During President Barack Obama's short term as a senator, one of two bills he authored which eventually became law was the Democratic Republic of the Congo Relief, Security, and Democracy Promotion Act of 2006. Senator Hillary Clinton was a co-sponsor, along with 11 others.
The DRC-focused bill includes specific provisions on conflict minerals and sexual violence; sanctions on armed groups and their state-sponsors; and support for democracy. Section 105 of the Obama-written law authorizes the secretary of state to withhold assistance from a foreign country if she determines that the foreign government is taking actions to destabilize the DRC. Obama's six-year-old law is still the only official policy the United States has on the books for dealing with the Congo crisis.
Given his past interest in the country, many Congolese were hopeful when Obama came to power that he would continue to prioritize the country. Those hopes seemed to be confirmed three years ago, when Obama spoke movingly in Accra, Ghana, on his first -- and so far only -- presidential trip to Sub-Saharan Africa. He exhorted Africans to assume responsibility for their destiny. He promised that the United States would no longer support strongmen or tolerate corruption. Instead, his government would work to promote strong institutions.
Congo is a dysfunctional state with weak political leadership, an incompetent army, and failing security institutions. Over the past decade, the DRC government has failed to restore the state's authority over its territory, enabling the proliferation of armed groups and warlords -- like the recently convicted Thomas Lubanga -- who recruit children, systematically rape women, and loot mineral resources. Some of these militias receive financial and logistical support from neighboring states. As of the end of 2011, the conflict has displaced nearly two million civilians both internally and outside the DRC.
When Obama addressed the conflicts in Congo and Sudan's Darfur region in his Accra speech, he denounced the criminality and cowardice of systematic rape and the forced conscription of children as soldiers. He pledged U.S. support to efforts to hold war criminals accountable.
Yet when it comes to Congo, it seems that Obama is running from his own record. For the past three years the president has never implemented the law he himself authored, despite abundant evidence of abuses. The administration's tentative approach to containing the Congo crisis has spawned a schizophrenic and incongruous diplomacy, which fuels a longstanding conflict and has not stopped the killing.
Perhaps hoping to rectify the scant attention his administration has paid to Africa as a whole, Obama unveiled a new plan on June 14 to strengthen the continent's democratic institutions, spur economic growth, advance peace and security, and promote economic development. But coming at the end of his term, the strategy offers too little, too late.
When it comes to history, Congolese have the collective memory of an elephant. Starting in 1960, when the DRC gained independence from Belgium, the United States sought to play a role in shaping the future of the young nation to exploit its strategic geographical position and natural resources for the Cold War. U.S. involvement led to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo's first prime minister, the ensuing civil war, and the deployment of the largest U.N. peacekeeping mission at the time, as well as the rise and fall of Field Marshall Mobutu Sese Seko, who ruled the country for 32 years.