U.S. shies away from involvement in African turmoil

WASHINGTON (AP) — As African countries descend into chaos, many analysts contend that President Clinton has not fulfilled his early promise to help African nations “identify and solve problems before they erupt.”
“Clinton has never quite lived up to his own challenge,” said Chester Crocker, President Reagan’s top Africa adviser for eight years.
Among other critics, Crocker believes the administration has erred too far on the side of caution in dealing with ethnic violence in Liberia, Rwanda, Burundi and elsewhere.
Crocker, citing the examples of Haiti and Bosnia, said, “You don’t always pay a price for doing the right thing.”
Twice in the past six weeks, the administration has flown Americans and other foreigners to safety from African countries in profound turmoil, first in Liberia, then in the Central African Republic.
As French troops try to restore order in the Central African Republic, a former French colony, the Clinton administration has shied away from a similar role in Liberia despite historically close U.S.-Liberian relations. Since early April, conditions in Liberia have become progressively more desperate, its population terrorized by killers and looters.
The violence in Liberia pales to that of Burundi, where ethnic tensions that already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in recent years in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda are believed escalating. A European diplomat quoted in a cable by former U.S. Ambassador Robert Krueger warns that “a million may die” if the world gives up on Burundi. The cable was leaked last week to The Washington Post.
U.S. involvement in Burundi has been limited largely to issuing appeals for power-sharing arrangements among rival ethnic factions. The administration also has promised equipment — but no troops — if the United Nations decides to intervene.
State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the United States must choose with care where to intervene abroad.
There are constraints: the federal budget deficit, a Congress with isolationist tendencies and a propensity to cut foreign aid, an overextended United Nations. Not least is the perplexing problem of how to deal with conflicts occurring within rather than between nations.
Seldom has Africa commanded priority attention from the United States, but the national security adviser, Anthony Lake, promised shortly after Clinton took office to end past indifference. Some administrations, he said, “have taken years to figure out where Africa is on the map.”
But Herman Cohen, the State Department’s top Africa hand under President Bush, said Clinton’s willingness to intervene in Africa evaporated after 18 American soldiers died in a firefight in Somalia in October 1993.
When killing erupted in Rwanda in 1994, the start of genocide in which more than half a million would be slaughtered, the administration waited more than three months before mounting a brief humanitarian airlift to refugees.
Randall Robinson, head of the Washington-based advocacy group TransAfrica, espouses an activist Africa policy. “The Clinton administration has virtually abdicated its responsibilities,” Robinson said. The government’s policy toward the continent has oscillated from “ineffectual to disastrous,” he said.
Electoral considerations weigh heavily against intervening in Liberia or elsewhere. If a U.S. decision to send troops led to American casualties, the political windfall for Republicans could be considerable in November.
Several high-level administration officials have visited Africa in recent years — Secretary of State Warren Christopher being a notable exception — but no sustained commitment has emerged.
Still, for all the faults TransAfrica’s Robinson perceives in Clinton’s record, he sees a vast improvement over that of Republican predecessors during the Cold War. They lavished money on “suitably anti-communist” regimes in such countries as Somalia, Sudan, Zaire and Liberia, which left the countries “basket cases,” Robinson said.