WASHINGTON—When both sides have a point in a war, you know you are in deep trouble—in deciding whom to help, whom to blame, or whom to punish. That’s the case in Congo, where the Rwanda-backed rebel force led by Laurent Nkunda is fighting a combination of government troops and the exiled Rwandan Hutu militia known by its acronym FDLR.

In the last few weeks, Nkunda’s expansionist push in large parts of eastern Congo’s North Kivu province has chased 250,000 civilians out of their homes while the government’s troops looted, raped and shot their way in retreat. The United Nations peacekeeping mission, the largest in the world, has been busy trying to survive amid the population’s wrath. Having been reduced to impotence, the U.N. peace envoy, former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, has tried to placate Nkunda with public compliments that must have made the terrorized people of eastern Congo cringe—in the unlikely event that his words have reached that far in a country with poor communications.

The rebel leader, a Congolese veteran of the Tutsi-controlled Rwandan Patriotic Front that overthrew Rwanda’s Hutu government after decades of domination, claims that he is protecting the Tutsi minority threatened by the Hutu fighters who crossed over into eastern Congo after their defeat. He has a point. The FDLR, responsible for the genocide of some 800,000 Rwandan Tutsis in the mid-1990s, operates with astonishing ease in eastern Congo. By all indications, the Congolese government of Joseph Kabila is using the FDLR as a buffer against a potential Rwandan invasion (Rwanda has invaded Congo twice in the past).

Kabila, for his part, accuses Nkunda of being a stooge of Rwanda’s government and of using the Tutsi minority as an excuse for plundering the vast natural resources of eastern Congo while trying to position himself as a major player in the country. He has a point too. Rwanda’s influence over Nkunda is exemplified by the fact that the only cease-fires to which the rebel leader has agreed have been the ones called for by Rwandan President Paul Kagame. And Nkunda has been accused of perpetrating atrocities by many of the same groups that denounced the slaughter of Rwandan Tutsis in the 1990s.

The conflict represents the failure of two Western-backed transitions to democracy in Africa—Congo’s and Rwanda’s.

After a civil war that lasted five years, Congo adopted a new constitution, held elections and turned Laurent Kabila, the heir of his father’s victorious rebellion against Mobutu Sese Seko’s dictatorship, into the lawful president. But Kabila’s tolerance of Hutu militias in the east and his inability to generate order and rein in corruption in government have led Congo to the verge of yet another civil war.

Rwanda, for its part, seemed to have successfully recovered from the genocide. Peace, a stable government supported by every developed democracy except France, and a measure of economic improvement seemed the signs of a country reborn. And yet Rwanda’s Tutsi government cannot escape blame for the mess in eastern Congo. Kagame’s failure to accommodate the Hutus by allowing them to participate in the political and civil life of the nation, along with the support he lends to Nkunda’s rebel army in neighboring Congo, points to the president’s role in the catastrophic events of recent weeks.

The Tutsis have good reason to mistrust Hutu extremists. But the Hutu population—the majority of Rwandans—cannot be made to bear collective guilt for the actions of the genocidal government of the 1990s, nor is their civil and political exclusion reconcilable with the goals of Rwanda’s transition. The Hutus themselves, one might add, were once exploited by the Tutsi minority with support from Belgium, the colonial master.

We are in the face of a classic African tragedy. In Congo’s war there are no angels. Both sides are profoundly responsible for what looks like a descent into the abyss from which Congo once appeared to be emerging. And the international community, which turned a blind eye to Kabila’s cynical tolerance of Hutu extremists in eastern Congo and showered the Rwandan government with international respect while it was inflaming the crisis next door, has little honor to claim in this conflict.