U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Africa, making his second trip to the continent. His first visit was quick and mostly absent of substance. His current trip already looks like a slow-motion train wreck.
Tomorrow, Blinken will visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, and on Wednesday, he will travel to Rwanda. According to the State Department, Blinken will raise concerns about democracy in the country; demand that Rwanda reduce tensions in the eastern DRC; and discuss “the wrongful detention of U.S. Lawful Permanent Resident Paul Rusesabagina.”
A Vulnerable Nation
There are three problems with the State Department’s proposed course of action. First, it shows a lack of understanding of the regional security environment. Second, it places blind trust in the analyses of Human Rights Watch and in UN experts whose processes are shoddy if not corrupt. Finally, it prioritizes Hollywood narratives over reality.
Consider the roots of Rwanda-DRC tension: In 1994, the United Nations stood aside as Hutus unleashed a preplanned anti-Tutsi genocide. The reign of terror ended only after the Rwandan Patriotic Front swept through Rwanda and defeated the French-backed Hutu regime.
Not only war refugees, but also many of the génocidaires fled to the DRC. Rather than disarm them, the United Nations allowed armed Hutu militants to integrate into camps just miles from the Rwandan border. In essence, eastern DRC became the equivalent of southern Lebanon, where Hezbollah roams outside of government control, or the Gaza Strip, where Hamas reigns supreme and often transforms UN camps into logistical bases to further armed struggle. The threat is obvious. Last year, I toured Rwanda’s border with the DRC. Less than three miles distant across the DRC border, I could see smoke from the campfires of Hutu terrorist cells.
Rwanda is vulnerable. Covering an area of 10,000 square miles, it is tiny compared to the DRC’s 900,000 square miles. Nor is the DRC the only neighbor that has sheltered anti-Rwanda terrorists and insurgents. At various times, Uganda and Burundi have done the same.
It is true that Rwanda has intervened previously in the eastern DRC, most often to create a security buffer or to disrupt imminent terror acts. And while the predominantly Tutsi M23 militia operates in the eastern DRC, it is not correct to assume that this group remains under Rwanda’s command. Meanwhile, Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi has shown himself willing for electoral reasons to stir up ethnic tensions – Hutu génocidaires in the east understand his words as a green light for anti-Tutsi pogroms. On these topics, Kongomani, a blog written by a Congo-born local journalist, provides good background and analysis in English.
The M23 may be predominantly Tutsi, but they are Congolese Tutsi. Nor is it correct to simplify Rwanda using the Tutsi-vs-Hutu narrative created by the Belgians more than a century ago, when their forces colonized the Great Lakes region. Rwandan President Paul Kagame has actively worked to erase this framing, removing ethnic categorization from identity cards and reintegrating many Hutus, including repentant officers who served the previous regime, into positions of command authority. This has been a decades-long process best highlighted in scholar Jean-Paul Kimonyo’s excellent Transforming Rwanda. The effort to create a generational change in society and to heal the wounds of genocide explains the general Rwandan distrust of party politics. It also provides a strong counter-argument to outside criticisms of Kagame’s approach to democracy.
The Congolese security situation is complicated, and UN and Human Rights Watch reporting fails to reflect its complexity. Their polemics and tendency to promote ideological agendas over honest assessments should raise red flags.
The diplomats and experts Blinken will speak to in Kinshasa do their research from 1,000 miles away. That is akin to opining on Minneapolis, Memphis, or Tampa from the Upper West Side. Further, that the State Department would accept Human Rights Watch reports uncritically is negligent, especially given that organization’s ideological and political turn, as well as its past partnership with a self-described human rights group founded by a designated al Qaeda financier.
The UN, meanwhile, resents Rwanda for the embarrassment it caused by overcoming genocide despite UN inaction – not only in Rwanda but now again in the Central African Republic. The bias against Rwanda, at the UN and from international human rights groups, is similar to that which Israel routinely faces.
Finally, there is the case of Paul Rusesabagina, whose story the movie Hotel Rwanda made famous. Even if the movie were fully accurate – something scholars present in Rwanda at the time dispute – his later actions matter. With fame and ambition whetted by international attention, Rusesabagina sought power. When he could not achieve this politically – he is less popular in Rwanda than he is in Washington – he both endorsed the violent overthrow of Rwanda and wired money to a terrorist group.
The evidence against Rusesabagina is solid, its validity confirmed by both the U.S. and Belgian governments. For Blinken to categorize Rusesabagina as unlawfully detained is to prioritize Hollywood myth over justice. Rather than parachute into Kigali and lecture Rwandans, Blinken should instead talk to victims of Rusesabagina-funded terror, as I did 15 months ago. The treatment Hollywood and many in the press give Rusesabagina is akin to the whitewashing Hollywood gives Palestinian terrorists and terror charities.
President Joe Biden and his secretary of state have both promised that, under their watch, diplomacy would be back. Both show a troubling tendency, however, to allow progressive narratives to trump reality and to slander allies. Certainly, the Rwandan government has faults, but its progress since the anti-Tutsi genocide has been miraculous. It remains the only country in recent memory to defeat dysfunctional corruption. Rather than abuse yet one more ally, the United States would be better off recognizing the anti-Tutsi genocide, underscoring that no country should make concessions under terror, and demand the UN and DRC disarm génocidaires who, like Arab rejectionists of Israel, aspire to finish the job. That, more than a tone-deaf lecture, would help create an environment where democracy can advance – not only in Rwanda, but across the region.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dr. Michael Rubin is a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Dr. Rubin is the author, coauthor, and coeditor of several books exploring diplomacy, Iranian history, Arab culture, Kurdish studies, and Shi’ite politics, including “Seven Pillars: What Really Causes Instability in the Middle East?” (AEI Press, 2019); “Kurdistan Rising” (AEI Press, 2016); “Dancing with the Devil: The Perils of Engaging Rogue Regimes” (Encounter Books, 2014); and “Eternal Iran: Continuity and Chaos” (Palgrave, 2005).