Rediscovering Congo

Two decades in, the world wakes up to a tragedy. So what are we going to do about it?

These are strange, exhilarating times to be working on the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For the first time since full-fledged war broke out in the central African country in 1996, the American public seems to be waking up to the brutality of the conflict there. Over the past year, there has been a flurry of activity inside and outside the Beltway -- in congressional hearings, Oprah shows, and Broadway theater. The country's ongoing rape epidemic is finally getting front-page treatment. Congress passed a bill specifically on the Congo, and lawmakers and corporate boards in California, Pittsburgh, and universities around the country may soon follow suit.

For those of us who have been writing about or working in Congo for over a decade, this attention is anachronistic. Past is the height of the war, when nine African countries slugged it out through the country's jungles, savannahs, and highlands, splitting the country into half a dozen fiefdoms. Since 2003, the country has been unified; troops from Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe, and Angola have (largely) withdrawn. Elections were held in 2006, confirming Joseph Kabila -- who had taken over after his father's assassination in 2001 -- as president.

Despite the peace deal, violence has escalated in recent years in the eastern Kivus region -- along the border with Rwanda and Burundi -- as the government has tried to root out remaining armed groups through brutal counterinsurgency campaigns. While conflict has become confined to a smaller area and is less regional, it is still incredibly vicious. A study released this week in a U.S. medical journalconcludes that more than 400,000 women are being raped a year, with between 17 percent to 40 percent of women in the east reporting sexual assault during their lifetime.

But the violence in eastern Congo is sadly not new. So why this sudden flurry of attention? The novelty is the grassroots mobilization around the issue in the United States. For years, the sheer complexity of the conflict -- more than 50 different Congolese armed groups have seen the light of day in the past decade, fighting for a host of reasons -- has been the bane of reporters and activists alike. How can you make someone care about a conflict you can't explain? In 2006, even the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof attempted to justify why he wasn't writing much about the Congo: "I grant that the suffering is greater in Congo. But our compass is also moved by human evil, and that is greater in Darfur." Good guys vs. bad guys make for an easier story. It has always been difficult to reduce the Congolese conflict to such simple binaries.

But the needle began moving back toward Congo in 2007, when John Prendergast founded the Enough Project. Prendergast, a former National Security Council director, felt stymied by the limitations of his work with the International Crisis Group (which aimed to influence high-level policymakers). "I knew that unless Americans started putting pressure on their elected officials, nothing was going to change," he told me. And in order to rally those grassroots, his new organization had to boil the conflicts in Africa -- starting with Sudan and now including the Congo and Uganda -- down to a more simple narrative and focus on the naked suffering.

Instead of trying to explain the convoluted politics of the conflict, Enough Project focused on two themes: sexual violence and conflict minerals. Weaving these two together, they explained the conflict in a more readily digestible fashion, at the same time linking it to American consumers and their use of electronics containing Congolese tin, tungsten, and tantalum. They crafted slogans like, "Don't want your cell phone to fuel war in the Congo? Tell Obama!"

The Enough Project was not alone. Also in 2007, Vagina Monologues founder Eve Ensler launched a campaign to stop the "femicide" in Congo, culminating last month in the opening of City of Joy, a shelter and training facility in the eastern Congolese city of Bukavu for rape survivors. The crisis attracted bipartisan support, with former senators Russ Feingold and Sam Brownback traveling several times to the region, and even Barack Obama, then a freshman senator, sponsoring a Congo-focused bill. Lisa Shannon, a photography producer from Portland, Oregon, was galvanized when she saw a description of the conflict on Oprah and founded A Thousand Sisters, which has raised over $11 million in support of Congolese women. In 2009, these efforts were joined by actor Ben Affleck, who founded the Eastern Congo Initiative, and over the past few years a stream of other celebrities have become involved in Congo, including Ryan Gosling, Angelina Jolie, Robin Wright Penn, and Javier Bardem.

The new study on rape, published in the American Journal of Public Health, will no doubt bring additional attention to the problem, though this attention might have been more useful in 2006 or 2007, when the crimes documented in the study were taking place.

Some are cynical about these efforts. Indeed, the mention of celebrity activism can provoke eye-rolling and smirks in policy circles -- my usual haunts. They argue that this kind of knee-jerk mobilization leads to the dumbing-down of issues, dangerous simplification, and the confusion of what is important with what is glamorous. And there is indeed a danger that a simplistic understanding of the conflict will lead to simplistic policies. But there is no doubt that these grassroots endeavors -- Tweeting, Facebooking, and online petitioning -- have succeeded where more academic efforts have failed for decades: bringing the Congo to D.C.'s attention. The grassroots campaigners, while perhaps not very Congo-savvy, tend to be much more politically astute than their critics allow.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the conflict mineral debate. Last year, President Obama signed legislation -- as part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform act -- that requires companies to report what they are doing to avoid trading in conflict minerals from the Congo. The regulations, which will be monitored by the Securities and Exchange Commission, will go into effect later this year. Companies can still trade in conflict minerals, but they have to make public exactly what they are doing to carry out due diligence along their supply chains. "This law then relies on consumers, investors and other businesses in the supply chain to use that information to pressure these companies," said Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), one of the authors of the measure. 

The California state legislature is also working to pass legislation that would block the state from buying from suppliers who violate the SEC regulations or trade in conflict minerals. Several universities -- including my own Yale University -- are considering following suit.

The industry has gotten the message. Taking pre-emptive action, the Electronics Industry Citizenship Coalition -- which represents all major companies in the sector -- has effectively stopped importing minerals from the Congo.

There's a good chance that pressure on the conflict minerals could bring about some positive change, if it's carried out right.

Minerals were not the initial cause of the Congolese conflict in 1996 -- state collapse, the Rwandan genocide, and local power struggles had more to do with that. But those looking for silver bullets to solve the conflict will never find them. Perfect should not be the enemy of the good, and minerals are a good place to start.

Altogether, the Congolese trade in gold, tin, tungsten, and tantalum totals between $300 million and $1.4 billion a year, and most of those minerals are "taxed" by soldiers at gunpoint at some point along their journey. That's a lot of money in a country where 80 percent of the population makes less than $2 a day.

In an ideal world, here is how international pressure would work: The global minerals trade is highly integrated, so a demand shock from the United States -- the largest consumer of electronics -- would have serious repercussions in the Congo. Congolese business associations, unable to shift their product, would start to panic and put pressure on President Kabila to demilitarize mining areas and begin certifying non-conflict minerals. At the same time, the government would get more serious about pushing rebel groups out of mining areas as well.

The real world is a bit messier. The first part of the equation has worked: As of April 1, U.S.-based companies are boycotting minerals from the Congo, saying they cannot distinguish "clean" from "conflict" minerals. Following suit, the Malaysia Smelting Corporation, the largest smelter of Congolese tin, is considering halting new purchases, and exports from the Congolese trade hubs of Goma and Bukavu are grinding to a halt. The problem is that the Congolese government has not yet reacted. It appears that it is more important for Kabila to placate his commanders -- many of whom are former rebels -- than to promote trade.

Also, even if the government demilitarizes the trade routes, someone will need to certify that the minerals are clean. At the moment, the trade routes -- from the thousands of pick-and-shovel pits to the border crossing -- are mired in a fog of corrupt bureaucracy, with no reliable way of telling where which sack of tin comes from and whether it was taxed by someone with an AK-47.

This is where the U.S. government in particular has failed. It is not enough just to legislate from on high and expect the situation to right itself. The Congo supplies less than 5 percent of tin and around 20 percent of tantalum to the world market, and without encouragement companies might shy away from the reputational hazards the Congolese trade brings with it. A sustained boycott of U.S. companies could put tens of thousands of miners out of work and push some of the trade toward India or China, where businesses care much less about social responsibility.

The end of this story is still unwritten. If donors can invest heavily in traceability schemes, reassuring investors while holding them to account, this initiative could make a significant difference. But if donors do not follow up, the conflict minerals initiative will go into the sizeable dust bin of failed international initiatives to rescue the Congo.

U.S. policy toward the Congo is full of such half-measures. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the country in 2009 and promised to help "banish sexual violence into the dark past," mobilizing various different bureaus and agencies in Washington, but there has been little concrete action other than $17 million toward care for victims and the U.S. army providing basic training for several thousand of the Congo's 150,000 troops. The US government's policy is a mixture of admirable initiatives, but without an overarching strategy.

This is a bit surprising. Five years ago, Senator Obama co-sponsored legislation calling for the appointment of a special envoy to the Congo to provide much-needed leadership. Once in the White House, however, his own administration has staunchly resisted implementing this policy. State Department officials in private suggest that Foggy Bottom is reluctant to create parallel chains of command that would compete with their ambassadors in the region and their usual lines of reporting in Washington, although this has not prevented the proliferation of envoys for other countries and issues.

The Congo is headed toward elections at the end of the year. These polls could well be more contentious than the last, in 2006, when the incumbent Kabila was favored to win. Kabila's popularity has sagged, and he may struggle to win free and fair elections. This, in turn, raises the specter of electoral violence and political confrontation.

The Congo harbors one of the world's gravest humanitarian crises -- one that has been largely confronted with apathy. Grassroots activists -- from soccer moms to college students -- have finally broken this apathy, raising awareness about the Congo's plight. But now it is up to politicians and diplomats to turn awareness into intelligent policy. 


Too Big to Fail?

Is Syria's repressive dictatorship really so crucial to Mideast peace and stability that we can't let it fail? The Obama administration still seems to think so.

If you're a bit confused about U.S. President Barack Obama's passivity in the face of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's brutal repression of domestic opposition, don't be. Syria isn't Libya. The Assad regime is just too consequential to risk undermining.

Although the fall of the House of Assad might actually benefit U.S. interests, the president isn't going to encourage it. For realists in the White House, Assad's demise carries more risks than opportunities.

Great powers behave inconsistently -- even hypocritically -- depending on their interests. That's not unusual; it's part of the job description. In fact, in responding to the forces of change and repression loosed throughout the Arab world, flexibility is more important than ideological rigidity.

The last thing America needs is a doctrine or ideological template to govern how it responds to fast-breaking changes in a dozen Arab countries, all of which are strikingly different in their respective circumstances.

That the administration's response often seemed like a giant game of whack-a-mole, with a new problem popping up daily, was inevitable. And so was the variety of U.S. responses. In Bahrain, where the United States had established the headquarters of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and in Yemen, where counterterrorism is king, interests trumped values. You didn't hear Obama make any "Qaddafi must go"-style speeches directed against Bahrain's ruling Khalifa family or Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

The contradictions and anomalies of U.S. foreign policy have also been on stark display in the Obama administration's differing responses to Qaddafi's and Assad's repression of their own people.

Beating up Qaddafi proved doable and necessary to prevent what was viewed as potential atrocities by his forces in Benghazi. Libya had few significant air defense systems and no friends; it was relatively easy to construct a coalition of the (semi-)willing in the United Nations, NATO and the Arab League to oppose the man President Ronald Reagan once dubbed the "mad dog of the Middle East" -- a tin pot and often bizarre dictator who opposed reform and political change. If you wanted to construct a more vulnerable target in a laboratory, you couldn't have done much better.

Syria presents a profoundly different situation. U.S. policy has always been driven by the hope that the Assads would change and the fear of what might replace them if they fell. Three additional realities ensured a U.S. response quite different from the one for Libya.

First, Syria was hard. It's a country with a sophisticated air defense system, chemical and biological weapons, and a great many friends -- including Iran and Hezbollah, which are capable of striking back. Marshaling support at the United Nations, mobilizing NATO, and getting buy-in from the Arab League in the way that made the Libya intervention possible are not in the cards. Some of America's closest friends, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, are also not at all sure that Syria without Assad would be better than with him.

Second, for most U.S. presidents -- Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush being the exceptions -- Syria has served as a kind of unholy diplomatic grail. Since Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, U.S. policymakers had viewed the Assads as pragmatists capable of facilitating or blocking U.S. policy in Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli peace process.

If only the Syrians could be brought around, presidents have believed for generations, life would be so much easier. The United States wasn't alone in this illusion -- the Israelis, Arabs, Europeans, and Russians felt the same way. Like the Wall Street banks, Syria was then, as it is now, judged as simply too big to fail. There was something perversely comforting about having the Assads around.

I had my own fair share of illusions during my government career, but the Assads were never one of them. I could never quite understand my colleagues' fascination with the brutal Syrian regime. To me, Bashar al-Assad was a brutal dictator who wanted to be the Frank Sinatra of the Middle East -- obsessed with doing things his own way to the point that he priced himself out of peace with Israel and a relationship with the United States. It's striking that every other Arab state, with the possible exception of Libya, managed to establish a close relationship with the United States. Not Assad.

Third, Obama's approach toward Syria has been managed by the realists. This stands in contrast with his Libya policy, where liberal interventionists in the administration and neocons outside clamored for action. This group of realists includes the president, who knows his options on Syria aren't great. He's being told that American leverage isn't great and that if he calls for Assad's head and the Syrian despot survives, he'll have lost access to a key player in the region.

And after all, what could he do that would deter a regime in a fight for its life? Pull U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford from Damascus? Impose a travel ban on Assad and his family? Press the Europeans to freeze Assad's money?

In a world of symbols, these steps may make an important point about American values. However, none of them will make a difference in how events play out in Syria.

Simply put, the Obama administration is worried about creating a worse situation if Assad falls. Take your pick of scary scenarios: civil war, a Sunni fundamentalist takeover, or a new base for al Qaeda.

Of course, there would also be an upside to Assad's demise. A brutal regime would have fallen; Iran would be denied an Arab patron and a critical window into Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli arena; Hamas would likely drift further into the orbit of Egypt and Saudi Arabia; and Hezbollah -- though hardly defanged in Lebanon -- would lose a critical patron. At this point, however, the administration clearly judges that the risks of U.S. action outweigh the potential benefits.

Bad options, bad outcomes. So, for now, we watch and wait to see where the arc on the Assads is headed -- north or south. But if the Assads do survive, it wouldn't surprise me in the least if Washington at some point resumes a business-as-usual posture with the only surviving repressive Arab dictator that's too big to fail.