't know; they're in a very bad mood. Nevertheless, we should say on 9/11/10, as Obama did in 2007, "It is time to turn the page."

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

Judgment Day for Rwanda

Paul Kagame is proving to be a pliant Western ally. But a shocking new U.N. report shows why the Rwandan president can no longer claim to be a victim -- and it's time to hold him accountable.

In the middle of the explosive U.N. report on human rights abuses in the Democratic Republic of the Congo that was leaked to the French press last week, the reader finds a map of that vast country with red arrows branching from east to west. The arrows trace the twisting path taken by tens of thousands of starving Hutu refugees across the immense, trackless jungle as they fled before Rwandan troops and their local surrogates, who kept catching up to them and killing as many as possible. The idea of a relentless campaign of murder carried out by Rwanda's Tutsi government, which came to power in the aftermath of the 1994 Hutu-led genocide, is both sickening and shocking. But the report, whose formal publication Rwanda has succeeded in postponing until Oct. 1, is unequivocal: "The massacres in Mbandaka and Wendji, committed on 13 May 1997 in Équateur Province, over 2,000 kilometres west of Rwanda, were the final stage in the hunt for Hutu refugees that had begun in eastern Zaire, in North and South Kivu, in October 1996." "Hunt" is a terrible word when applied to humans.

Whether or not that seven-month killing spree constitutes genocide will, as the authors note, be a matter for competent courts to decide -- though they present a plausible case that it does. Even if some future tribunal concludes that the dreadful acts amount "only" to crimes against humanity, this meticulous document offers a powerful rebuke both to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who has adroitly and cynically used his country's suffering as a shield behind which to advance its regional interests, and to his backers in Washington and London, who have unquestioningly accepted the country's unique victim status.

Of course that assumes that the report is accurate. Israel and its supporters denounced the United Nations' Goldstone report, on the 2009 war in Gaza, as a hatchet job. Rwandan officials have responded with, if anything, greater fury, threatening to withdraw all the country's peacekeeping troops from U.N. missions should the document be published. Rwanda, like Israel, also has advocates whose credibility is not to be lightly dismissed. Journalist Philip Gourevitch has derisively noted that the investigative team "consisted of thirty-three people, only half of whom worked, for half a year, in the provinces where the crimes were committed." Gourevitch also threw an elbow at former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who had supported the project. Since Annan's failure to sound the alarm on the Rwandan genocide deeply harmed his reputation, Gourevitch infers, "his interest in blaming others is hardly surprising."

The fact that so exacting a student of genocide -- Gourevitch wrote the book  on the Rwandan tragedy -- can offer up such feeble defenses is a sign of the powerful hold Rwanda continues to exercise over the sympathy and moral imagination of its defenders. I spoke to three regional experts who had read the report, and all praise its professionalism, care, and balance. And Annan approved, but in no way initiated, the "mapping exercise," as it is formally called. The study, which covers the period from 1993 to 2003, documents acts of mass murder, torture, gang-rape, plunder, and even cannibalism by the Congolese Army, Angolan and Ugandan forces, local warlords, state officials, and ethnic and tribal groups. In this carnival of killing, the Rwandan Popular Front (RPF) and its local allies constituted the best organized, most mobile, and most persistent force.

The RPF was also hunting a legitimate target -- the genocidaires who had fled across the border, reconstituted themselves as the ex-FAR/Interahamwe, mingled with refugees in the giant, ill-governed camps of eastern Congo, and found fresh recruits among them. But the report finds that each time they routed the genocidaires, the soldiers turned on civilians. In one typical episode, after killing a number of ex-FAR in the vast northeastern province of Orientale, RPF forces kidnapped refugees, many of them women and children, and brought them to a camp, allegedly under the pretext of returning them to Rwanda. The refugees were then brought out in small groups. From the report: "They were bound and their throats were cut or they were killed by hammer blows to the head. Their bodies were then thrown into pits or doused with petrol and burned. The operation was carried out in a methodical manner and lasted at least one month."

What has enraged the Rwandans, of course, is the claim that the victims of genocide became its perpetrators. The report offers no evidence of political control, though the Rwandan army is a famously disciplined, top-down force. But the study does adduce extensive evidence that RPF forces targeted all Hutus, including the Congolese Hutu known as Banyarwanda. The report notes that soldiers erected barriers that allowed them to separate Hutus from other groups, sparing the latter and slaughtering the former. Without in any way diminishing the unique monstrousness of the 1994 genocide, the report essentially puts an end to Rwanda's victim status. The Great Lakes region, comprising Rwanda, Burundi, and Congo, has been engulfed since the 1970s in a politics of genocide, in which groups seek to gain and retain power by destroying their rivals. Kagame's RPF, and perhaps Kagame himself, drank from this poisoned stream.

And this is not, like the Turkish genocide against the Armenians, a matter of strictly historical significance. Since the 1990s, Rwanda has played a dangerous game in Congo, backing brutal warlords and helping raise ragtag armies, siphoning off natural resources, even trying to rearrange borders to seize Congolese farmland. All of Congo's neighbors have nibbled at this vast carcass, but Rwanda gets away with it. In the late 1990s, the United States and Britain blocked efforts, largely by France, to raise the issue of Rwanda's behavior in the Security Council. Carla Del Ponte writes in her memoirs that in 2003, Annan refused to reappoint her as chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda when she outraged Kagame by investigating allegations of Tutsi crimes against Hutu civilians after the genocide (so much for Annan's alleged blame-shifting campaign). Kagame has refused to permit the tribunal to interview Rwandan witnesses.

Anneke Van Woudenberg, an authority on the Great Lakes region with Human Rights Watch, told me that, thanks to allies like the United States and Britain, "any attempt to present the information contained in this report has been blocked, subverted, or really discouraged." And that, in turn, has emboldened the Rwandans. "The report starkly shows the consequences of a culture of impunity," she says. "You see the same crimes being committed again and again. And we're continuing to document those same abuses today. This is the kind of horrific cycle you get when you bury the truth, when you don't hold perpetrators to account." For this reason, Van Woudenberg views the report as a document of "immense historical importance."

It is not simply Rwanda's suffering that has bought it the protection of powerful states. "They have made themselves indispensable," says Fabienne Hara, a vice president of the International Crisis Group with long experience in the region. Washington has come to regard Rwanda as a "little military machine" to provide peacekeepers throughout the region (thus the seriousness of Rwanda's threat to withdraw its troops) and as a friendly "entry point" for intelligence and regional diplomacy -- a Central African Ethiopia. What's more, Kagame has turned Rwanda into an extraordinary success story, with a bustling economy, sound finances, and a highly effective military. And all he has asked in exchange -- like Israel -- is protection from international judgment as he makes his way in his very dangerous neighborhood.

There is disagreement among experts about how policymakers should wield the study. Hara and Van Woudenberg would like to see Washington and London press Kagame to limit his meddling in eastern Congo. Phil Clark, an Oxford University researcher and regional scholar, fears that the report's publication will widen fissures within the ruling elite in Kigali and thus imperil Kagame's hold on power. Whoever succeeds Kagame is likely to be a less-stabilizing figure, he argues.

Perhaps the report should have appeared a year from now, or a year ago. What matters is that the United Nations will place its imprimatur on allegations that have been circulating for years. Rwanda's friends have allowed the country, quite literally, to get away with murder. That tidy transaction must now come to an end. Rwanda is an important U.S. ally -- but allies, too, need to be held to account.