Thursday, February 7, 2013

Obama on Syria and the Congo: Stupid or Evil?

That is the question.

Just look at all the ethnic strife!

In one of his first post-second-inauguration interviews (with The New Republic), our super-empathetic, super-cool, inherently relatable president was asked one question about the war in Syria.  As part of his answer, he said:

And as I wrestle with those decisions, I am more mindful probably than most of not only our incredible strengths and capabilities, but also our limitations. …how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

This is something of an old trick for our president.  When he was still running for president in 2007, during the occupation of Iraq, an interviewer with the AP asked him about the responsibility of the U.S. to forestall the threat of genocide in Iraq.  In that answer, he also invoked the Congo:

Well, look, if that's the criteria by which we are making decisions on the deployment of U.S. forces, then by that argument you would have 300,000 troops in the Congo right now – where millions have been slaughtered as a consequence of ethnic strife – which we haven't done.

In Obama’s rhetoric, “the Congo” functions as The Incomprehensible.  It is the ultimate humanitarian catastrophe, and also the ultimate undoable.  Intervening in the Congo – the Congo – would, self-evidently, be the height of insanity, he implies.

The average American knows the Congo only as the ultimate alien place – an institutionless swamp where a bunch of black people are killing each other for who knows why. “Ethnic strife” as he puts it.  Only a crazy person would care about that place.

Obama then transmutes that reluctance onto conflicts where U.S. humanitarian action is many times more plausible.  Say, Iraq, which we were, not to put too fine a point on it, ruling over.  Or Syria, where a path to peace is easily imaginable, if the U.S. and its Sunni allies are willing to give up their dream of regional hegemony.  In response to uncomfortable questions about those places, he says:

What do you want me to do, guys?  Invade the Congo?  THE CONGO???

So the question: Is our president stupid or evil?

More precisely, can our president be unaware – can he not know – that the U.S. is intimately involved in the politics of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and has been for decades?

Under Obama’s watch, the U.S.’s close African ally (and military aid recipient), Rwanda, has sponsored the M23 rebel movement in eastern Congo, whose attacks on the civilian population have shattered the DRC’s fragile peace and displaced some 700,000 people.  M23’s tactics include mass rape, summary executions of aid workers, and recruitment of child soldiers.   

Obama’s administration has continued to supply Rwanda with weapons and has shielded its ally from critical UN Security Council resolutions.  When confronted with M23’s atrocities, Obama’s initial nominee for secretary of state in his second term, Ambassador Susan Rice, had this to say: “This is the D.R.C. If it weren’t the M23 doing this, it would be some other group.”

No wonder she's so defensive.  According to DRC expert Jason K. Stearns, “The M23 would probably no longer exist today without Rwandan support.”

In other words, that “ethnic strife” Obama is wringing his hands about, he himself has become largely responsible for.

Before Obama, the U.S. allied itself with Rwanda as it invaded the DRC multiples times from 1994 onward, committing massacres of Hutu civilians, seizing the DRC’s rich mineral resources, overthrowing its government and plunging the country into the civil war which, as Obama noted, killed as many as five million people.

Before that, the U.S. was a prime backer of Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the DRC (then called Zaire) with an iron fist for over thirty years, embezzling some five billion (with a “b”) dollars and dismembering his political opponents alive.  Mobutu was installed in a CIA-backed coup against the Third Worldist leader Patrice Lumumba.

If Obama is aware of all this, then he is deliberately playing on American anti-African racism to excuse our role in the Syrian bloodletting.

Or maybe it’s another case of telling a lie so many times, you begin to believe it yourself.

Shame about the Congo, eh?

Next week's blog topic, insha Allah: What is the U.S. doing in the Syrian war?

The week after that, en Allah raad: What should we be doing?


  1. Wow, this is a juicy one! Some very valid points made, but I note that you did not (can not?) dispute Susan Rice's assertion that if M23 did not exist there would still be ethnic strife in the DRC. She's right, and I think that her point is the bottom line here. To blame the civil war in the DRC on Obama, historical American involvement, or even any one particular rebel-group-supporting nearby nation is very much a stretch in the vacuum of anything resembling authority that is the eastern DRC. If you're arguing that America shouldn't have ever been involved in giving money to African governments that meddle outside their borders, fine - but such deference would have also carried a host of negative ramifications and missed opportunities to change countless lives for the better. In short, I think that Obama is quite right in steering clear of direct involvement in the DRC, Syria, or any other complex conflict that doesn't have a very predictable endgame. I look forward to your coming posts on American involvement in Syria.

  2. J - thanks for your comment and your kind words. I am not an expert on the DRC, so I'm not really in a position to dispute Rice's assertion, but I will anyway: the DRC had an elected, stable government in 1965. The U.S. overthrew it and supported a bloodthirsty dictator in its place for the next three decades. It was only after his overthrow at the hands of the U.S.-supported Rwandan military that Eastern DRC descended into chaos. Had the U.S. not intervened, who knows what would have come in the DRC?

    I am indeed arguing that America shouldn't give money and weapons to governments and rebel groups that commit horrendous human rights abuses. You are right that such a stance would commit us to missing opportunities to create "better" political outcomes, but I feel safe in arguing that sub-Saharan Africa's political outcome could hardly have been worse.

    In any case, as a devout Christian, I would much rather commit the unknown to God than kill innocent people to try to control the unknown. I hope that's not too glib. I genuinely respect people who disagree with that stance (as long as they're honest about what they propose), but that's where I'm at right now.

    I agree Obama is right in steering clear of direct involvement in those places. It's the indirect involvement that's killing me.