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Derek Chollet is the Principal Deputy Director of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Staff. Prior to joining the State Department, he was a Senior Fellow at The Center for a New[…]

Derek Chollet explains the Rwandan genocide as a result of a foreign policy too easily swayed by politics.

Topic: Foreign Policy Casualties

Derek Chollet: The history of Somalia is actually in itself pretty interesting because it was a humanitarian mission, there was a huge food crisis in Somalia in 1992, George H.W. Bush is still president, and there are images of people dying on TV and mass starvation, Bill Clinton wins the election in November 1992. A few weeks after that Brent Skowcroft, who was still the national security advisor, George H.W. Bush is a lame duck, he’s just packing up, Brent Skowcroft calls Sandy Berger, who was then a top advisor to Clinton on a transition who will then later become the national security advisor to Clinton, and Skowcroft says to Sandy Berger, “I’m just calling to let you know that in the next few days we’re going to announce that we’re going to be deploying 20,000 U.S. troops to Somalia to help feed people there, and you don’t have to worry about it because they’re all going to be gone by the time Clinton’s inaugurated,” you know, the end of January, “We’re not asking you, we’re just going to do this. So thanks.” Remarkable, right? It was a Republican president using American troops to go into a country that few Americans could probably have found on a map, poor destitute place in Africa, on a purely humanitarian mission, to feed people. The Clinton administration supported it. In many ways this was a perfect example of the use of U.S. power in the world. They hoped it could be something that would succeed and we could build on and the idea the U.S. could use its power to help do good things. Feed people. Well the history of Somalia got more complicated. Once we were there, there was a question of how we could leave without letting the problem just return. It got mixed up with sort of what the U.N.’s role and our decision-making was going to be. The U.N. had the force that went in there. The U.S. force was under a U.N. mandate. There were all sorts of questions about did the U.N. have a role in sort of ordering our troops around, which they didn’t, but it became part of the lore from Somalia, and the Clinton administration basically got blindsided. It shouldn’t have been blindsided because it was 10 months into office. It was October 1993 but 19 Americans were killed in a massive firefight in the crowded streets of Mogadishu that’s been immortalized in the book and the movie, Blackhawk Down.

Question: Was there any excuse for not going into Rwanda?

Derek Chollet: In retrospect, Bill Clinton himself has apologized to the people of Rwanda for not intervening there. I think one of the things we tried to deal with during this period that is a theme that in many ways runs throughout our book is trying to figure out in a world where there isn’t a clear enemy, like the Soviets, what acceptable costs would be for U.S. action. Cost in lives, which is the most important cost, but cost also in terms of treasure, how much money we’re going to spend, and also time and attention and political capital. That’s a struggle that the Clinton administration had, it’s a struggle that conservatives who were outside of the executive branch but in the Congress had, trying to calibrate what is that we should be doing that’s an acceptable cost to the American people and relative to other things we want to do, whether it’s other things in the world or other things here at home. I think clearly the story of these years as we go back through them shows that that was a struggle we didn’t always sort of handle very well. Now during the current administration you have almost in response to the difficulty during those years, there is a sense that there is no price too high, that we will do whatever it takes. I think now we’re seeing both liberals and conservatives sort of take a step back at that and say well, wait a second. Should we rethink this? Is it true that we don’t have to worry about how much we’re spending on the war in Iraq, whether in terms of the spending being the cost of our men and women in uniform or the dollars that we’re spending on it? The next president will have to deal with this issue of cost and it will be very much framed by the enormous costs we’ve carried in the last few years.

Question: Does foreign policy need to be de-politicized?

Derek Chollet: It’s interesting, with the end of the Cold War and the fights that we describe that played out in the 1990s, there was more and more nostalgia for the so-called Cold War consensus in the idea that it was during the Cold War, Republicans and Democrats could stand together. They certainly had fights and it was politics but there were certain things that they would agree on, politics stopped at the water’s edge. I think there might be some misplaced nostalgia for that. The politics during the McCarthy era was pretty hardball. Politics during the Vietnam years is pretty hardball. The Nixon years are certainly pretty hardball. So we shouldn’t have sort of lionize, glorify that era too much. But I think it is true, and it might have been because of the sense that the world mattered less during the 1990s, but that people were more willing to play politics with foreign policy than they otherwise might have been, to use sort of foreign policy debates and arguments as a weapon to beat up their opponents. They might have been more willing to do that during the ‘90s than they would have been earlier. But what we try to do in this book is show how it is hard to understand foreign policy and the debates about foreign policy and America’s role in the world without understanding the politics of the moment. What we want to do in the book is show the intersection of these two, because it’s not only important to understand the 1990s and these years between the fall of the wall and 9/11, but it’s important to understand where we are today and where we’ve been in the last few years because foreign policy and politics are, in a democracy, intertwined. So in that sense, because leaders are elected, the president is accountable to people, the Congress is accountable to people, politics and foreign policy are always going to be interrelated.


Recorded on: 07/08/2008