Friday, January 23, 2009

It's a Bird, It's a Plane, It's a . . . Special Envoy?

Oh, please.

Somewhere Nabokov chastises one of his contemporaries for a weakness for phrases like, "under the Chinese moon." Substitute "Belgian," Nabokov suggested, and see how it sounds.

Americans have a similar weakness, only it's our own grandiosity we're fond of. No matter that "The Special Envoy" could be the title of every Quality Paperback Book Club novel ever written about American innocence wreaking havoc abroad. Yet there remains a certain sort of do-gooder who still believes that putting an American in charge is enough to heal the world of its ills. It's the American version of the mission civilisatrice.

Never mind that experience suggests that the opposite is more likely true. Certainly Americans have little to be proud of in Central Africa. From our attempted assassination of Lumumba, to our imposition and three-decade long support of Mobutu, to ourr nefarious bollixing of the Sovereign National Conference, to the greenlight we gave to Rwanda's invasion in 1996, the US has done little to be proud of in the Congo, and much to be thoroughly shamed by.

Now comes the proposal--tendered as an urgent first step--to send in a special envoy. Perhaps a special envoy makes sense if she's got the ear of the president and the resources of American power at her disposal. But without big bucks or big guns to call on, a special envoy's just a respectable matron with a black passport and a tourist's command of the language. Operating in a bubble of diplomatic compounds and Intercontinental hotels, she won't have a clue what she's really up against, and her best efforts will succeed only in perpetuating the status quo. Without the resources to materially affect the situation on the ground, her mission will come down to brokering a deal between the contending armed forces. The whole process gives them more recognition than they deserve while at the same time marginalizing the local, democratic opposition.

The UN already has a heavy presence in the Congo, years of local experience, and a substantial military operation on the ground. Its record has been far from perfect, and it won't soon acquire the strength, or the cajones, to take on the array of militia operating in the region. But it's doing more than the US ever will (in large part, it should be acknowledged, on the American taxpayer's dime). Instead of starting up our own, inevitably feeble and semi-informed effort, the US should strengthen MONUC's military and intelligence capacities, and tell the Rwandan and Congolese governments that they won't get more aid or access to the IFIs unless they try harder to comply with MONUC's requests. In diplomatic parlance, that's called holding them by their short and curlies, and it will get their attention.

In theory, Rwanda has always had a legitimate security interest in eastern DRC, although in practice they've been far too busy looting the country to bother the chasing down the miserable ex-genocidaires who have taken refuge there. If Rwanda says it is in the Congo to round-up the FDLR and won't stay longer than a month, then we should hold them to their word. But we should demand access to the places where they are fighting, and make it clear that neither looting nor human rights abuses will be permitted.

In the longer run--well, the longer run is a fifty-year project. It will take decades to reconstruct the Congo, and ultimately the Congolese themselves have to be the ones to take the lead. It is their country, and we should be wary of the impulse to do for them what we think needs doing. Good intentions are no substitute for humility. That's a lesson Americans keep being taught but rarely learn, perhaps because it so often comes at other peoples' expense.

No comments:

Post a Comment