This gunboat oratory over Congo is futile, cruel bravado

The Guardian headline on Monday was clear as mud. It read "Stop killing in Congo or else, leaders warned". Everything was left hanging. Which leaders? Warned by whom? Or else what? The story was that western spokesmen had warned various African leaders, albeit via the press, that they would be "held to account, or else" if they did not do what they were told. This clearly implied military intervention and there were briefings to that effect, though only a few hundred soldiers were mentioned.

The threats were from the new prophet of Blairite interventionism - David Miliband, the foreign secretary - and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner. On a media-drenched trip to Congo, both were in full megaphone mode. "The world is watching," they cried, as they peered into the impenetrable jungle. They then went out on a limb and called for "an end to violence".

Miliband's boss, Gordon Brown, was on a visit to the Gulf to publicise the poverty-stricken state of the former imperial powers. Yet he, too, stopped begging for a moment and intoned: "We must not allow Congo to become another Rwanda."

How does he propose to do that? The two countries whose history and military capacity most qualify them for "not allowing Congo" are Britain and the US. Both are fighting bitter and extravagant wars to enforce their diktat on the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan.

The cost to British and American taxpayers of Iraq and Afghanistan is higher than the entire public sector cost of the various banking rescues, at least on the $3 trillion guesstimate of the American economist Joseph Stiglitz. The idea that London or Washington - under whatever leadership - will send armies to Africa, to "or else" its leaders, is ludicrous. The 17,000 UN troops have been hopelessly overstretched.

Still we talk. It would not occur to a Russian leader or a Chinese, Indian, Brazilian or Turk to use the phrase "We must not allow Congo ...". They would never tell Africans to behave "or else". They might do something, such as build a dam or sell a weapon, but they do not presume to hector. They know it is counter-productive.

Yet such is the language of men bred in the bone to rule the world. There is no drop of humility in their veins. Imperial might oozes from the walls of Miliband's office overlooking St James's Park, as from the grey walls of the Pentagon.

These men are rightly convinced of the superiority of their politics over that of Africa or Asia. But they are also convinced of their right to impose it on the rest of the world, as their forefathers were convinced of the superiority of their race, religion and soldiering ability. The imperialism gene remains potent. Only the modalities have changed.

In Asia, British ministers are seeking to impose their will on Muslim countries that are no threat to the British people, for all the mendacities of the "war on terror". In Africa, to the relief of their generals, they are merely doing what Kipling derided as "killing Kruger with their mouths". The spectacle is no more edifying.

Britain has talked the talk over Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Zimbabwe and Congo. When the Foreign Office describes any state of affairs as "unacceptable", the one sure thing is that it will soon be accepted. On the subject of Zimbabwe, Brown told his 2007 party conference "the message to anyone facing persecution is that we shall not rest". He then rested. His intervention made it less, not more, likely that South Africa would force Mugabe to stand down. No 10 may have felt better for its macho talk; I doubt if Zimbabweans did.

The one African country where Britain has walked the walk is tiny Sierra Leone, still cited as a jewel of liberal interventionism. This is despite it remaining one of Africa's poorest states, dependent on UK aid and military presence. All this means is that London can still run a decent African colony provided it has a population the size of the West Midlands.

The bluff of this interventionism is total, and cruel to the victims of the atrocities being perpetrated in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo. The west knows it will not deploy armies to Congo to enforce its threats, which are the more patronising as a result. African warlords know it too. They have other priorities than massaging the moral comfort zone of British ministers.

Congo will not find peace through western armies, and perhaps not through African ones, which have been trying for decades. By all accounts, the endemic conflict of Rwandan Tutsis and Hutus did not stop with the massacres of 1994, it merely moved elsewhere, fuelled by that curse of central Africa - its mineral wealth.

The rebel leader in Kivu, the Tutsi Laurent Nkunda, is said to be backed by the Rwandan government in a campaign to suppress the exiled Hutus who perpetrated the Rwanda massacres and allegedly are inclined to repeat them. Nkunda is playing the familiar ethnic-secessionist card, like rebel leaders in Sudan and elsewhere, with human beings as fodder. There is nothing new here.

The wars of the Congo basin are estimated to have cost 5 million lives in just 10 years, probably the greatest slaughter since the second world war. The world can do little about this. The gunboat diplomacy so familiar in Africa in the age of empire has become gunboat oratory. The political scientist John Gray rightly describes intervention in Africa as "a combination of post-imperial nostalgia with crackpot geopolitics".

Interventionists always ask their critics what they would "do instead". It is as if doing something stupid and counter-productive, or even just threatening it, must be better than doing nothing. This cannot be so. The new regime in Washington seems certain to pull back from the belligerent hubris of the Bush-Blair years. Explaining America's refusal to intervene after the Burma hurricane, its defence secretary, Robert Gates, appealed to "a greater sensitivity all over the world to violating a country's sovereignty". Yet he was about to bomb Pakistan.

Congo's people cry out for world aid. Everything should be done to get food and shelter to those in need. No effort to that end is enough. But such help should be under the old Red Cross rubric, that it should never wear uniform or travel under the shadow of a gun. This used to be the NGO creed of French foreign minister Kouchner.

We know that all aid has strategic import. It can harm as well as help. But charity is best when politically blind. It is born of humility and bravery, not of empty bravado.

Simon Jenkins