The world can’t back down on Africa policy

You put the troops in, you pull the troops out … so goes Bill Clinton’s foreign policy hokeypokey in Central Africa. Clinton announced last week the deployment of 4,000 U.S. troops to Zaire as part of a multinational task force to aid Rwandan refugees. The Canadian-led force would utilize 1,000 U.S. ground troops and 3,000 support personnel to protect Rwandan refugees in Zaire. But just as the president finally reacted to the ongoing ethnic strife in Central Africa, the dynamics of the crisis suddenly shifted and the American mission was instantly outdated.
Over the weekend thousands of Hutu refugees, who fled to Zaire after 1994’s vicious genocide amid fears of Tutsi retaliation, flooded back across the boarder to their native Rwanda. The return of so many exiles was cause for celebration in Rwanda — for Hutus and Tutsis alike — and seen by some as the beginning of the end of a bloody conflict. But the turmoil is far from over and recent developments should only strengthen U.S. resolve to facilitate a lasting peace.
The Clinton administration on Monday downsized the relief effort, nixing any ground forces and shifting the focus to an airlift of food and supplies. While no final decision will be made until the countries participating in the mission meet Thursday in Stuttgart, Germany, it is clear that any Western intervention will be limited to humanitarian aid. Sadly, that has too often been the world’s only role in Africa.
When the White House announced the now-defunct mission last week, the “CNN factor,” a popular response to globally televised images of suffering, was downplayed. But despite the executive disclaimer, little else can explain the world’s sudden interest in a region devoid of substantial natural resources or political clout. While this is a powerful example of the media’s ability to affect international affairs merely by covering them, the dynamic works both ways. Footage of joyous reunions in Rwanda can dupe the public, and even world leaders, into believing this tense situation is diffusing itself. It is not.
The mass return of Hutu exiles had more to do with new fighting in Zaire than peace in Rwanda. Just as refugees fled the ethnic war in Rwanda two years ago, they flee the ethnic war in Zaire today. Because the turmoil in Central Africa is drawn along ethnic lines, not national borders, the movement of refugees represents a human osmosis — people moving from a region of inflamed tension to one that is quieter, if only for the moment.
Although it is long overdue, the world’s attention is now focused on the crisis in Africa. It is perhaps ironic that at the very moment the West began to mobilize, the first signs of Hutu/Tutsi reconciliation emerged. But that ray of hope must not overshadow the continuing unrest. More than 500,000 refugees are still in Zaire, where civil war persists. In Burundi a slow-burn form of ethnic cleansing has surfaced that, while not as dramatic as the conflagration that left 800,000 dead in Rwanda in 1994, is no less horrific. The centuries-old ethnic conflict cannot be remedied by any amount of humanitarian assistance. Clinton and other world leaders must acknowledge this and work toward a comprehensive intervention effort.