Twenty years ago, I was catching my breath after a whirlwind trip through central and southern Africa. I had been traveling with my boss, Senator Russ Feingold, whose expertise on African affairs eventually led to his appointment as a special envoy to the Great Lakes in the Obama Administration. Senator Feingold had agreed to join then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Holbrooke on a mission to bolster the prospects for peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The United Nations had just voted to send 500 military observers to the DRC, beginning what would become one of the world’s largest and most complex peacekeeping missions. First known as MONUC (the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), and later as MONUSCO (The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo), that mission persists today, despite the desire of many UN member states to wind it down.
The trip—with stops in Angola, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo itself—was unforgettable, in part because of the spectacle of watching Holbrooke operate. Holbrooke was capable of inspiring respectful admiration and appalled discomfort within the same hour, and people who knew him far better than I have written insightfully about his character and legacy. At his best, he used his formidable intensity and relentlessness to push momentum forward in the most unlikely circumstances. He did not have a deep background in the region, but he did have a clear set of core convictions about how to achieve his mission.
First, he was convinced that without inclusive political dialogue and genuine political progress, no force on earth could bring an end to the costly conflict that had already taken such a devastating toll on Congo. He made this point again and again at each stop, including in a speech he delivered in Pretoria, where he stressed that, “we cannot expect that alone, outside peacekeepers will deliver a peace that is lasting and just.” Populations, governments, and rebel groups had to commit to the hard work of addressing the tensions and interests that had led to the violence. He knew that tough political issues could not be papered over or ignored, or else there would be no peace to keep.
That point was especially important to him, because he understood that the United States had to be invested in the credibility of the United Nations, and he knew that American interests were best served by a UN that the world could believe in. He had no desire to see the United States help bankroll a peacekeeping mission that was destined to fail. His commitment to American leadership, and to a vision of foreign policy far more ambitious than a set of ephemeral transactions, was the driving force behind his efforts to make the United Nations effective and to create an enabling environment for the Congo mission’s success.
Finally, Holbrooke understood that for U.S. partnerships in the region to work effectively over time, the United States needed to stay attuned to the most pressing priorities of partner states. For all his bluster, he did quite a lot of listening, and came away from the trip convinced that the HIV/AIDS crisis required urgent attention at the highest levels. His conviction was not grounded only in compassion—although he seemed genuinely moved by the human cost of the disease—but in a sense that present and future partners of the United States were at risk of being hollowed out entirely. Within a month he was chairing the first United Nations Security Council session on the crisis, reframing it as a security issue.
Two decades later, political progress today too often means elite accommodation while overall conditions on the ground are neglected. The world has ignored violations of the Congolese people’s civil and political rights in the hopes that looking away will promote stability. The U.N. mission has come under attack from civilians angered by its failures, which are in part a result of a dysfunctional relationship with the government in Kinshasa. That mission is now in the unenviable position of being simultaneously ineffective, indispensable, and terribly expensive. The vulnerabilities and aspirations of the populations affected by Congo’s instability seem increasingly remote from the policy discourse in capitals. It is unsurprising that the Economist predicts more trouble ahead. Soon, some stock-taking will be required, and the policymakers around the world could do worse than to return to Richard Holbrooke’s core convictions to help find a way forward.