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Addicted to Mobutu: why America can't learn from its foreign policy mistakes.

American foreign policy's 37-year investment in the Congo (formerly known as Zaire) has just gone bust. Notwithstanding some $1.5 billion in direct U.S. aid -- and billions more in U.S.-subsidized Export-Import Bank Export-import Bank (Ex-IM Bank)

The U.S. federal government agency that extends trade credits to U.S. companies to facilitate the financing of U.S. exports.
, World Bank, and United Nations assistance -- President Mobutu Sese Seko's "pro-Western" government melted away before Laurent Kabila's advancing rebels. Few observers mourned Mobutu's passing. During his three decades in power, Mobutu enriched himself and his cronies while impoverishing his people; turned Zaire's military into a rabble effective only in preying upon and repressing re·press  
v. re·pressed, re·press·ing, re·press·es
1. To hold back by an act of volition: couldn't repress a smirk.

 civilians; and earned the lasting contempt of the majority of important African leaders. His regime's fatal gambit was an association with exiled Hutu militants from neighboring Rwanda. These genocidaires had exterminated hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsi and were using Zaire as a base to return to power. In response, persecuted Zairean Tutsi, aided by the governments of Rwanda and Uganda, formed the core of a multi-ethnic and multinational alliance that finally drove Mobutu from the country. Now, after passing up countless opportunities to press for democratic reforms and wasting billions of dollars to support Mobutu's morally bankrupt regime, the United States United States, officially United States of America, republic (2005 est. pop. 295,734,000), 3,539,227 sq mi (9,166,598 sq km), North America. The United States is the world's third largest country in population and the fourth largest country in area.  confronts the legacy of its policy: Zaire's economy is in shambles, the genocidal Hutu-tutsi conflict in Rwanda and Burundi has spilled across its borders, and the country is now ruled by a military-based regime whose commitment to democracy and human rights is unclear and over whom -- thanks to our long passivity in the face of rising anti-Mobutu sentiment -- the United States has limited influence.

Sadly, Zaire is only the latest example of a structural defect in U.S. diplomacy, one that we have witnessed in such disparate places as the Shah's Iran, Somoza's Nicaragua, Marcos's Philippines, Botha's South Africa South Africa, Afrikaans Suid-Afrika, officially Republic of South Africa, republic (2005 est. pop. 44,344,000), 471,442 sq mi (1,221,037 sq km), S Africa. , and arguably Yeltsin's Russia. Time and again, the U.S. foreign policy establishment has supported friendly authoritarian leaders, however flawed, based on the assumption that its clients represent the "only" feasible pro-Western political alternative. As in domestic affairs, political elites and bureaucracies cling to Verb 1. cling to - hold firmly, usually with one's hands; "She clutched my arm when she got scared"
hold close, hold tight, clutch

hold, take hold - have or hold in one's hands or grip; "Hold this bowl for a moment, please"; "A crazy idea took hold of
 outmoded ideologies and old old organizational commitments long after their wisdom has been called into question. But in foreign policy this tendency is even more pronounced, since the counterbalance of congressional and public accountability is relatively weak. Perhaps if we can understand how our policy went wrong in the Congo, we can begin to take meaningful action to prevent such costly fiascos in the future.

The Devil Known

Washington's long affair with Mobutu has its origins in the circumstances of the dictator's rise to power. Throughout the early 1960s the Congo was wracked by violent conflict -- the product of an ill-prepared transition to independence, divisive foreign interventions, and Cold War politics. To end the factional feuding, in 1965 U.S.- and Western-supported forces drove back rebel followers of former Zairean Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba Patrice Émery Lumumba (2 July, 1925 – 17 January, 1961) was an African anti-colonial leader and the first legally elected Prime Minister of the Republic of the Congo after he helped to win its independence from Belgium in June 1960. , and the CIA CIA: see Central Intelligence Agency.

(1) (Confidentiality Integrity Authentication) The three important concerns with regards to information security. Encryption is used to provide confidentiality (privacy, secrecy).
 orchestrated a military coup by Mobutu. From this experience, the American foreign policy establishment drew a critical, but flawed conclusion: If Mobutu goes, Zaire falls apart. Even as the actual evidence rendered this assumption increasingly implausible, throughout four presidential administrations -- Republican and Democrat alike -- the "Mobutu or chaos" formula remained a bedrock of American foreign policy in Zaire. "Over the years it had become a truism," says Ambassador Herman Cohen cohen
 or kohen

(Hebrew: “priest”) Jewish priest descended from Zadok (a descendant of Aaron), priest at the First Temple of Jerusalem. The biblical priesthood was hereditary and male.
, who was involved in formulating this policy for the better part of 25 years, most recently as Assistant Secretary of State for Africa under President Bush. Although the idea that a single man stands indefinitely between his nation and chaos is transparently absurd, it drew credibility in Zaire's case thanks to repeated assertions by American officials and their reflection in the press.

I had an opportunity to observe this phenomenon firsthand when I traveled with a bipartisan congressional delegation to Zaire's capital city of Kinshasa in August 1983. Our request to meet with ex-parliamentarians who were negotiating with Mobutu's regime for more political space was greeted with joy by embassy officers who had been prohibited by Ambassador Peter Constable from contacting the opposition. Following our meeting, however, Mobutu's security forces brutally beat the ex-parliamentarians in front of our hotel (and Rep. Mickey Leland George Thomas "Mickey" Leland (November 27, 1944 – August 7, 1989), was an anti-poverty activist and later became a congressman from the Texas 18th District and chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. He was a Democrat. ), destroyed their cars, and threw them into a cell in the president's compound. When our group decided to file a written protest and boycott a lunch meeting with Mobutu on his yacht on the Congo River Congo River
 or Zaire River

River, west-central Africa. Rising in Zambia as the Chambeshi and flowing 2,900 mi (4,700 km) through the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Atlantic Ocean, it is the second longest river in Africa.
, Ambassador Constable urged us to protest less vigorously and reinstate the luncheon. (In the end, we compromised by boarding the yacht but declining to eat, prompting the diplomatic Mobutu to ply us with horsd'oeuvres and pineapple juice "from [his] own farm.") As we left Kinshasa, Ambassador Constable boarded our plane and vainly urged the members of Congress to write each of the opposition leaders to explain that their concern for the leaders' welfare did not extend to support for their political activities.

What made Ambassador Constable's timid posture so tragic was that it occurred at a time when the United States possessed significant leverage to promote meaningful reform in Zaire. Several years before, in 1977 and 1978, rebellions in the Shaba province had nearly provoked Mobutu's overthrow, presenting the perfect -- but squandered squan·der  
tr.v. squan·dered, squan·der·ing, squan·ders
1. To spend wastefully or extravagantly; dissipate. See Synonyms at waste.

 -- opportunity for an internationally brokered political transition. During the early 1980s, as Mobutu's regime tried to recover from these rebellions, every major political actor in Zaire perceived the United States as the premier international player because of our history of involvement and our leadership of the Western alliance. In addition, although American direct aid to Zaire was relatively modest at the time, the United States was the critical force behind the continued flow of massive IMF IMF

See: International Monetary Fund


See International Monetary Fund (IMF).
 and World Bank resources, time and again overcoming the resistance of worried technocrats. At the very least, a stronger US stance against Mobutu could have saved the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, weakened Mobutu economically, publicly disassociated the United States from the corrupt regime, and encouraged Mobutu's many opponents.

Heads in the Sand

By the time the well-traveled George Bush became president, he had known his Zairean counterpart for many years. A close political relationship was now suffused suf·fuse  
tr.v. suf·fused, suf·fus·ing, suf·fus·es
To spread through or over, as with liquid, color, or light: "The sky above the roof is suffused with deep colors" 
 with mutually pronounced ties of friendship. But notwithstanding Bush's affinity for Mobutu, change was in the air. Congress was moving to cut off aid, and when Secretary of State James Baker visited Mobutu in early 1990, he urged him to join the world-wide wave of democratization de·moc·ra·tize  
tr.v. de·moc·ra·tized, de·moc·ra·tiz·ing, de·moc·ra·tiz·es
To make democratic.

 By the end of 1991, the situation appeared to be reaching critical mass. The United States, Belgium, and the World Bank had halted assistance to Zaire, Mobutu's regime was under siege by a powerful though unarmed and fractious frac·tious  
1. Inclined to make trouble; unruly.

2. Having a peevish nature; cranky.

[From fraction, discord (obsolete).
, democracy movement, and a major army mutiny had resulted in the dispatch of French and Belgian troops to evacuate foreign citizens. Assistant Secretary of State Cohen convened a National Security Council panel that unaminously concluded that as long as Mobutu remained in power, Zaire's situation would continue to deteriorate. Possible U.S. policy responses were to be discussed at the next meeting. But the assistant secretary quickly found himself on the carpet before Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.


Eagleburger said he was unhappy about the

report [of the meeting]. I said it was

unanimous. He said, "Yeah, but we shouldn't be

selling this as a basis for policy because our

feeling is that you don't get rid of someone

until you know who will replace him and

then you're responsible for him. I don't want

to hear anymore of this and don't propagate

it. I don't want to "I Don't Want To"/"I Love Me Some Him" is the third single released from Toni Braxton's multiplatinum second album, Secrets. Written and produced by R. Kelly, this ballad describes the agony of a break-up.  get involved in it."

Although Eagleburger was prudent in warning about the dangers of pushing out Mobutu before considering his probable replacement, the undersecretary's refusal to countenance even contemplation of an alternative policy left the United States saddled with the dictator in the face of growing "chaos"

Despite the United States' passivity, Zairean opposition groups garnered enough popular support to force Mobutu into a "Sovereign National Conference" to prepare a democratic transition. In August 1992, Cohen helped negotiate a compromise between Mobutu and opposition Prime Minister Etienne Tshisekedi (one of the beaten ex-parliamentarians) providing for a preelection transitional period during which Mobutu would largely reign rather than rule. Not surprisingly, the Zairean leader quickly reneged on his commitments. Nevertheless, according to Cohen, Eagleburger restrained him from calling for Mobutu's resignation.

When Bill Clinton arrived in office, the fallacy of the "Mobutu or chaos" argument had become too obvious for some foreign policy officials to ignore. Yet even those who no longer subscribed to the old strategy were unable to come up with a new approach. As a result, the United States hesitated to pressure Mobutu into resuming the democratization process. In 1993 the Clinton administration Noun 1. Clinton administration - the executive under President Clinton
executive - persons who administer the law
 imposed a ban on visas for the Mobutu clan, but it quickly dropped a more ambitious proposal to freeze the dictator's foreign assets when the Belgian and French governments proved reluctant. Other proposals that were tabled but not adopted included expanded public diplomacy Those overt international public information activities of the United States Government designed to promote United States foreign policy objectives by seeking to understand, inform, and influence foreign audiences and opinion makers, and by broadening the dialogue between American , sanctions against Air Zaire, and increased efforts to gain Western and African cooperation.

Part of the problem, wrote J. Stephen Morrison, then with the U.S. Agency for International Development, was that the U.S., Belgium, and France "feared that a sudden forced departure by Mobutu might send Zaire spiraling into crisis" (Ironically, observed Morrison, this situation had already arrived under Mobutu, as weakened "controls over the military" led to "repeated instances of mutiny, rampage, looting," and regional ethnic violence that 'resulted in the forced displacement of more than 750,000 people.") In addition, many policy makers simply could no longer imagine Zaire without Mobutu, and had convinced themselves they lacked the leverage to move him very far. In 1994, the Clinton administration sanctioned the Mobutu-packed parliament's designation of Mobutu's former Prime Minister, the corrupt but competent Kengo wa Dondo Léon Kengo Wa Dondo (born May 22 1935) served as the "first state commissioner" (a title equivalent to prime minister) several times under Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaïre. He held little real power, but was a strong advocate of globalization and free-market economics. , as the new "opposition" head of a transitional government. Later the United States backed Kengo's plans for "free elections" although it was obvious to most observers that the conditions for such elections were overwhelmingly absent.

By the end of 1996, Zaire's tax revenues had dropped to as little as $160 million, one-tenth of what they had been a decade before. In January of this year the U.S. once again had a golden opportunity to assist a broad-based democratic transition in Zaire. Dismissing the conventional "Mobutu or chaos" wisdom, a group of non-government experts participating in a State Department-U.S. Institute of Peace conference concluded that "despite concerns that centrifugal tendencies in Zaire will result in the 'Balkanization' of the country ... this is not imminent" Rebel leader Laurent Kabila's forces, meanwhile, had picked up steam but could not yet be sure they would prevail. Had the United States chosen to use its diplomatic and economic influence with Kabila and his African allies at this stage, it would have had maximum leverage in supporting a new democratic government. (In fact, leading Africa specialists and humanitarian organizations recommended such a course in March)

Once again, however, the United States missed its chance In early February, as Kabila's forces advanced towards Zaire's largest cities, the high-level National Security Council Deputies Committee The National Security Council Deputies Committee is a committee of the United States National Security Council comprising the deputies to senior members of the United States Cabinet.  pondered US policy. But according to a participant, a proposal to help ease Mobutu out, as the US had done with President Marcos in the Philipines, was shot down in part on the grounds that there was "nothing there under Mobutu." Even by mid-March, with the major city of Kisangani about to fall, American policy barely budged. As city after city tumbled to the rebellion, the administration remained reluctant to directly call for Mobutu's departure. That did not happen until Ambassador Bill Richardson This article or section contains information about one or more candidates in an upcoming or ongoing election.
Content may change as the election approaches.
 arrived in Kinshasa barely two weeks ahead of Kabila's troops.

Deja Vu See DjVu.  

The events in Zaire are all the more disheartening dis·heart·en  
tr.v. dis·heart·ened, dis·heart·en·ing, dis·heart·ens
To shake or destroy the courage or resolution of; dispirit. See Synonyms at discourage.
 because we have seen variations of this scenario played out countless times before. Writing about Iran, for instance, former White House aid Gary Sick Gary G. Sick (born 1935) is an American academic and analyst of Middle East affairs, with special expertise on Iran, who served on the U.S. National Security Council under three presidents.  complained that "The U.S. relationship with the Shah was so deeply ingrained in the minds and policies of everyone responsible that even a carefully reasoned expression of doubt was regarded as a heresy that could destroy a career." During the crisis in the Philippines, the Philippines, The (fĭl`əpēnz'), officially Republic of the Philippines, republic (2005 est. pop. 87,857,000), 115,830 sq mi (300,000 sq km), SW Pacific, in the Malay Archipelago off the SE Asia mainland.  Reagan administration Noun 1. Reagan administration - the executive under President Reagan
executive - persons who administer the law
 adopted the classic, unworkable formula: "While President Marcos at this stage is part of the problem, he is also necessarily part of the solution."

So what then can we do about this unfortunate tendency of our leaders and the bureaucrats who carry out their policies, to become addicted to friendly dictators? Clearly exposes, analyses, conferences, and congressional post-mortems are not enough. They have been tried, yet the problem persists. As in domestic affairs, democracy is really the only force powerful enough to discipline the foreign policy elite and its bureaucracies. In our system this entails reviving Congress's historic role as a partner in policy-making pol·i·cy·mak·ing or pol·i·cy-mak·ing  
High-level development of policy, especially official government policy.

Of, relating to, or involving the making of high-level policy:
 and educator of the public. In recent years, unusual congressional activism has played an important and constructive role in weaning weaning,
n the period of transition from breast feeding to eating solid foods.


the act of separating the young from the dam that it has been sucking, or receiving a milk diet provided by the dam or from artificial sources.
 the executive branch from authoritarian attachments in South Africa, the Philippines and El Salvador El Salvador (ĕl sälväthōr`), officially Republic of El Salvador, republic (2005 est. pop. 6,705,000), 8,260 sq mi (21,393 sq km), Central America. . In Zaire too, a bipartisan congressional coalition that eventually ranged from Rep. Ron Dellums (S-Ca.) on the left to Rep, Dan Burton (R-Ind.) on the right, helped finally terminate aid to Mobutu. Of course no one can guarantee that Congress's participation will always be responsible. I was in the room when liberal Senate icon Frank Church (D-Id.) plumped for military aid to Mobutu to gratify grat·i·fy  
tr.v. grat·i·fied, grat·i·fy·ing, grat·i·fies
1. To please or satisfy: His achievement gratified his father. See Synonyms at please.

 Morrison-Knudsen, a home-state company with a big contract in Zaire. And I personally watched the most anti-Mobutu congressman, Mickey Leland (D-Tex.), go limp when approached by Grover Connell a key contributor who had major business ties to Mobutu. Nevertheless, the prescription for a better congressional contribution to foreign policy is more democracy, not less: broader participation by leaders and members, better quality staff, more challenging and innovative public hearings, dialogue with the executive branch, more campaign finance reform Campaign finance reform is the common term for the political effort in the United States to change the involvement of money in politics, primarily in political campaigns. , more openness.

Finally, there is important work to be done in organizing broad-based constituencies for foreign policy, particularly on human rights and humanitarian issues. Although international affairs have long been remote and puzzling for most people, this is the age of "globalization globalization

Process by which the experience of everyday life, marked by the diffusion of commodities and ideas, is becoming standardized around the world. Factors that have contributed to globalization include increasingly sophisticated communications and transportation
," and polls affirm that Americans are by no means isolationist i·so·la·tion·ism  
A national policy of abstaining from political or economic relations with other countries.

. The real challenge is is take the 300,000 members of Amnesty International Amnesty International (AI,) human-rights organization founded in 1961 by Englishman Peter Benenson; it campaigns internationally against the detention of prisoners of conscience, for the fair trial of political prisoners, to abolish the death penalty and torture of , the 200,000 members of Common Cause, and countless other concerned Americans and turn them into an effective political force. Among the potential organizers are major religious groups that have shown what they can do on issues like El Salvador and South Africa. Public-spirited foundations, which have poured funds into think tanks, conferences, and policy research, should consider supporting the growth of constituencies that can get good ideas implemented.

Otherwise, we might as well get ready for our next Mobutu.
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Title Annotation:Congo President Mobutu Sese Seko
Author:Weissman, Stephen R.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1997
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