Forceful diplomacy can spare Burundi

If people want to fight, they will fight. No amount of intervention, even by the world’s sole superpower, will stop them. And of all forms of conflict, ethnic clashes are the most deep-seated and difficult to resolve. But despite this almost insurmountable challenge, the United States has led international efforts to, at the very least, establish forums for negotiation in war-torn lands. While there is no guarantee of lasting peace in troubled regions like the former Yugoslavia and the Middle East, great strides have been made in the past few years.
But in central Africa, where similar centuries-old ethnic antagonism has led to the massacre of almost a million people since 1994, no diplomatic initiatives have even been attempted. Two years after terror consumed Rwanda, the same spectre of genocide looms over its neighbor to the south, Burundi.
If left unchecked, the ethnic strife between the Hutus and Tutsis which ravaged Rwanda and now threatens Burundi will soon engulf Uganda, Tanzania and eastern Zaire as well. Millions of Hutus who fled Rwanda after the Tutsi’s bloody return to power now live in sprawling refugee camps in these bordering countries, from which rogue militia groups launch attacks. This border-hopping draws Hutus and Tutsis from Uganda and Zaire into the conflict and may put these border states at war by proxy. The risk of further political destabilization is particularly great for Zaire, whose one-man government, Motobu Sese Seko, has been in Europe for months undergoing cancer treatment.
Why, with an entire region imploding, does the United States, and to be fair, the entire world, stand by and do nothing but dole out feeble humanitarian aid? Primarily because Rwanda and Burundi have no geopolitical trump card to play. The Middle East will command the world’s attention as long as the global economy is dependent on its vast oil reserves. Bosnia’s notorious reputation as the flashpoint of World War I is very much alive in the memory of its European neighbors. But central Africa is remote and poor, with a nebulous history of complex ethnic conflict. There is a precedent, though, for U.S. involvement in such a region.
When President Clinton came to office, he inherited a miscalculated and costly U.S. operation in Somalia. He pulled out our troops and vowed not to repeat the debacle. Hence, the United States kept out of Rwanda’s bloody 1994 war. But the Somalia mission failed because the United States sent troops in to protect humanitarian relief efforts without dealing with the underlying political problems. Clinton is right to avoid military involvement, but the United States could apply the same emphasis on diplomacy in central Africa which has worked elsewhere. Two years ago, peace in Bosnia seemed impossible. Serbs, Muslims and Croats alike swore they would never compromise. Like their Bosnian counterparts, Hutu and Tutsi leaders are ready to fight to the death. But there is a small hope for peace. The answer which has worked so far on Bosnia is a new power-sharing government composed of leaders from each ethnic group. It’s unlikely, unstable and it may not last. But it does offer a chance for an end to centuries of turmoil. Only through forceful diplomacy can such a solution work in Rwanda and Burundi. With millions of lives at stake, it’s worth a chance.