AT FIRST THE international response to the July 25 coup in which Tutsi Major Pierre Buyoya ousted the Hutu president of Burundi, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, was tough talk.
Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali's spokeswoman ,declared that "the international community will on no account accept a change of government in Burundi by force or other illegitimate means." And Kofi Annan, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping Operations, reportedly called for intervention that could "beat up on people if necessary" to try to stop the killing.
But such assertions of what the international community would not tolerate should have set off alarm bells among anyone who has followed the way it has actually dealt with such recent crises as Somalia, Bosnia and Liberia. All these stern declarations are framed by one overriding fact: In April and May of 1994, those countries and institutions today issuing the declarations sat on their collective hands while nearly a million Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered.
There was also little cause to believe that these threats were backed up by more than the hope that the Tutsi leaders would be awed by them. In the same speech in which she asserted that a coup in Burundi would not be tolerated, Madeline Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., admitted that the United States had ruled out sending American forces there as part of a peacekeeping force.
The reality is that it is unclear, given the U.N.'s current desperate financial circumstances, which are due in large measure to the continued U.S. refusal to pay its assessments, whether it has the money for such an operation.
Moreover, what will such a force do if its deployment fails to produce the desired result in a fairly short period of time?
U.N. officials have little to say about what they will do if things go wrong. "There is absolutely no plan about what to do if things go wrong except run away," a Pentagon official told me recently.
In any case, now that the coup has taken place, the predictable rhetorical climb-down has already begun. A senior Belgian diplomat, Eric Derycke, spoke for many when, three days after the coup, he opined that "Buyoya is the least bad option" in
Major Buyoya, Western diplomats now suggest, may in fact be a democratic figure in the Burundian context. They note that he followed his first coup by handing over power after six years to Burundi's first democratically elected (and first Hutu) president, Melchior Ndadaye. But Mr. Ndadaye was murdered by Major Buyoya's brother officers 100 days later -- the same men who have now selected him to serve as president once again.
It is possible, of course, that Burundi may turn out to be one rare example of the world acting out of moral concern. Were, for example, Nelson Mandela to agree to a major force commitment, other nations in Africa might well follow, and the U.S. and the Western Europeans might then agree to underwrite the operation's costs.
And a massive, long-term intervention, followed by a prolonged international presence, accompanied by serious diplomatic initiatives and sweetened with development aid, might well transform the situation in Burundi. But such an intervention would effectively turn Burundi into a U.N. protectorate or trusteeship. There is simply no reason to believe the will exists to do anything like this.
Instead, the world is responding, and will continue to respond, with pious sentiments. In the name of sympathy with the Burundian people, the great powers have chosen to lie to them.
If the West, the African countries or the U.N. are not going to act, it would be kinder not to pretend that help is on the way. Not only kinder, but more moral. Because deluding people about what help they can expect, as the citizens of Sarajevo learned to their cost, can prove as great a danger to their survival as any threat they face from those they know to be their enemies. People who expect the cavalry to come rescue them tend to wait for its arrival.
But in Burundi, as in other places where the fantasy of rescue persists, the cavalry is probably not coming, and certainly not staying. It is high time the U.S. and the other foreign actors in this story admitted as much.
L TRB is a column of The New Republic, written by David Rieff.
Pub Date: 8/02/96