International Relations

Not Winning Hearts and Minds – Part II

Dano Jukanovich

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Knowing and Influencing

In contrast to President Reagan’s head-nod to Mobutu, or President Arthur’s bet on Leopold, I am certain of Jean-Paul Habimana’s character because I know him. We haven’t merely done business together or been in meetings to discuss policies and programs, which is typically the basis of such character profiles. Jean-Paul and I have shared meals together and worshiped together. Our wives have become friends. Our children have played together. 

President Obama was elected on a pledge to achieve admittedly myopic US goals in Iraq and Afghanistan that included cutting short whatever character influencing relationships US soldiers and civilian representatives had built through blood, sweat and tears of the prior decade. We can read what someone has written, we can listen to someone talk, but knowing and influencing the depth of someone’s view of the world requires going through life with that person, celebrating joys, sharing hardships, collaborating and competing over extended periods of time. US Federal Government structures are designed with limited duration assignments in order to purposely avoid these deep relationships out of fear US representatives will become sympathetic to concerns of the local populace. This is utterly backward thinking as it is only through these empathetic relationships that we can achieve the State Department’s goal of “building a freer, prosperous and secure world.” 

What Could Have Been

Colonialism began in Rwanda after the Berlin Conference of 1884, but it wasn’t until the Belgians took control during World War I that a traditional colonial structure was put in place. The Belgians undertook typical development-related activities including large-scale infrastructure projects and interventions in agriculture, healthcare and education. Unfortunately, they also exacerbated, expanded and solidified an underlying class tension by formally defining and codifying who would be deemed part of the Hutu and Tutsi “race” or class. The Tutsi were promoted to an elite role in business and politics. Already underlying tensions increased to the point of conflict in 1959 where Hutu were killing Tutsi, forcing more than 100,000 to flee Rwanda. This conflict continued to surface periodically in Rwanda’s history only to completely boil over in the genocide of 1994 where upwards of a million Rwandans were killed by other Rwandans in just 100 days. Much has been written about the cause of the genocide. Rwandan genocidaires will say they “were not themselves,” acting almost as if compelled by some outside force. Others will claim it was conscious and justified for the sake of righting the wrong of oppression that had been borne so long by some. Still others argue that, as with many conflicts, the roots of the Rwandan genocide can be found in poverty. Regardless of these theories, a neighbor hacking to death his neighbor’s entire family with a machete, the night after they had shared a jovial meal together, is nothing but a deep moral or character inconsistency. 

By all accounts, the colonists considered Rwandan people inferior and unlikely to achieve a European-level of socio-economic or cultural advancement. This is not dissimilar to the way Americans have thought about Afghans or Iraqis. 

If instead, Belgium had engaged Rwanda (US engaged Afghanistan or Iraq) with the intent to build a Just society, not based on “winning hearts and minds” of Rwandans to a Belgian or American worldview, there might not have been a genocide (nor ongoing civil wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). The United States might have partnered with a leader of character like Jean-Paul Habimana. We would have avoided empowering a brutal dictator like Mobutu in Congo. A Just engagement with Rwanda would not have excluded infrastructure and health care projects, nor building of government administrative systems. However, it would have approached these based on a value for Rwandans at least equal to Americans. The resulting support would have been conceived out of long-term relationship; invited by, not forced upon, the recipients; driven by empowered local leaders of character; designed in the interests of the local people as determined by the local people.

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