What role can the United States (US) play in supporting peace in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)? Congolese Diaspora activist Kambale Musavuli delineates the recent history of US policy in the region, emphasizing American policy failures. Although he acknowledges changes in the Obama administration’s approach, including the recent appointment of former Senator Russ Feingold as Special Envoy, Musavuli gives readers the impression that nothing fundamental has changed.
I disagree. Something fundamental has shifted in the way the US handles the Great Lakes crisis over the last two years. This shift began when the US took seriously the claims made in the 2012 United Nations Group of Experts report on the DRC, which demonstrated clearly the depth of Kigali’s role in backing the M23 rebel movement.
Initially, the US only suspended a symbolic amount of military aid to Rwanda. As the conflict dragged on and peace talks faltered, however, the Obama did not grant Rwanda a waiver for using child soldiers. While the amount of aid suspended as a result of this decision was still limited, it was a huge blow to Rwanda, as it indicated the country could no longer count on the US to turn a blind eye to its bad behavior in Congo.
In recent months, the US has recently stepped up its diplomatic pressure. Beyond the appointment of Feingold – who is actively involved in most negotiations and other international efforts to bring peace to the region - US officials are also pressuring actors to end the violence for good. The recent defeat of M23 by DRC troops and the new United Nations Force Intervention Brigade came about largely because Rwanda – facing intense diplomatic pressure from the US and UK – did not intervene on M23’s behalf. This US diplomatic pressure included calls from high-level officials like US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Congolese activist Musavuli is right, however, about the troubled history of US policy in the region. US diplomats in Kigali, Kinshasa, and Kampala have long known about Rwanda’s illicit engagements in Congo, but were directed by their administrations – both Republican and Democratic – to ignore them. This is because the fundamental, unstated principle of US policy in Africa in the post-Cold War era is, and always has been, political stability. It was only when Rwanda’s role as a perpetrator of instability in the Congo became so obvious and overt that it was impossible to deny. This, in turn, undermined the guiding principles of US policy, leading to the recent change in Washington’s position.
That the US acts in its own national security interest is not shocking news. The more interesting story relating to America’s Congo policy is the debate among powerful political actors in the White House and among President Obama’s closest advisors.
Some US officials want to apply the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) only when this conforms to traditional, geostrategic understandings of “the national interest.” Others, including US Ambassador to the United Nations (UN) Samantha Power, believe that American interests are best served by using military and diplomatic power to build norms of respect for human rights.
Musavuli points to National Security Advisor and trusted Obama advisor Ambassador Susan Rice as a “fervent R2P supporter,” but the reality of Rice’s ideological commitments is significantly more complicated. After all, it is highly unlikely that a liberal interventionist would sing the praises of Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi in a eulogy given at his funeral, as Rice did last year.
Susan Rice doesn’t seem unconditionally committed to using R2P wherever possible. Instead, she takes a more pragmatic view of what can and cannot be accomplished. This approach is in itself supportive of the R2P doctrine, however, which counts probability of success as a factor to be considered in advance of any intervention. Rice has consistently expressed her preference for stability in Africa as the guiding principle of US policy, even if it means turning a blind eye to human rights abusers. This means that she likely views R2P as a tool to achieve stability, rather than as something to be applied regardless of contextual concerns. Hence Rice’s longstanding support for Rwanda and Uganda. Rice was never unaware of their actions in Congo; she simply believed that turning a blind eye to their interests and activities was most likely to promote regional stability.
Musavuli paints the overall DRC conflict “largely as a result of a war of aggression waged” by Rwanda and Uganda. This is simply inaccurate. No reasonable observer denies the havoc wreaked by the two countries’ open invasions during the Congo wars (1996-2002). Similarly, no one denies that their subsequent support for various proxy militias and allied armed groups are one major source of conflict in the DRC.
The Congolese crisis, however, is a function of multiple conflicts over multiple issues over the course of twenty years, and it involves more armed groups than most observers can count. At present – a time when things are relatively calm compared to a decade ago – there are an estimated 30-40 armed groups operating in the Congo, most of which have no known ties to Rwanda, Uganda, or their interests. Militias like the Mai Mai Cheka and the Raia Mutomboki, which emerged amid highly localized grievances, terrorize civilian populations simply because they can – the Congolese state is not strong enough to stop them. Likewise, the FDLR, a group led by men who committed genocide in Rwanda in 1994, is hardly a tool of Rwandan or Ugandan interests, though certainly their presence in Congo is a central reason for Rwanda’s invasion in the first place.
What this means is that Congo’s sorry state of affairs is not a function of one dynamic, but rather the result of a complex set of narratives centered around the central state’s inability to control its own territory, guarantee basic rights for its civilians, or peacefully adjudicate disputes.
The DRC is a low priority for the Obama administration, just as it has been a low priority for every US administration since the Rwandan genocide. The days of the Cold War and the need to cultivate allies and engage in covert activity to achieve dominance over the Soviets in Africa are over. Diplomats and intelligence officers specializing in central Africa are only called upon when major crises erupt.
President Obama does not hear about the situation in the Congo as part of his daily intelligence briefing, and it is only when regional stability is seriously threatened – and the role of actors in promoting that instability is widely exposed – that the US ramps up its involvement.
The harsh reality is that US simply does not care enough about the Congo to invest serious resources in its long-term stability.