Asking a diplomat a question that will produce useful information is like tapping on a wall to find the stud: you listen for what you're not hearing. This is especially true in a public forum, like yesterday's lecture at the African Studies Association by the always courtly Johnnie Carson, the assistant secretary of state for African Affairs. I asked Carson if he was confident the US had the presence and wherewithal to engage proactively (read: intervene) if things started to go badly in Congo after the election results come in.
Carson gave me a lucid, well-informed account of what the US is doing to promote a peaceful election: Mostly, it seems, dispatching mid-range diplomats like him to encourage the various parties to play fair.
Now I know Carson can't describe in public what the US might do in this or that hypothetical situation. But what I asked him was whether he felt confident the US was prepared for the various situations that might develop. And by choosing to answer a different question, he answered mine about as clearly as he could, given the forum. And that answer: of course not.
This is worrisome for three reasons. 1) The election is in all probability going to be close, and it's definitely going to be a mess. That's a recipe for post-electoral conflict. 2) Tshisekedi is on the war path and Kinshasa is ground zero. Congo won't be Cote d'Ivoire, but it could be Kenya--or worse. 3) Unlike Kenya and Cote d'Ivoire, there's no obvious go-to Western power to take the lead if things go wrong. Belgium still doesn't have a government. Monusco is invertebrate. And the U.S., which in sunnier days might have picked up the tab, is an empire in decline. The Western powers could find themselves dilly dallying for days while Kinshasa burns.
It's easier to put out a campfire than a forest fire. So we should be gaming out the various ways this election could go bad, in coordination with the the other donor governments, and preparing ourselves for various outcomes. I strongly suspect this isn't being done, and I worry that the situation in Congo could go from bad to worse to quite awful without any decisive action from the West. But maybe I've just lost all perspective.