"We must have global vigilance. And never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence." (President Clinton, to genocide survivors in Kigali, Rwanda, March 25, 1998.)

"It is easy to say, never again; but much harder to make it so." (President Clinton, to the U.N. General Assembly, Sept. 21, 1999.)

Bill Clinton arrived in Rwanda in March 1998 carrying heavy baggage. Four years earlier, Hutu tribal militias in Rwanda had slaughtered at least a half-million and perhaps more than a million members of the Tutsi tribe. The slaughter was no overnight event. Armed for the most part with only clubs and machetes, the militias spent 90 days butchering their way through the country.

Despite abundant news coverage of the genocide and repeated entreaties for help, the United States took no effective steps to stop the killing. In his speech in Kigali, Clinton offered an explanation for this: ignorance. He told the survivors that, although "it may seem strange . . . all over the world there were people like me sitting in their offices, day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."

This statement was not remotely true. As has been documented by objective observers, the U.S. government followed the progress of the genocide in Rwanda closely. Clinton himself was fully apprised; the president knew what was going on as first hundreds, then thousands, then hundreds of thousands were murdered. And neither is it true that Clinton was guilty of mere inaction in the face of genocide, that he only "did not act quickly enough [to stop the killing] after the killing began," as he put it. In fact, he acted promptly, and repeatedly, to personally deny urgent requests from the United Nations to send even a very small force of non-American troops into Rwanda. On May 24, with the Red Cross estimating the number of murdered in Rwanda at 400,000 and climbing, Clinton--still blocking the deployment of U.N. troops--said: "We cannot solve every such outburst of civil strife or militant nationalism simply by sending in our forces."

So, in Kigali, facing the survivors of a massacre he had refused to intervene against, it is understandable that the president felt the need to promise better in the future. He said the leaders of the world must "organize ourselves so that we can maximize the chances of preventing these events, and where they cannot be prevented, we can move more quickly to minimize the horror." "And," he said, "we must make it clear to all those who would commit such acts in the future that they too must answer for their acts, and they will."

At the time the president spoke, the West African nation of Sierra Leone was in danger of being overrun by the so-called troops of the so-called Armed Forces Revolutionary Council, a junta dedicated to overthrowing the government of Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, elected in 1996. By late 1998, the situation was grave; Nigerian troops imported into Sierra Leone with the support of an alliance of African governments were losing ground to the rebel army, 10,000 frequently drugged amateurs commanded by Sam "General Mosquito" Bockarie, a former hairdresser.

In January 1999, nine months after Clinton spoke, General Mosquito's troops took Sierra Leone's capital of Freetown, and the United States closed its embassy. In the aftermath of victory, the rebels waged a campaign of terror against the innocent civilian population of Sierra Leone, murdering and raping indiscriminately and, in a particularly cruel practice, cutting off the hands of men and boys. All told, the rebels have murdered, maimed or raped an estimated 10,000 people in Sierra Leone, with many children among their victims.

As The Washington Post's managing editor, Steve Coll, argued in a detailed and convincing article this week, the United States could have averted this slaughter by providing weapons and other support to the Nigerian troops in Sierra Leone. "No such scenario was ever seriously entertained," writes Coll. "State Department officials say it was hardly even discussed at the White House." Nor did the United States intervene with force to stop the slaughter. Never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence? Never mind.

The second promise of Kigali, that of accountability, went swiftly by the boards, too. What did the United States do to punish General Mosquito and his killers? It lent its strong support to a peace agreement, signed in Lome, the capital of Togo, on July 7; the agreement provides blanket amnesty for the hairdresser-general and his band of merry hand-choppers.

The president is partially right. It is easy to say, Never again. But in this case, at least, it wouldn't have been really so hard to make it so.

Michael Kelly is the editor in chief of National Journal.