There is vigorous debate among reasonable people on the principle of humanitarian intervention and how it has been pursued since the end of the Cold War. But there should be consensus among participants in that debate that a particular type of objection to interventionism must be discounted. This is the notion that documented depravities practised by aggressive and autocratic regimes are mere propaganda constructs of Western media. I wrote recently about an example of this sort of thing: a sustained exercise, in the current issue of the American far-left Monthly Review, in denying the magnitude of Serb atrocities in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s.
The authors of that piece are Ed Herman and David Peterson. Peterson is just a blogger; Herman is co-author with Noam Chomsky of a tendentious work called Manufacturing Consent, which purports to develop a "propaganda model" of Western media. Herman has persistently deployed similar "analysis" with regard to the Balkan wars (see this admirable dissection of his thesis by Martin Shaw of Sussex University), and does so yet again now with Peterson: "Media coverage of the Yugoslav wars ranks among the classic cases in which early demonization as well as an underlying strong political interest led quickly to closure, with a developing narrative of good and evil participants and a crescendo of propaganda steadily reinforcing the good-evil perspective."
(Western media coverage of Milosevic's wars was in fact generally more probing and critical than commentary by certain loud polemical critics of Nato's intervention. See, for example, an extraordinary case cited by Ian Black in The Guardian - a paper whose reporting of those wars was outstanding - where John Pilger apparently manufactured factoids out of thin air.)
But in the last few days, Herman has gone a step beyond (or perhaps, below) anything I've seen from him before. He has contributed a remarkable article entitled "Genocide Inflation is the Real Human Rights Threat: Yugoslavia and Rwanda" to the Chomskyite Z Magazine. I am long familiar with Herman's preposterous insistence that "the claims of 8,000 executed [at Srebrenica in 1995] have never been verified by forensic or credible witness evidence of anything like this scale of killing" (to which I unhesitatingly say "baloney"), and won't deal with the subject here. I'll pass over, too, his comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany, his reference to "the power of Western Jewish elites and lobbying operations", and his assertion that "by featuring Jewish victimization these campaigns [against Holocaust denial] build support for Israel and hence contribute to the astonishing willingness of the West not only to allow massive human rights violations of Palestinians and Lebanese by the Israeli Defense Forces and Israeli settlers but to actively support these by punishing the victims". I'll direct your attention merely to what he says about Rwanda, a nation I had no idea he was interested in.
What happened in Rwanda in 1994 was not only genocide on any definition; it has some claim to being the definitive case of genocide in the years since that word was coined. The true number of Tutsi victims will never be known, but Gérard Prunier, in The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide, 1995, was able to draw inferences from census data and from estimates of survivors passing through refugee camps. He concluded (pp. 264-5) that around 930,000 Tutsis were living in Rwanda on 6 April 1994; and between 800,000 and 850,000 of them were killed in the following three months.
In scale and nature, the murderous Hutu campaign remains scarcely conceivable. But it happened. In the years afterwards, radical publishing houses produced furious and excellent books that condemned the West's failure to intervene. Consider the investigative journalist Linda Melvern, who in her book A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide, 2000, published by Zed Books, rightly said (p. 229):
The Rwandan genocide should be the defining scandal of the presidency of Bill Clinton. Rwanda had been an issue requiring leadership and responsibility.... But the administration took the easy option and failed to push the moral boundaries; there were no votes to be gained by advocating help for another collapsed African state. Africa was less important since the end of the Cold War. The recent example of Somalia has shown the risks of intervention.
In her more recent book Conspiracy to Murder: the Rwandan Genocide, 2004, published by Verso Books, Ms Melvern laments (p. 262): "In the UK, Rwanda has been virtually airbrushed from history in the writings and memoirs of key figures in the government which presided at the time, a government which prided itself on the promotion of human rights."
Well, Ed Herman has a rather different take. This is his version of progressive concern about a threatened and devastated African people:
To an amazing degree, the Western media and NGOs swallowed the propaganda line and lies on Rwanda that turned things upside down. They made the prime aggressors and genocidists, who were responsible for the dual assassination [of President Habyarimana and of President Ntariyamira of Burundi] of April 6, 1994 that precipitated the mass killing, into heroic defenders against the de facto victims. The dictator Paul Kagame, one of the great mass murderers of our time, was made into an honored savior deserving and receiving strong Western support. [The American writer] Philip Gourevitch and the New Yorker whipped up sympathy in the West by labeling the Tutsis the “Jews of Africa;” the label stuck, and it garnered even greater support for Western anti-“genocide” intervention. These big lies are now institutionalized and are part of the common (mis)understanding in the West.
Even from this source, I've read nothing so vile and politically illiterate. The article was sent to me by one of my regular correspondents, a journalist with much experience of Africa, who notes two points in particular. First, the "evidence" for Herman's denial of genocide in Rwanda comes from a book by a Canadian, Robin Philpot. The surname has a resonance on this issue, for Philpot's brother, John, is a lawyer who represented some of those accused of genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. (Robin Philpot also retails his theories on the far-left Counterpunch magazine.) Secondly, there is an extraordinary but perfectly casual defamation of Roméo Dallaire, the UN representative in Rwanda at the time (and now a Liberal member of the Canadian Senate), who Herman claims gave "active or tacit help" in the shooting down of the plane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana.
What can you say, and where do you start? There is very much to say, but scant purpose in saying it. This is a monstrous article by a man who sullies the good name of crank conspiracy theorists everywhere. It's ironic that even the absurd Robin Philpot, Herman's source, has lately been embarrassed by such nonsensical claims. Earlier this year, Philpot stood as a candidate for the Parti Québécois in Montreal, where his documented genocide denial became a campaign issue and caused much consternation to his party leader. Apparently Philpot did not so much the decent as the self-interested thing, and denied his earlier denial.