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An African Crisis for Obama
The Washington Post
Jim Hoagland
16 November 2008

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. ()

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. ()

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. ()

"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." () 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."


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