It's a continent riddled with disease, poverty and war. How do we decide where, and how, to help?
President Bush returned yesterday from a five-day, five- nation tour of Africa -- only the third president, and the first Republican president, to travel to that troubled continent on official business. As part of several recent initiatives moving Africa closer to the forefront of the administration's agenda, he was acquainting himself with Africa's staggering tribulations -- AIDS, poverty, civil wars, terror -- and trying to highlight successes that represent hope for its future.
This is smart policy. Africa merits serious and sustained American attention. Since Sept. 11, 2001, it has been clear that weak and failing states offer safe harbor for terrorists. A global economic system cannot move forward with Africa left to lag behind. There is also the prospect that Africa might provide the United States with 25 percent of its oil needs, reducing dependence on the Middle East.
But given the scope of Africa's miseries, how does the administration decide which to address, and in what manner? "We have a moral duty to bring hope where there is despair, and relief where there is suffering," the president said last month. The $15 billion he pledged toward fighting AIDS over the next five years is certainly a part of that. Yet Africa's wars and corruption also clamor for solution.
The moral imperatives in Africa are seemingly everywhere, and year after year polls show that the American public wants the United States to stand for certain principles and to be engaged on behalf of them. The question is how we choose to involve ourselves. And here, a look at how the United States might proceed in two critical areas of conflict Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo -- suggests the kinds of engagement we can choose.
Embroiled in a civil war that has killed thousands and made homeless a third of its population, Liberia is a likely candidate for intervention. Moral responsibility is one reason. But there are other factors, too. It would constitute part of an allied effort with the United Kingdom and France to bring our stability to the larger region. And it also would signify our readiness to become involved in Africa in practical and effective ways.
Our moral obligations to Liberia arise from the fact that for over 100 years we have had a special relationship with that country, founded by former American slaves. The United States has also used Liberia for vital communications stations and landing rights. Now that Liberia is engulfed in a civil war that has cost more than 200,000 lives, we cannot turn away.
Beyond that, moral fights require immoral targets. Liberian President Charles Taylor fits the bill perfectly. He has fomented civil wars in neighboring countries and opened the door to al Qaeda profiting from illegal diamond-trading in the region.
In terms of U.S. capability and international relations, intervention in Liberia -- in concert with British intervention to help bring stability to neighboring Sierra Leone and French intervention in Cote D'Ivoire -- would mean enhancing healthy allied cooperation and burden-sharing in the region. Neighboring African nations, among them Nigeria, are prepared to provide the bulk of troops for such an operation and have said they will continue to lead the diplomatic effort to end the war.
Finally, as demonstrated by the effusive reception of the American advance team last week, the United States will not face a hostile population in Liberia.
The situation has risks, then, and will require careful planning. But Liberia is not Somalia.
Congo represents a different set of problems and solutions. There, an even more catastrophic civil war than Liberia's has raged for the past five years. More than 3 million people are estimated to have died in the conflict. Recent massacres by ethnic militia in Congo's Ituri region are horrifyingly reminiscent of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
Using the guidelines applied to Liberia, Congo would seem a strong candidate for intervention. And so it is, but the intervention -- while committed and focused -- should be of a different kind.
On moral grounds, the sheer number of casualties and displaced persons in Congo demand a response, even if in this case there is no Charles Taylor to single out as the cause of the misery. Here, too, the United States has a special relationship: Congo was arguably America's premier African ally during the Cold War, during which we gave substantial support to the noxious dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who precipitated the disintegration of the Congolese state.
But the Congo conflict is immensely more complex than Liberia's. It involves some nine African states, numerous special interests and a variety of ethnic factors. It is not a territory in which the United States has either the language or experience -- unlike in Liberia -- to play a central peacekeeping role.
Given these drawbacks, it would be sounder for the United States to provide much more backing than we have been previously willing to provide to a robust United Nations peacekeeping force and to African efforts at resolving the conflict. Such support seems likely. Late last week, the U.N. Security Council said that the United States would support Secretary- General Kofi Annan's recommendation to increase the U.N. security force.
In addition, our relationship with some of the external belligerents in the conflict, for example Uganda and Rwanda, allows the United States to play a stronger diplomatic role. And we can encourage France, which has provided troops to Congo, to continue its strong part.
This is precisely the kind of diplomatic strategy the United States has followed in the Sudan, where we are on the brink of ending another terrible civil war. The follow- on peacekeeping force there can again be a U.N. force, with minimal U.S. military involvement.
These kinds of criteria, evaluated properly, can help forge an appropriate role for the United States in Africa that plays on our strengths and is strategic about how to engage most effectively. It is a policy that demands close consultation and cooperation with our allies and the concerned African states. It requires savvy diplomats who can navigate the complexity of each situation and recommend the best choice of American instruments of power and assistance.
U.S. policies in Africa are moving in the right direction. In both the Clinton and Bush administrations there has been support for democratic changes throughout Africa, support for Africa's own reform initiatives, and steadily greater access for Africa to American markets.
Now, as the United States recognizes the security dangers of failing states, we are also working toward ways to engage effectively in the conflicts that wrack Africa. We can do that without military involvement in every case, though we must be ready to do so when the responsibility is clearly ours, and when doing so enhances the willingness of others to carry more of the overall burden.
On behalf of millions who are suffering in Africa, and in our own interests, we can and must use more fully our diplomatic, economic and political weight. It's policy that's both morally correct and strategically sound.
Princeton N. Lyman is Ralph Bunche Senior Fellow and director of Africa Policy Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Odette M. Boya is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Copyright 2003 The Star-Ledger. Used by NJ.com with permission