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U.S. Non-Intervention In Syria Could Mirror Outcome In Congo


This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

When President Obama was asked by The New Republic about getting the U.S. more involved in Syria, he posed the following questions in response: What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

Well, as we ask about how past interventions are coloring the U.S. policy debate on Syria, today, we're going to consider a case of nonmilitary intervention that President Obama was referring to there, in Congo, a conflict that has claimed an estimated five million lives and has witnessed some of the worst atrocities of our times: mass rape by guerillas, even by an elite commando unit trained by the U.S., the sometimes forced recruitment of child soldiers.

Chester Crocker was assistant secretary of state for Africa in the 1980s. He is now a professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University. Welcome to the program.

CHESTER CROCKER: Good to be here.

SIEGEL: First, the massive carnage in Congo has been called the most costly war in terms of life since World War II. It is impossible to give a brief summary of what has happened in the eastern Congo?

CROCKER: What's happened in the eastern Congo is that large parts of the eastern Congo were kind of a defense-in-depth security zone for the Ugandan and Rwandan neighbors. And the government, which is sitting way over in Kinshasa - thousands of kilometers away - does not have the capacity to govern the eastern Congo. So it's basically a vacuum which sucks in neighboring countries and militia groups. And the militia groups rule by the gun, and they exploit local mining resources, again, ruling by the gun.

SIEGEL: Over the years, to what extent has U.S. intervention on any significant scale been on the table for the Congo?

CROCKER: I think we've been pretty decisive players in maintaining the territorial integrity of the Congo, going back to the first deployment of U.N. troops - Blue Helmets - in 1960. More recently, we played a key role in supporting the U.N. intervention - again, Blue Helmets in the Congo - and we paid 25 percent of the bill.

So in a sense, indirectly, we are intervening through the U.N. We're not intervening with our own troops, except in the issue of chasing after this really awful warlord Joseph Kony who has ravaged the neighborhood in northern Congo, in the CAR - the Central African Republic - and northern Uganda.

SIEGEL: And yet, even this week as the U.N. Secretary-General and the head of the World Bank are actually in Congo and pledging $1 billion for development, there was a fresh outbreak of fighting in the eastern part of the country. Is this conflict, is it effectively over? Is it still underway? How do you describe it?

CROCKER: The way I describe it is that the Congo, like Syria in some respects, lacks internal coherence. There's no coherence inside the country. There is coherence at the level of the U.N. Security Council, but there's no coherence in the broader neighborhood of the Great Lakes region. So if you translate that into the Syrian case, there's no coherence inside Syria, there's no coherence in the U.N. Security Council, and there's no coherence in the broader Arab world. So it's really hard. These are hard decisions.

SIEGEL: Yeah. Well, if you were obliged to draw some wisdom from the Congolese experience and apply it to the Syrian experience, what would it be?

CROCKER: Well, I guess, the first point I'd make is that just because you do it in one case doesn't mean you need to do it in every case. So we shouldn't get locked up too much in our precedents. The second point is that a great nation like the U.S. - a powerful nation - has a particularly difficult time, because if we go in someplace, we're kind of deciding who rules. When we leave, were also deciding who rules. If we don't go in at all, we're deciding who rules because we're kind of letting the strongest factor win.

SIEGEL: Our inactions are actions.

CROCKER: Inactions are actions, yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, one is tempted to say here that, you know, if there were oil under the ground, we'd be in there. But there are some really valuable things under the ground in Congo and we're not in there with troops.

CROCKER: We're not in there with troops. The Congo is larger than the Unite States east of the Mississippi. It's not an easy place to take over. No one wants to own this problem, is the bottom line, so we, and the other partners in the international community, take it to the U.N. Security Council and say: See what you can do.

SIEGEL: When you think about this conflict - and you, of course, dealt with issues of the war in Angola way back when and coping with our policy towards South Africa way back when, when it was still in apartheid state - are you persuaded that, say, in Congo, had there been a different attitude, had there been a massive NATO engagement in the place, that that would've actually determined the outcome that it was susceptible to strong military presence on the ground, or, frankly, are things just too chaotic to be stabilized?

CROCKER: I don't think you can fix these problems with military power in isolation. What you require to make any sense of an intervention is a political context in which you can build local coherence, you can get by in - from different elements, different factions, different regional voices. And that's, of course - again, going back to Syria, what we might be able to do, if we get ambitious, is to try to build that sort of coherence.

But I certainly am not persuaded that going in with boots on the ground is the answer in all these cases, or even in most of these cases.

SIEGEL: I'm curious to hear what you, both having been a diplomat and also now a professor of strategic studies, make of this problem. What Syria and Congo and, for that matter, Iraq and Jordan and Rwanda and Burundi and Uganda have in common is these are old colonial boundaries that were drawn by European powers way back when.

And in some cases, what's being fought over - and what our interest is - is the integrity of places that have no natural integrity and that ultimately, the resolution of these conflicts is going to involve our giving up on the idea that the Belgian king's boundaries are the real boundaries, or that the French foreign office's boundaries are the real boundaries.

CROCKER: Or, for that matter, the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 in the Middle East. And if you want to replace it with something, then who's going to replace it? Is it going to be the U.S. sitting across a table with our EU partners, our Russian partners, our Arab League partners and looking at a fresh map?

My view of this would be what matters is not whether there's change of boundaries but whether the change of boundaries is negotiated or whether it's at gunpoint, in which case, you have just mayhem and chaos across the region. Sure, the boundaries of the Middle East, like the boundaries of much of Africa or all of Africa, really, are artificial-imposed boundaries from 100 years ago. But what do you replace them with and who decides? That's the real question.

SIEGEL: Chester Crocker, thank you very much for talking with us today.

CROCKER: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: Chester Crocker was assistant secretary of state for Africa in the 1980s, and he is now a professor of strategic studies at Georgetown University. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.