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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, 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 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 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, 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 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, and the CIA 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, 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), 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, 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 -- 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 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 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 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, 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 Cohen:

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 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 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, 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, 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 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 arrived in Kinshasa barely two weeks ahead of Kabila's troops.

Deja Vu

The events in Zaire are all the more disheartening because we have seen variations of this scenario played out countless times before. Writing about Iran, for instance, former White House aid Gary Sick 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 Reagan administration 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 and educator of the public. In recent years, unusual congressional activism has played an important and constructive role in weaning the executive branch from authoritarian attachments in South Africa, the Philippines and El Salvador. 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 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, 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," and polls affirm that Americans are by no means isolationist. The real challenge is is take the 300,000 members of Amnesty International, 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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