The 17-month war in Congo has involved at least six nations, with over 200,000 soldiers fighting on multi-fronts in remote dense jungles. Its origins lie in neighboring Rwanda, where a post-genocide regime led by ethnic Tutsis has tried to end border threats from armed Hutus in eastern Congo.
Most combatants now say they want to end this tangled mess. The United Nations plans to send 500 observers backed up by 5,000 troops. The United States would send no troops but is being asked to pay about one quarter of the costs.
Before Congress provides the money, it should ask two questions of the Clinton administration:
1. Should the US do more to promote democracy in Rwanda, where minority ethnic Tutsis continue to rule over majority Hutus?
Democracy in Rwanda might help end the threat from Hutus in Congo by allowing more Hutus into the government. Rwanda wouldn't then need to again carve out a buffer zone in eastern Congo. (More democracy is also needed for a similar situation in neighboring Burundi.)
2. Will this UN peacekeeping, with a large American role both in money and diplomacy, fail for lack of enough troops able to enforce peace?
Animosities between the warring nations are deep. Even some allies are now taken as enemies. Peacekeeping in Congo could make Bosnia and Kosovo seem like a class field trip.
The minimum UN force in Congo should probably be 50,000, with a license to attack breakers of a cease-fire. Wary of being blamed for failure, the UN claims the force would just protect civilians. But even that's an outsized mission in a country that is the size of Western Europe.
Africa is too big, too poor, and too potentially rich to ignore. Investments in ending its biggest war should not be wasted.