Tuesday, March 26, 2013

She'd have to be really, really, really Special

Enough is on a tear to have Obama appoint a special envoy to the Great Lakes.

I can't see that it would do much harm, unlike some of their other ideas.  In principle, at least, an envoy could raise the Great Lakes' profile within the administration; help secure for it additional funding and resources; coordinate the USG's response across the multitude of concerned embassies and agencies; and, not least, provide some much-needed direction to a region that's suffered from more than a little policy drift.

En principe. The reality, I suspect, is that the appointment of one more mid-level official just won't make that much of a difference. The reason that central Africa has been such a low priority for the Obama administration--despite it being the subject of Senator Obama's sole legislative accomplishment--is that it's in central Africa. Short of naming Bill Clinton special envoy no staffing decision will change the Congo's underlying (lack of) significance to US policymakers.[1]

The small poli-sci literature on the topic says that envoys tend to be a mixed lot, but are never game changers. Sometimes they piss off the ambassadors and assistant secretaries and whoever else's turf they step on. And sometimes they help grease solutions along. Rebecca Hamilton, who studied envoys' record for her book on advocacy for Sudan, writes:
Another repeated achievement of advocates, the appointment of special envoys, did not have such a positive impact. The appointment of a special envoy was a relatively low-cost way for the administration to show it was listening to advocates and advocates repeatedly understood the appointment of an envoy as a signal that Sudan was being treated as a foreign policy priority. But contrary to advocates hopes and expectations, the appointment of special envoys generally increased bureaucratic infighting with the Department of State and sent mixed messages to Khartoum. 
If nothing else, then, the appointment of an envoy will give Obama a quick way to mollify his critics and give those critics a cheap victory to crow about. It might not change anything on the ground, but it probably won't do much harm.

On the other hand, the last time Enough called for a special envoy, to Sudan, they got Scott Gration. That didn't work out too well. Gration, to be sure, said some impolitic things. But the underlying policy decisions that so infuriated Enough (and other advocacy groups) were Obama's. That put it in an awkward position: Enough is a human rights advocacy group, but it's also a creature of the Democratic party, part and parcel of the Center for American Progress, John Podesta's outfit. Enough couldn't go after Obama with the same abandon they attacked Bush. So Gration became their whipping boy; the scapegoat for President Obama's betrayal of Candidate Obama's promises to get tough on Sudan.

And on the topic of envoys past, a few of us remember that we had a special envoy to the Great Lakes once before, during the Clinton years. Howard Wolpe served first as Burundi then as GL envoy from 1996 to 2000. Wolpe was a decent guy, had a good track record on South Africa, and enjoyed some modest prominence as a former congressman. But is there anyone who would say that US policy toward central Africa distinguished itself during that era? Howard French, who covered the region for the New York Times, says that "these disasters [the genocide in Rwanda and the wars in the Congo] were arguably Bill Clinton's most important foreign policy legacy." I think that's putting it mildly.

Instead of lobbying for the appointmet of a special envoy, here are four ideas off the top of my head that would help the Congo a lot more:
  1. We should be pushing the Obama administration to support the initiative to equip Monusco with an intervention brigade capable of searching and destroying insurgent militia. This is especially important because a decision about this is being made at the UN RIGHT NOW
  2. We should have our diplomats on the ground instruct Kabila in no uncertain terms that we will not let him steal another election, and we should be working now on building the infrastructure and mechanisms to support legislative and national elections.  
  3. We should re-energize the effort to establish a mixed court to pursue the findings of the mapping report, one of the most harrowing and important documents of our time.
  4. We should ratchet up by an order of magnitude the amount of money we disburse to Congolese civil society organizations that are working, often in terrible penury and at great personal risk, on behalf of women rights, democratization, human rights, and so on. We should provide them with the technical training and assistance so that they can most effectively hod their own governments' feet to the fire.
Look, I'm not opposed to the US appointing a special envoy to the Great Lakes. I just wish the leading US Africa advocacy group--a group with the closest of ties to the current administration--were capable of a little more imagination. The Congo has been the world's greatest humanitarian disaster for the past fifteen years. It would be nice to see Enough promoting solutions modestly commensurate to the scale of the region's losses.

[1] And even then--what's been Envoy Clinton's record on Haiti exactly?

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