WASHINGTON - Not long after taking office, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said U.S. decisions on committing troops to save lives in distant lands would not be dictated by television's graphic images of human suffering.
CNN, he said, would not be the "north star" guiding U.S. policy decisions.
But U.S. officials said this week "the CNN factor" in no small way influenced President Clinton's provisional decision to send thousands of troops to Central Africa to help protect and funnel aid to more than 1 million refugees.
The crisis in Central Africa, based largely on enmity between Hutu and Tutsi, traditionally antagonistic tribes living side-by-side in several countries, festered all summer. The worst problem was in Burundi, where thousands were dying each month in tribal bloodshed.
The Clinton administration, influenced by electoral considerations and bitter memories of when the Somalia intervention turned sour three years earlier, was content to let the United Nations play the leading role.
The situation took on a new dimension last month when fighting flared again and forced hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus to flee U.N. refugee camps in Eastern Zaire, where they were sheltering from horrors at home.
It became obvious that a major humanitarian disaster was in the making, and the administration's steadfast resistance to committing troops to Central Africa began to melt - a process accelerated by televised images of desperate refugees bereft of the most elemental human needs.
"The folks upstairs spent a lot of time worrying about it," said one official, alluding to the impact those scenes had on policymakers in seventh-floor offices at the State Department.
At the same time appeals for U.S. intervention grew more strident from private relief organizations, newspaper editorials and foreign governments.
They also were influenced by bitter memories of 1994 when an estimated 500,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, were massacred over a period of a few weeks by their Hutu compatriots. The scope of the brutality was staggering, the response of the United States and the rest of the world tepid.
"People didn't want a repeat of that," an official said.
The Rwanda tragedy occurred when administration resistance to overseas troop commitments was at a high point. It came just months after 18 American soldiers were killed and 78 wounded in a firefight in Somalia, an incident that gave humanitarian intervention a bad name.
"There was a sense that something had to be done. But the Europeans were ducking. No one was taking the lead," one official said.
Defense Secretary William Perry, speaking Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, denied political considerations were playing a role in decisions to deploy troops, recalling that 1,000 military personnel were dispatched to Zaire two years ago to head off an outbreak of cholera in the camps.
"We have responded when the crisis occurs" that military is uniquely able to deal with, he said. With Rwandans now leaving the camps for home, "there may or may not be a unique need" for American troops now, he said.
While the decision to intervene as part of a multinational force was based largely on moral grounds, the State Department insists other factors were taken into account.
Spokesman Glyn Davies said a conflict in Zaire, a huge land mass with nine neighbors, threatens stability in all of Central Africa and could derail plans to hold national elections in Zaire in mid1997.
Even without the tribal problem on its borders, Zaire's internal political framework is teetering. President Mobutu Seke Seko, 64, for 31 years Zaire's ruler and an American ally, is in Europe convalescing from prostate cancer surgery, and even his political enemies say his death would throw the country into chaos.
At week's end, the border crisis took an unexpected turn for the better when hundreds of thousands of Rwandan Hutus being held hostage by Hutu militants broke free from the captors and returned en masse to their homeland.
Administration officials said the new developments could lead to changes in any U.S. commitment's size and mission.
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