Can Samantha Power Wage a War on Atrocities in Central African Republic?

Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is making an unannounced visit to the killing fields of the Central African Republic (CAR) today to drive home the point that the United States has a moral obligation to use a portion of its power and financial resources to help stem mass atrocities in a distant land with no U.S. embassy and few clear national security interests.

In telephone remarks from Abuja, Nigeria, Power told reporters that President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry were "deeply disturbed by ongoing reports of brutality in the Central African Republic in recent weeks." She said that mobs have been going door-to-door killing civilians, targeting aid workers and looting shops. The killing, she noted, is being "directed almost entirely against civilians."

"The world has been witness to great atrocities before" but "direct comparisons with other past crises are inevitably flawed," she said.

Still, Power said that Somalia taught the United States about the dangers of allowing a state to fail while Rwanda's bloodshed showed what could happen when a country divided itself along ethnic or religious lines. The people of the CAR, she said, were facing "profound danger, and we all have a responsibility to help them move away from the abyss."

Power's trip comes on the heels of Obama's pledge to help France, which has already deployed more than 1,600 of its troops to the former French colony, and other African countries restore order and protect civilians. The Obama administration has authorized $100 million in military assistance to transport Burundian troops into the central African country in the hopes of reducing the violence that a top U.N. official warned could escalate into full-blown genocide.

"Immediate action is required to avert a humanitarian and human rights catastrophe in the Central African Republic," Pentagon spokesman Carl Woog said earlier this month.

For an administration that has been reluctant to exercise its military muscle to halt atrocities in Syria, the chaos in the Central African Republic has presented a fresh test of Obama's commitment to place the protection of civilians at the center of his foreign policy.

"Preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States," the administration said in an August 2011 directive establishing a White House Atrocities Prevention Board. "America's reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide."

Power, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who has devoted much of her career to promoting the use of American power to halt mass atrocities, sits on that board. The deterioration of the CAR offers her a chance to put her words into action, even if only in support of France.

A human rights hawk, Power has previously championed U.S. military intervention in Libya and the quiet U.S. military effort to hunt down Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord's Resistance Army, a brutal Ugandan-based insurgency which has used the Central African Republic as a base of operations.

Human rights advocates say that Washington was slow to act after bloodshed erupted following a March coup, but credit the administration for quickly taking action to help stop a swift escalation in violence between Muslim and Christian militias.

"Unfortunately, the Obama administration didn't take the preventative steps that could have mitigated this violence," said Cameron Hudson, who has monitored the U.S. response to the unfolding violence in the CAR for the Holocaust Museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide. "But now that it has set in...they are well positioned to help turn this back, to roll back the tide of violence."

The latest crisis in this former French colony of 4.6 million began in December 2012, when insurgents attacked forces loyal to the government of President Francois Bozize. In March, the rebel coalition, known as Seleka, and comprised largely of fighters from the country's minority Muslim population, toppled Bozize, triggering a spree of murder, rape and looting. In response, former military elements loyal to Bozize and mostly Christian "anti-balaka" militias have carried out a series of bloody reprisals against the country's Muslim communities. 

"Seleka factions, who are mostly Muslim, have overseen seemingly systematic attacks targeting Christian communities, leading to the mobilization of largely Christian militias that have, in turn, brutally attacked Muslims," Alexis Arieff, an analyst at the Congressional Research Service, said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Tuesday. "The pace of violence accelerated in early December 2013 with at least 500 killings reported in the capital, Bangui."

While there are no reliable estimates of the number of dead in the CAR's year of turmoil, the U.N. reported that several hundred were killed in recent clashes in Bangui; more than 600,000 people have fled their homes since the beginning of the year. The airport at Bangui is swelling with more than 38,000 displaced civilians, who lack access to clean water, latrines or shelter, according to the U.N.'s refugee agency.

The United States, Britain and Germany have ruled out sending ground forces into the CAR, and are instead providing logistical support for French and African forces. On Tuesday, Power made her second call in weeks to the CAR's transitional leader, Michel Djotodia, a former Seleka leader that American officials fear is trying to consolidate power, to press him to curtail the violence and warn that those linked to the killing will be held accountable.

But in other ways, the Obama administration has moved cautiously. U.N.-based diplomats and human rights advocates say the White House had early on expressed misgivings about the financial costs of funding a foreign intervention through costly U.N. assessment. For instance, the United States resisted an early French proposal to have the United Nations underwrite the costs of training, equipping, transporting and supplying the intervention force, a plan that would have required the United States to cover more than 27 percent of the costs of the operation. The United States also reacted coolly to a U.N. plan to establish a full-fledged U.N. peacekeeping mission for the Central African Republic, expressing concern that Congress would not support another costly operation.

"Their main concern was a financial one; they said a peacekeeping mission is very expensive. We don't want to go that way," said a senior U.N.-based official, who added that American officials expressed skepticism about the risks of mass atrocities until November, after U.N. officials and human rights organizations sounded the alarm bell. "They said we believe the French will be able to stabilize the situation there. They didn't believe it was that bad."

As reports of large-scale killings began appearing in the press last month, the Obama administration established a crisis cell to manage the U.S. response, according to diplomats. "They worked day and night; they were on the phone all the time," the official said, noting that Washington's understanding of what was happening in the CAR had been diminished by a lack of presence in the country. "I think they were embarrassed; they got very, very nervous about the perception that the whole thing, that they hadn't been reacting."

Administration officials said the White House reacted quickly to reports about the violence in the CAR and worked hard to reduce it. In September, they say, the United States pressed the U.N. Human Rights Council to appoint an independent expert to focus on the CAR. Top White House staff also discussed the violence in both October and November.

Linda Thomas Greenfield, assistant secretary of State for African Affairs, outlined a range of steps the United States had taken in partnership with the U.N., the European Union, and the United Nations to stem the violence, including publicly condemning the use of violence by both sides, supporting a U.N. resolution authorizing a French-led intervention and providing airlift to African peacekeepers.

"Senior officials from the State Department and our ambassadors in the region have engaged with the leaders of African troop contributing countries to urge them to encourage their troops to be proactive in protecting civilians in the CAR," she said Tuesday in a Senate Foreign Relations hearing. "To give these forces their best chance of success on the ground, we are providing them equipment, strategic airlift and pre-deployment training."

Another U.S. official admitted that the financial burden of funding a peacekeeping mission was "a consideration."

"We live in a fiscal environment where our pots of money are not getting bigger," the official said. "But it's not dispositive. The United States has put substantial skin in the game on CAR."

The official said that the argument in favor of a U.N. peacekeeping mission is a false argument, because the United States has in fact backed a U.N. Security Council resolution that calls on Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to produce a report on the viability of a peacekeeping mission in three months. "We are not opposed to a peacekeeping mission," said one U.S. official. The official added that the current plan -- which provides for the immediate deployment of French and African troops -- offered the most effective means of getting troops on the ground immediately. A U.N. peacekeeping force, the official noted, could take months to stand up.

In her briefing, Power did not take questions from reporters. But she provided a contrary account depicting an energetic multifaceted U.S. response. The United States, she said, "has allocated $100 million for security support equipment and assistance. We are also providing airlift; U.S. military aircraft are moving troops into CAR as we speak."

Power said she intends to meet with the CAR's transitional president and other national and religious leaders to drive home the urgency to "change the calculus" of the combatants on the ground. Power said she would press the CAR president to ensure that his government and combatants cooperate with the French-led force, voluntarily disarm, and abide by commitment to move toward national elections by 2015. She also put the onus on the transitional president "to establish accountability for abuses" in CAR and to help heal the wounds and rebuild a country devastated by violence.

For now, worried diplomats can only watch from a distance and hope that the new intervention, limited and slow to arrive as it was, can help quell the violence.

"Some call this a forgotten crisis. The world is haunted by the horrors of crises spiraling into atrocities," Jan Eliasson, the U.N. deputy secretary general told the U.N. Security Council last month. "We have watched from a distance."

The challenges of addressing that crisis, he subsequently told reporters, "is not as much a problem of early warning; we have had this warning for a long time."

EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

The Cable

Senate Panel Approves Bill Keeping Aid Flowing To Military Governments

In a move that could reshape the way the United States deals with post-coup governments, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a bill that would make it easier to provide aid to countries ruled by military regimes. With an eye toward this summer's turmoil in Egypt, the bill also requires the executive branch to determine when a democratically-elected government has been removed by force.

On Wednesday, the Egypt Assistance Reform Act sailed through the committee in a 16-1 vote. Its key backers, Sens. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Bob Corker (R-Tenn), said the bill allows the U.S. government to maintain ties with strategically important countries like Egypt while imposing strict restrictions on any financial or military aid to their governments.

"This legislation reaffirms the enduring U.S. commitment to our partnership with the Egyptian government by authorizing continued assistance and endorsing the importance of ongoing cooperation," said Menendez, chairman of the committee.

But opponents criticized it for lifting restrictions on U.S. aid to unelected military juntas. The committee "voted to weaken existing law and give the president more authority to send billions in aid to countries who violently overthrow their governments and engage in violence against their own citizens," Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) told The Cable in a statement.

If it makes it into law, the bill would theoretically prevent the awkward situation the Obama administration found itself in this summer when it refused to call the Egyptian military's overthrow of its democratically-elected government a coup. The administration avoided making that determination because of Section 7008 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Law, which prohibits aid to post-coup countries. The White House feared that cutting off all aid to Egypt would further diminish U.S. influence in the country, so instead of calling a coup a coup, the administration remained silent.

Menendez's legislation, which he drafted in consultation with the White House, would force the administration to make a coup determination after a democratically-elected government was deposed by force, but still give the White House flexibility to decide if, and how, to maintain aid.

"To receive that assistance, the Egyptian government must meet certain security and economic assistance benchmarks like adherence to the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, cooperating on counter terrorism, and taking steps to consolidate their democratic transition," read a Menendez office handout.

Paul, a longtime critic of U.S. aid to Cairo, said the legislation gives the Egyptian military a free pass during its rule over the country.  "Instead of holding the Egyptians accountable, this bill will make it easier for the US to send tanks and F-16 fighter jets to a country that suffers endemic violence against political opponents and religious minorities," Paul said in the statement.

Egypt experts speaking with The Cable provided mixed perspectives.

The Brookings Institution's Shadi Hamid accused Congress of outsourcing its oversight responsibilities to the executive branch. "Congress is abdicating its jurisdiction over the issue," he said. "This bill gives the administration the latitude to do what it wants."

The Washington Institute's Eric Trager, however, said the bill gives the administration the flexibility it needs to conduct sound foreign policy. "The legislation reflects a growing realization that the U.S. has limited leverage over Egypt's domestic politics given the ongoing existential struggle between the military-backed government and the Muslim Brotherhood," he said. Trager emphasized that the legislation would give the administration flexibility to deal with unsavory, but strategically important countries.

Hamid worried that in a tug-of-war between Congress and the White House, the bill ensures that Congress will lose every time. "I suppose the silver lining is that the administration would have to provide a detailed justification of its decision to continue aid," he said. "But if Congress doesn't like that justification, the administration can do what it wants."

The bill is unlikely to make it to the Senate floor before the upper chamber breaks for Christmas recess at the end of the week, so Menendez will likely seek its inclusion in spending bills passing through Congress in January.

You can read the full bill here.