An African Crisis for Obama

While world leaders gathered here to unleash soothing words on the financial tsunami swamping their economies, the daring "responsibility to protect" doctrine adopted by U.N. members three years ago was being buried in the killing fields of eastern Congo.

For the sake of your bank account, hope that the international community can protect dollars, euros and yen more successfully than it protects the lives and safety of people who happen to live in failed or rogue states.

In three years, "never again" has become "sorry about that." Humanitarian intervention -- proudly proclaimed as a universal mission by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and other Third Way leaders and eventually adopted at the 2005 U.N. summit -- has fallen into serious disrepair.

The slaughter, looting and forced removal of defenseless Congolese civilians around the city of Goma this month -- even though they were theoretically under the protection of 17,000 U.N. peacekeepers -- are grim testimony to the consequences of making righteous-sounding promises without thinking enough about the means to carry them out. The money men and women of the Group of 20 should take note.

So should the incoming Obama administration, which will have to fashion a new basis for the use of force abroad for a Democratic Party that has been divided by that issue since the Vietnam War.

The responsibility of the world's nations to act together to protect citizens against massive human rights abuses by their own governments was shaped by Clinton, Blair and Kofi Annan out of the sickening failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and the successful military campaigns in Bosnia and Kosovo later in the decade.

Humanitarian intervention provided Democrats with a unifying, and comfortable, middle ground from which to support military action abroad. Even U.S. cities, including Barack Obama's own Chicago, have adopted resolutions demanding that the responsibility to protect -- known to its advocates as R2P -- be made a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy.

But wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have stretched thin the military capabilities of the United States and its allies and made public opinion much more negative about intervention abroad in any guise.

Reams of pious words have been written or uttered, including by Obama, about the need to do something to halt the brutal ethnic conflict in the Darfur region of Sudan. But the failure of the United Nations, the United States, the European Union and other regional organizations to intervene effectively there and now in eastern Congo may be the final nail in the coffin of R2P.

The civilians around Goma have been effectively abandoned by Congo's dysfunctional national army, which more often victimizes them than protects them. They are caught between this feckless force and the far more efficient, better-armed and absolutely ruthless rebel movement led by Laurent Nkunda, who declared on BBC television last week that he intends to overthrow President Joseph Kabila.

Nkunda's bid to go from regional warlord to national leader is covertly backed by neighboring Rwanda. Kabila has the support of Angola, which may have already secretly provided troops to the Congolese army. This conflict could erupt into an international crisis about the time that Obama is being sworn into office.

If it does, there will be plenty of blame to go around. Alan Doss, the adept U.N. special representative in eastern Congo, asked the Security Council on Oct. 3 for an increase of 3,000 troops. The blue-helmet force also needs relief from crippling rules of engagement that prevent it from defending civilians. But there has been no response by the council to Doss's plea.

"What is happening in Goma is very damaging for the responsibility to protect. It could be a turning point," says Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister and one of the doctrine's founders through his own humanitarian work. "We are witnessing the consequences of the arrival of nationalism on a continental level."

That is, African governments accept humanitarian disasters rather than give foreign-led forces the support or freedom to carry out massive rescue operations. Kouchner, visiting Washington last week, also cited Zimbabwe as a tragic case in point.

He does find one ray of hope -- the election of Obama, who has a direct family connection to Africa and promises a fresh start in U.S. foreign policy. "This could change everything," Kouchner said, "and not only for Africa. You Americans have just held a world election. President Obama should not wait to show what that means."

Jim Hoagland