Reflections: Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold on the Dilemmas Diplomats Face
from Africa in Transition and Africa Program

Reflections: Former U.S. Senator Russ Feingold on the Dilemmas Diplomats Face

Former U.S. Senator from Wisconsin Russ Feingold reflects on his time as U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other diplomatic roles he has held throughout his career.
DRC Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo (C) walks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russ Feingold (L), U.S. Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes and the DRC, after meetings at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa on May 4, 2014.
DRC Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo (C) walks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russ Feingold (L), U.S. Special Envoy for the African Great Lakes and the DRC, after meetings at the Palais de la Nation in Kinshasa on May 4, 2014. Saul Loeb/Pool/Reuters

Welcome to Reflections, a bimonthly series of conversations that invites former senior U.S.-Africa policymakers to discuss difficult issues that they confronted in their careers with the benefit of hindsight.

The second conversation in the series features Russ Feingold, who served as the U.S. Special Envoy for the Great Lakes and the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 2013 to 2015. He previously served as a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin from 1993 to 2011, where he played a leadership role on African issues in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

More on:

Democratic Republic of Congo

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Central Africa

Paul Kagame

Violent Nonstate Actors


MG: Thanks so much for taking time to do this. As you know, I’ve been talking to former senior U.S.-Africa policymakers about the issues they still think about, whether wondering about what might have happened had a decision gone differently or coming back to a choice with the benefit of hindsight. You had wanted to discuss more of an unresolved tension, and a really big-picture diplomatic dilemma: to get things done, sometimes we end up working with leaders who may be abusive in their own societies, maybe involved in corruption, maybe have no real democratic legitimacy. But nonetheless, they can be essential for achieving important outcomes. This is something you reflect on—how do we do that in ways that don't legitimize them or provide some kind of political cover.

So just to start, when you first agreed to take on a diplomatic role—which, although you'd been involved in Africa policy for a very long time, was a new role to play and a new way to frame your engagement—did you start off thinking about this?

RF: I would say it sort of grew on me as something that became what I consider to be the central dilemma of the work as a diplomat. And just as background, I've had basically three roles that could fit this. One was as a U.S. Senator for eighteen years and a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. The second role is more recent: I'm a global ambassador for the Campaign for Nature, which is trying to line up as many countries in the world as possible to join in the call to preserve 30 percent of the planet by 2030 from a nature point of view. And that involves lots of direct work with as many countries as possible, including those that have leaders that are not exactly human rights advocates. And then of course the third is the role that I played as a diplomat—as a special envoy for the Obama administration.

The thing that I realized after doing all of these is that the extent to which you can sort of overlook or not focus on the bad actions of these individuals depends, in part, on your role. It's not necessarily up to the diplomat to define those parameters. On the other hand, there are times when you have to use discretion. You have to decide: ‘all right, can I deviate from the strict policy of the administration or the United States with regard to one of these bad actors?’ Probably one of the best examples for me was when I became special envoy, my first and most important task was to work with other special envoys from around the world to disentangle the disaster in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo with regard to the M23. And when I was on my way over there for the first trip to meet with the envoys and start being involved with the negotiations that were going on in Kampala, Uganda, I realized: ‘well, I'm going to be in a room with these M23 people.’ Some of whom may well have been involved with war crimes—or some of whom, certainly, are negotiating for people who have committed war crimes. So, what I did was I called back to the State Department, to Secretary of State John Kerry, and I said, “can I shake hands with these people? Am I supposed to ignore them? Am I supposed to not look at them?” He said, “oh, no, no, no, it’s okay, you can shake hands.”

More on:

Democratic Republic of Congo

Diplomacy and International Institutions

Central Africa

Paul Kagame

Violent Nonstate Actors

Alright. Well, I basically asked for permission there, and then later on, in effect, I could have had to ask for forgiveness, because I decided, once I was in the room with these people, well, I'm going to talk to them and I'm going to have meetings with them. I'm going to negotiate—along with the UN Special Representative to the area, Martin Kobler—and, in some cases, lay the hammer down on these individuals. So that's where, even though there were very serious questions here—not of a national leader, but this does apply to national leaders too—where you sort of have to decide, ‘okay, to what extent do you play the role that you have now, and to what extent do you have to really put some limits on it because of the overall disturbing conduct of the group or the leader?’ So that was sort of my first opportunity to say that these are different than situations you encounter as a senator, where you see an abuse, whether it's in Zimbabwe or Cambodia or wherever it might be, and you say, ‘you know, let's do a resolution condemning this.’ The diplomatic role is more complicated than that.

MG: That makes sense to me. Then at the same time, there has to be some limit to that. Surely some individuals are beyond the pale. Where is that line, do you think? Or were you never near it in such a way that you had to delineate it?

RF: Well, yes, I think I was near it. I felt like I was near it every time I talked to Paul Kagame. I mean, Kagame probably—almost certainly—will have been involved in some war crimes, although he has not been adjudicated in that regard. But this feeling of, ‘this interlocutor is an ally of the United States, he’s somebody who had the ability to make the difference with regard to the M23 by pulling the support for them,’ which he did at our urging. Yet by praising him for that, by meeting with him, and by being photographed with him, I've worried—and continue to worry—about whether this was legitimizing what is largely viewed, and I think correctly viewed, as an incredibly repressive regime.

Essentially, if I was going to do the job, I had to communicate with him. One of the ways that we balanced it, though, was to try to work with them on the peace process and maybe some other positives. But we also had quite a few meetings once we established a working relationship where I would press him on things like term limits, freedom of the press, journalism, and civil liberties. “Why are people being disappeared in this country?” In other words, the message was never, ‘okay, thanks for doing this, you'll probably talk to some other American diplomats later.’ Making sure that you, as the person that has praised him, also is involved in confronting him on those issues. So that it's balanced.

And I'll tell you one other story that I think was a great example of being right up to the line on it, where we decided to go ahead with the situation. One that raises the question of what happens if somebody has been indicted by the ICC. That came up, interestingly, when we finally got a good deal on the M23. We got them to surrender, and the decision was made to have a peace treaty signing. Not in the Great Lakes or the Congo area directly, but in Nairobi, Kenya. Of course, it was at the presidential palace. And it was the day of the 50th anniversary of Kenyan independence. And who were the hosts? The president and the vice-president who had been indicted by the ICC. [Editor's note: In January 2012 the ICC charged Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, among other Kenyan politicians, with crimes relating to Kenya’s 2007–2008 post-election violence. At the end of 2014, the court withdrew the charges against Kenyatta, who has been the president of Kenya since 2013. In 2016, the ICC terminated the case against William Ruto, who has been deputy president since 2013, without acquitting him.]

And yet, this was where Mary Robinson and I—and President Museveni—and various other people gathered to sign this peace agreement. John Kerry, I remember him saying, “well, this is a great moment for us that we've gotten this done.” But it involved paying respects to the president and the vice-president—of course they were ultimately not convicted. So that's one of the points: if we really believe that this is a process that should be based on an assumption of the rule of law—and that you're innocent until proven guilty—then that's one distinction. But, yes, I remember feeling discomfort and thinking, ‘Kenyatta, is this really the message we want to send him?’ Because it wasn't just a signing. It was being done on a ceremonial day, giving them lots of credit—so we did it. And I don't think it particularly helped him internationally; I don't think it washed him of his problems in front of the ICC. But it was very close to the line given the fact that they had been indicted.

MG: Right, it's uncomfortable. And so, what you just laid out for me points to an interesting phenomenon, which is the way we sometimes find ourselves in this situation of heaping praise and even tangible reward on leaders for solving the problem they created, like backing a rebel movement and then cutting off support. It’s celebrating someone for extinguishing the fire that he set. There is a lot of that in diplomacy, really. A lot of praising people for stopping destabilizing or violent behavior that they had started.

RF: Yeah, I mean, think about South Africa and the leaders of apartheid. I think about Henry Kissinger—Nobel peace prizes for people who had really created a lot of conflict. So yes, that does come up. One of the examples here that really concerned me is the case of Museveni. Clearly the dominant figure in the region, and we all sort of lavished praise on him for putting significant resources into those peace negotiations—which he did. I mean, not only was he present, but he had his defense minister essentially spend weeks and weeks just working on this. And they certainly had other issues in Uganda to deal with, and yet, he did that. So even though we saw Museveni during those years that I was a special envoy do worse and worse in terms of his domestic behavior, this allowed him to say, “well, you know Russ, you've come here—the United States comes here—and we're doing what you want with regard to the LRA, to fighting terrorism and sending troops to Somalia.” So, then we add onto it that he's a peacemaker, and it becomes much harder to criticize.

MG: Absolutely. Sometimes I wonder if smart leaders who have human rights problems, corruption problems, and are maybe starting to feel some external pressure on those issues actually choose to create a problem—a security problem—that it is then in their power to solve, in order to gain some new leverage. So our hierarchy of priorities changes; something new comes to the top that they have created, and that they can turn off.

RF: Let me give another example of one that intrigued me. Maybe this relates to the question of ‘how critical is the country in terms of American foreign policy?’ It varies, obviously, with regard to Africa. So, I remember when we were trying to get all the countries in the Great Lakes region to help us to not only resolving the M23 issue, but also deal with the FDLR and the idea of a peace dividend for the region. We met with almost all the presidents. And one of the ones we met with was Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo. He, of course, has an anti-democratic, very corrupt regime. Yet we worked with him and praised him lavishly.

I've done it in my work with Campaign for Nature—praising his commitment to nature and to the preservation of forest elephants. He loves to talk about that rather than talk about the political things he does in his country. But the sense you get is that this just isn't a pivotal country compared to Rwanda, the DRC, or Kenya. I think there's a greater tendency there for diplomats, policymakers, and others to say, “it's not worth it to apply a great deal of pressure with regard to the internal issues.” And that's a problem because it continues a regime that is incredibly anti-democratic and committed to one-man rule.

Another really interesting one is Angola, which went through an interesting transition over the last few years that I watched very closely—and was involved with some of the players. It became apparent to people that Angola was not only a country of importance, but actually an opportunity for the United States, in terms of a relationship where they were less close to Russia, and where we had an opportunity to get influence. But that's where those issues of governance, human rights, and corruption are more likely to be given attention by American policymakers. So I think that's a factor—the opportunities and the risks that are involved in particular.

MG: No doubt about it. But, for example, with Angola, when you were working with President dos Santos on laudable goals—trying to stop conflict, which is no small thing from a human rights perspective—did you ever wonder how journalists who'd been imprisoned by his government might understand your engagement? Or did anybody ever criticize you for meetings and photo-ops—and sometimes praise—for these leaders that have these other parts of their records that are not so praiseworthy?

RF: Not that I know of. And part of the reason is that his role was not a real public role. His role was as head of the ICGLR, and he was very effective in cracking heads together to get people to do this. But what I would say about that is I had a longstanding relationship with him of twenty years, having met with him on my first trip to Africa with Paul Simon and Harry Reid in 1994. And I remember I came back for a second, and near the end of the meeting I had given him a hard time about their ranking on Transparency International, saying that they were five from the bottom. He looks at me and he says, “Senator, I want you to know that we're now five countries better.” So he was aware—and journalists were aware, because in 1999, we met with journalists. So, to me, part of what was going on here is that he wanted to prove, at the time, that he could perform on this peacekeeping and that the country is doing better—in part because they were seeking the seat in the Security Council. My sense is that the laying of the groundwork through actions by legislators and others over the years made it clear that there are these signposts—journalistic freedom, presidential succession, some of these things. Because they're going to want some things, and they can be very positive things. It has to do with the broader relationship and the constellation that somebody like dos Santos thought about. But of course, if I had just gone over there without ever having criticized anything about Angola and their internal issues, and I’d just started heaping praise on him for the role he played here, that would have not been the right signal.

MG: I mean, you were sort of in a unique position to have been wearing a different hat and be able to speak frankly about these pathologies in the Angolan state that were problematic for the U.S. partnership. So, you had been able to lay the groundwork, but for many diplomats that's not the case.

RF: It really is this tension between political appointments—sometimes fundraising-driven appointments—of ambassadors and special envoys versus career people. There is no question that leaders have a tendency to be a little more deferential to somebody who they believe has political connections, someone who could plausibly have a direct line to the secretary of state or the president. Now, that isn't always possible—I certainly wouldn't advocate only having people like that in those positions—but when a crisis is particularly serious, somebody with some political clout, even though mine was modest, can help. Especially if they have some kind of previous relationship with the foreign leader that we have concerns about.

MG: Right, in the best cases they have the dual benefit of appearing to be able to reach the highest levels of the U.S. government directly—not just being a sort of cog in a larger machine—but also a history of having been able lay down thoughts about the totality of their relationships. So that when we go to focus on a specific piece, it's given and understood that you're aware of all the rest of it. And it offers a little bit of protection from this problem that you've identified of having to work closely with, praise, and in some ways legitimize leaders that are controversial.

RF: You're reminding me of an aspect of this special envoy job, which is really two roles. One was that when I would go, we had a team of these special envoys, five of us, and we’d travel together and go to the different capitals and meet with the world leaders in the various sessions over several days. In those meetings, of course, we stuck to the conflict that we were dealing with. So we weren't talking about journalistic freedom and, you know, ‘is the president going to respect his constitution?’ We didn't do that. Because the others didn't have the authority from their governments or organizations to do that. But we had, as a parallel track, meetings I took by myself with each of the African leaders where it was clear that we're not just going to talk about this conflict. We're going to talk about your constitution. We're going to talk about human rights. We're going to talk about corruption. We're going to talk about reconciliation. It’s important to have that dual track so the message isn’t that the United States is simply saying, ‘okay, now this guy is fine because he did this.’

But this was a somewhat unusual situation—although I don't know how unusual—where there was a group of envoys working together. I assume it's common—I assume that what's happening with Ethiopia now and it has happened with Sudan—but it was particularly important in this situation.

MG: That makes sense. I don't think you always have people within that group who have worn that other hat or have that space to speak more broadly. So just coming back to President Kagame, I think there's no more powerful example of a world leader who has gotten a tremendous amount of attention and validation internationally that helps buttress his own narrative about why he is an indispensable man, why only he can protect Rwanda from the horrors of the past. Yet political space in his country is tremendously restricted, and independent voices or dissenting voices are silenced, sometimes lethally. But what could be done differently, given how much power he wields over questions of war and peace in Central Africa?

RF: Well I'm of the view that he's a lot more insecure and worried about American support for him than might appear on the surface. I think that that is still central to him. He really started cooperating on the M23 when President Obama called him directly and told him to stop supporting the M23, just before I became a special envoy. It was clear to me in the various meetings with him, his foreign minister, and others that even though he does have this international profile, he also has lots of people that don't like him at all and don't wish him well. I think he must understand at some level that although we get value from our relationship with Rwanda, it's not an essential country for broader American foreign policy. I hate saying something like that, but the truth is that it’s not a situation like Ukraine or one of these other tripwires. It’s sad, because Africa doesn't get the attention it should. But the reality is, he has to know that there's a limit to how critical he is to the United States.

Of course, a lot of his ability to do this has to do with the justified guilt that many feel for the way in which we didn't prevent the genocide. He has a lot of moral authority from that, and he also has the right to say that we have not done enough to bring to justice those who committed the atrocities like the FDLR. Having said that, I think it is possible—and should be the policy of the United States—to put very serious direct pressure on him. Say, “look, we understand the history, but your abuses within your country have to stop. And you need to become accountable for this.” I think publicly messaging that to him, and privately, is worth it at this point. Because it is a really brutal regime. And even though there's many good things that have happened in his country that he's done—there are positive things in health and the environment and women in government—the bottom line is that some of the most fundamental things that supposedly the United States stands for are being terribly violated. So, I would think that would be something that an ambassador or special envoy or whatever should pursue at this point.

MG: In the past, I think diplomats have found themselves in hot water for being frank about the nature of that government. Now things have changed over the years, but—

RF: Well, you'd have to get the approval from the secretary of state; you know, you'd have to say, “look, I intend to ratchet this up.” And make sure—and, you know, use some discretion—but to be able to say, “look, I speak for myself, but also for the secretary and president when I say we really can no longer tolerate these disappearances and assassinations of political opponents, and there will be consequences if it continues.”

MG: Can I just circle back to the discussion about how needing to work with the actors who have influence over a given situation, yet trying to avoid normalizing or appearing to approve of them. But for diplomats trying to make progress it’s a risk we have to assume. We might agree that nobody wants visuals that appear to legitimize or praise—even with the image—a given leader. But it's not always in a diplomat’s control. We've all found ourselves walking out of a meeting and shocked by the cameras that are awaiting us. I think that you're coming down pretty firmly on the same side as I think I do, which is that to get things done, you have to talk to people and you don't get to choose the cast of characters?

RF: And you're making me think of another point, which is sort of a broader point. It’s that when we worry about these visuals and about how it's going to come off, there's a tendency on the part of the United States to exaggerate how important we are and think, ‘oh my God, what are people going to think?’ A lot of Africans think we don't do much there. And I remember Louise Mushikiwabo lecturing me once, saying, “Russ, I know what you're trying to do. You've been great, but you're not here.” Not me, but the United States. “The Chinese are here, the Russians are here. You're just not here.” And so sometimes when we worry about the visuals and the images and how it's going to come off, we’re really sort of playing to—understandably—advocates for human rights and journalistic freedoms and a host of other things that are very important. But I think in terms of the actual impact of helping or hindering some of these people to do what they do, it may not be as great as we think. And so, we shouldn't use it as a reason to not interface with them to try to get things done.

MG: So, given what your agenda was and what the mission was, which you believed in wholeheartedly—less conflict in Central Africa—are you comfortable, overall, with the relationships and engagements you had?

RF: Well, I am tormented at times by not only the meetings, but the good relationship I had with Kagame. Because I found him very interesting and an excellent interlocutor. So, there was always this risk because it was such a good experience in terms of intellect and understanding what was going on there. There are times when I think, ‘well, was I getting too comfortable with him?’ Although in the end I delivered some pretty tough messages, sometimes it worried me that he seemed to like me, which may have been an illusion.

MG: What about rebel leaders who are less charming and polished than a Paul Kagame could be?

RF: I mean, the meetings we had with the M23 of course were typically with people that were actually smoother than their real leaders. These were lawyers and others that came from the group. But, you know, I can't say that I regret negotiating with them. In fact, I was the one that told them they couldn't renegotiate various provisions relating to crimes for which they wanted to get amnesty. I actually felt very good about that piece of it. But I'm going to think about this. There may have been some other meetings I had where, over time, I might regret who I met with.

When I met with [then-Ethiopian Prime Minister] Meles Zenawi, just before they invaded Somalia, I said, “you really shouldn't do this.” This was literally a couple of weeks before, I think December of 2006. And he said, “oh, we're just going in for a couple of weeks.” But I can't say I regret that—even though I realized the guy had a frightening record in many respects—because I was trying to get him to not do something that I thought would be wrong. And of course, some say there were U.S. generals down the hall helping him plan it, probably, at the same time. I was trying to get him to see that there were other parts of our government that didn't think this was a great idea.

MG: That's such an interesting one. Because that relationship—that U.S. closeness with Meles—has certainly come back to bite in terms of how easy it's been for [Ethiopian] Prime Minister Abiy and others to use that as a cudgel, and to essentially say, “you're a bunch of Tigrayan sympathizers and you never cared about repression before under Meles.” Which is untrue, but we certainly were not as vocal about it for a long time. I think about these questions of what the cost is of working with a repressive leader to get something done. There's the bill that comes due many years later. Sometimes it’s just in terms of a leader calling the United States hypocritical, and I don't know if that can be avoided. History marches on.

RF: Let me just use that Ethiopia example, because actually in this Campaign for Nature role, I ended up at an AU prayer breakfast, just before COVID, in Ethiopia. And former President Obasanjo of Nigeria, who was one of our people helping us, seated me in between himself and Abiy. Of course, at that time I was thrilled because this man was a Nobel Prize winner, a young guy—we had a great conversation. He said all the right things about the Campaign for Nature issues. But on this one I've gone through kind of a reverse process, where now I'm going, ‘oh my God.’ I was assuming that this was a real change in Ethiopia and that this was going to be an exciting thing. One of my favorite countries in the world, and they're finally going to get beyond all this. And now I do have some—I don’t know whether to call them regrets, but I don't think it would have been so cordial. Of course, I wasn't a U.S. government official then.

MG: But we were all so excited at these initial reforms and wanted to demonstrably greet them warmly, right?

RF: Yeah, and then what do you do now? Of course, I'm not in that role, but it's an important question for those who deal with Ethiopia.

MG: It's fascinating to me to watch how that past relationship has been weaponized to insulate him from criticism.

RF: Exactly.

MG: Well, thank you for raising a set of fascinating questions that I think anybody who's been in the arena can sympathize with. It's easy to sit back and criticize. It’s very hard to get things done.

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