President Clinton urged Congress Thursday to help fund an international peace-monitoring mission in Congo in what would be the biggest American involvement in the continent since the failed U.S. engagement in Somalia.
His request, at the formal opening of the five-day National Summit on Africa, came one day after former South African President Nelson Mandela called for U.S. military support for the mission in Congo, where troops from six countries are facing each other in a cease-fire repeatedly broken.
Mr. Clinton asked Congress to pay about $42 million of the estimated $160 million cost of the 5,500-member U.N. cease-fire monitoring mission in a speech to the summit, where he was greeted by drummers in striped robes who paraded through the Washington Convention Center.
“We have learned the hard way in the United States over decades and decades that the costliest peace is far cheaper than the cheapest war,” Mr. Clinton said.
“We need to think hard about what’s at stake here,” he continued. “African countries have taken the lead, not just the countries directly affected either. They are not asking us to solve their problems or to deploy our military.
“All they have asked is that we support their own efforts to build peace and to make it last. We in the United States should be willing to do this,” he said.
While the president is certain to run into congressional resistance on the large size of the mission, the secretary-general of Africa’s top transnational organization, Salim Ahmed Salim of the Organization of African Unity said Thursday the force is not likely to be enough.
“Five thousand troops are definitely not enough they are like dropping something in the ocean but it is a good start,” he said.
“In the course of time I hope it will be possible to augment the force,” he added.
The Congo monitoring mission was set into motion by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan as a way of adding international pressure to bring the conflict, now in its 19th month, to a negotiated end.
The mission is a monitoring one rather than a peacekeeping one. The 5,500-member force would have as its mission the protection of 500 unarmed military observers.
The latest round of the conflict in Congo began in August 1998, when rebel forces from the Great Lakes region, supported militarily by Rwanda, Uganda and covertly by Burundi, declared their intention to remove Congolese President Laurent Kabila. It was this same international group of nations that started Mr. Kabila on his successful effort to topple dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
The appropriation for Congo, if approved, would mark the greatest U.S. commitment to helping resolve conflicts in Africa since 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed in Somalia in 1993.
The following year, when a special Hutu presidential guard started a genocide against the minority Tutsi population in Rwanda, the United States virtually looked the other way. So troubling internationally was American abstinence from involvement that Mr. Clinton publicly apologized for the inaction during his trip to Africa in 1998.
More recently, Washington has sent small numbers of American forces to the continent to help train African troops for peacekeeping missions on the continent.
Thursday, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright said at the Washington summit that the United States could no longer stand by in the face of horrors like the slaughter in Rwanda.
“We must do all that we can now to see that such a nightmare is never repeated,” she said.
Pressure for a larger American role in African conflicts has been growing from leaders on the continent.
Just this week South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, Mr. Mandela, urged visiting U.S. Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to help commit the United States militarily to ending the Congo conflict.
In a prepared statement read by Undersecretary-General of the United Nations Ibrahim Gambari, Mr. Annan again urged renewed world and U.S. support to end the conflict in Congo.
“The international community must understand that this small U.N. force will not be able to guarantee protection of the civilian population,” he said.
Mr. Clinton, called for strong support for African initiatives.
“We must stand by the people of Africa who have decided how to solve this most costly problem,” he said.
“I look at Africa and I see the promise of Africa, and if the problems look complicated now think how much worse they’ll be if we continue to ignore them,” he said.
“We need to see the promise, the beauty, the dreams of Africa.” In the speech, Mr. Clinton described a world where countries will become increasingly linked as the century, and globalization, moves along. The United States in particular is already much more tied to Africa for trade and other things than many Americans realize, he said. “Africa’s future matters because the 21st century has been transformed,” he said. “The average American child growing up in the past saw Africa as colorful flags and exotic names.”
Today, he said, this is no longer the case, and globalization and one of its prime movers, the Internet, is why.
“Globalization means we know more about each other than ever before,” he said. Today, he said, it’s possible to “see the Discovery channel in Africa.”
Ben Barber contributed to this report.