Congo needs help, not Western posturing

A feud between Richard Holbrooke and Madeleine Albright shadows what will likely be useless U.N. aid to war-torn Central Africa.

Published May 8, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

Washington has taken not one but several contradictory approaches to the interrelated crises now unfolding in Rwanda, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- that tragedy masquerading as a country that was formerly known as Zaire. Policymakers agree that something needs to be done about the first general war in Africa since decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s, but none of the approaches that have been proposed seems very promising. Most seem like the triumph of hope over experience.

Last week four U.N. peacekeepers were killed in Sierra Leone, and more than 300 were taken hostage by revolutionary forces. They were part of a mission that was supposed to be a dry run for a U.N. deployment in the Congo -- its outcome only shows how dangerous wishful thinking can be.

Until recently, the confusions of U.S. policy didn't matter all that much. For all the pious talk to the contrary, the great powers and the United Nations were doing little to try to stop the fighting. Peacekeeping was correctly viewed as inappropriate in the context of African wars, where there was no peace to keep.

But now moves are afoot to deploy 500 international observers to monitor the cease-fire that was signed by most of the belligerents in Lusaka, Zambia, last year. These observers have no enforcement powers and the 5,000 U.N. soldiers who are to be deployed alongside them have, as their sole task, protecting not the Congolese people who are the victims of the war but the international observers. No Americans will be involved, but both U.S. money and U.S. logistical help will be needed if the mission is to get off the ground.

For the U.N. peacekeepers, it is the Bosnia trap all over again, although the mandate this time is actually more restrictive than it was in the Balkans in the early 1990s. In the wake of the killings in Sierra Leone, most senior officials at the United Nations are understandably terrified at the prospect of another such failure that will be laid at their door. They argue that such an ill-conceived, understaffed and unpromising operation would never have gotten off the drawing board had it not been for the dogged persistence of Richard Holbrooke, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, architect of the Dayton agreements that ended the Bosnian war and front-runner for secretary of state should Al Gore become president.

Holbrooke's obsession with Africa since coming to the United Nations has certainly astonished those who know his history. He has no African background, having begun his diplomatic career as an East Asia specialist. More recently, his focus has been almost entirely on the Balkans, Germany and NATO expansion. But Holbrooke has made Africa -- above all, the Central African wars and the AIDS crisis -- the signature issue of his tenure in New York. As competitive as he is brilliant, Holbrooke is reported on more than one occasion to have publicly contrasted the difficulties he faces with the less daunting tasks that have concerned Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

It is hard to know how much truth there is in any of this. But the on again, off again feud between Holbrooke and Albright has been the stuff of Washington gossip for more than five years. A Beltway joke even had it that the anonymous letter denouncing Holbrooke before his confirmation hearings to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was not written by a Republican but by an Albright loyalist. An extreme version insisted it was written by her outgoing spokesman, James Rubin. That hardly seems likely. But the bad blood is real enough, and, over Africa policy, the feud between the U.S. permanent mission to the United Nations and the State Department shows every sign of being about to boil over.

Go to the State Department and officials will tell you on background that Holbrooke is pushing a policy that they do not endorse. Secretary Albright's protigi Susan Rice, assistant secretary of state for African affairs, has, during her tenure, staunchly supported Rwanda -- one of the principal belligerents in the Congo war. Holbrooke has been less partisan. But he seems convinced that, much as he did at Dayton, he will be able by force of will to engage the various parties -- Rwanda, Angola, Zimbabwe, the Congolese government and the rebel factions. This conviction seems to his detractors to be at best like the triumph of hope over experience, and at worst just grandstanding.

Holbrooke's defenders argue that the State Department's violently pro-Rwanda policy -- one in which the U.S. has done virtually nothing to try to compel the regime in Kigali to curtail its abuses -- is not just ineffective, as it was when the crisis was restricted to Rwanda and its border areas, but has become dangerous now that a general war has broken out across so much of Central Africa. Holbrooke, they insist, may not have half of Susan Rice's background, but he at least has the wit and the vision to see that something radical needs to be done.

The problem is that despite President Clinton's well-publicized trip to Africa, and his admirable decision to apologize to the Rwandan people for the U.S. refusal to intervene to stop the genocide, Washington is not really serious about getting involved in Africa in any way that could make a difference.

Holbrooke's motives may well be of the best -- certainly, it is hard to see how focusing on Congo will impress the hard-headed pols around Al Gore -- but the initiative he is supporting for a U.N. deployment is the worst kind of symbolic politics. It may be attractive in Washington, since it will permit policymakers to say they don't just care about suffering Kosovars, but about suffering Africans as well. But it has little or no chance of working, and it also risks confirming the cynical impression -- already too common in America and Western Europe -- that no matter how hard people try, there is nothing that can be done for Africa.

If the risks are small for the United States and its allies (they can all do their Bill Clinton imitations and say they feel Africa's pain), the risk for sub-Saharan Africa is great. The last thing the continent needs is more symbolic politics, either in the U.S. or the U.N. version.

Yet, as Holbrooke readies himself to lead a U.N. delegation to the region to begin to put the planned deployment into operation, that looks to be exactly what Africa is about to get.

By David Rieff

David Rieff is the author of "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," and the editor, with Roy Gutman, of the forthcoming "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know."

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