- - Sunday, November 27, 2016

On Nov. 17, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, declared that she would soon introduce a resolution in the Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan; and, to place travel restrictions and freeze the assets of certain persons deemed responsible for the grisly violence convulsing the new nation. South Sudan was midwifed by the United States from Sudan five years ago.

The United Nations special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dieng, after a recent visit to South Sudan, discerned the “potential for genocide.” United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned in a report that United Nations peacekeepers deployed to South Sudan could not diminish “a very real risk of mass atrocities.

Thereby hangs another tale of the United States foreign policy of ignorant arrogance in nation-building.

It is a task for political geniuses, who can be counted on one hand with fingers left over. Republics cannot be summoned into being with copies of the United States Declaration of Independence and Constitution. They require a threshold of common culture, language, religion, customs, ethnicity, history, and education. They require a dispersal of power to prevent any political faction from acquiring sufficient power to oppress or persecute rival factions. They require institutional checks against limitless executive power—which is the earmark of all primitive political societies. And they require time to evolve.

A Republic, like a woman, must be courted, not taken by storm. Great Britain needed six centuries from Magna Carta in 1215 to the Great Reform Act of 1832 to embrace popular government. The United States needed nearly two centuries from the 1620 Mayflower Compact and the 1619 Virginia House of Burgesses to the 1787 United States Constitution for a Republic to take root. The 1789 French Revolution created a Republic by storm, but ended with the self-coronation of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte exercising power dwarfing the executive prerogatives of the Bourbons which had provoked the storming of the Bastille.

The United States orchestrated the secession of South Sudan from Sudan in 2011 by a combination of military pressure and economic sanctions. It was the de facto senior partner with South Sudanese military strongmen in negotiating an agreement with Sudan to hold a referendum on South Sudanese independence. It passed by 99 percent.

The circumstances were propitious for the United States to demonstrate its professed genius in nation-building housed in the State Department, the National Security Council, and the intelligence community. South Sudan was not plagued by international or domestic terrorism. It possessed sufficient oil production and reserves to thrive economically. It had the support of the international glitterati like George and Amal Clooney, Mia Farrow, and Don Cheadle. It had the megaphone of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. And it had the support of the American Christian community confidant that the South Sudanese would turn swords into plowshares.

But anyone with a passing acquaintance of the ordinary depravity of human nature and the lust for power and riches that have been chronicled for thousands of years could have discerned that the South Sudanese leadership, including President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, featured a tribal array of thugs and thieves destined to convulse, terrorize, and impoverish the people. Benjamin Franklin, at the American constitutional convention in 1787, anticipated the likes of Mr. Kiir and Mr. Machar with unexcelled prescience:

“[T]here are two passions which have a powerful influence in the affairs of men. These are ambition and avarice—the love of power and the love of money. Separately, each of these has great force in prompting men to action; but, when united in view of the same object, they have, in many minds, the most violent effects. Place before the eyes of such men a post of honor, that shall, at the same time, be a place of profit, and they will move heaven and earth to obtain it…

And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. It will be the bold and the violent, the men of strong passions and indefatigable activity in their selfish pursuits. These will thrust themselves into your government and be your rulers.”

The only prospect for arresting such thugs and thieves is by pitting ambition against ambition through an institutional separation of powers and checks and balances. But neither has ever made even a cameo appearance on the African continent. The signature of virtually every African nation is limitless or overwhelming executive power. The legislative and judicial branches are ciphers.

South Sudan predictably plunged into an abyss of unspeakable misery and bloodshed through a toxic cocktail of inter-ethnic, inter-tribal, and internecine warfare. Tens of thousands have been killed, 1.5 million have been displaced, and 5 million are in dire need of humanitarian assistance. Even a longstanding vocal champion of South Sudanese independence, John Prendergast, has lamented: “Conflict in South Sudan is fueled by competing kleptocratic networks in a greed-fueled winner-take-all pursuit of state control….”

The wise foreign policy, like the wise man, knows what it doesn’t know. South Sudan, joined by sister nation-building misadventures in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, ad infinitum, demonstrate that we are clueless about democratic transformation. We roll dice with the lives and welfare of others when we precipitate regime change in foreign lands.

We need a more humble and moral foreign policy informed by the Hippocratic Oath: “First do no harm.”

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