Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Handling Rogues

One of the most interesting issues in diplomacy is how to handle prickly characters. One thing that has always impressed me is the frequency with which a skillful and determined negotiator can arrive at a neutralizing accommodation. Often one's gruesome interlocutor can be induced, cajoled, bribed or coerced. In rare cases, there can even be genuine conversions and, by sheer argument, you may lead someone to their Road of Damascus.

It's a mostly thankless task though, requiring patience, perceptiveness, a keen understanding of history, human foibles and an ever-optimistic outlook. There are exceptions of course that can cause even the most wizened diplomat to turn to drink. Sometimes, as say with the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda, or the irascible clan warlords in Somalia, you're simply wasting your time. They never had any intention of settling and were just humouring you, if they were even persuaded to make it to the negotiating table. The prototypical case in the last decade was Milosevic.

I recall people telling me in the 90s that having Charles Taylor of Liberia wearing suits and sipping champagne in hotels was better than anything. "Maybe he'll get used to it, calm down and stop causing trouble". Wishful thinking of course. In the end, Taylor held Liberia hostage, won a "free and fair" election - his campaign slogan: "you killed my mother, you killed my father but I will vote for you", and proceeded to loot at an impressive and unprecedented scale, a more savage Tony Soprano as it were. The timber forest and diamond mines in the sub-region will never be the same.

The same was said about the Sierra Leonean lot, and here choice expletives need to be thrown at Reverend Jesse Jackson who intervened to force a disastrous settlement without making warring groups disarm. How the Country Preacher ever came to be seen as an expert and, more worryingly, as someone who could shape Clinton's foreign policy is still beyond me. Surely there should be more than racial affinity to make someone an authority? Or maybe, like those appointed to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, it was a case of who you knew. If you don't know what you're talking about, don't bring yourself: people's lives are at stake here. In the event, the Sierra Leonean catastrophe was a close-run thing and it took all of the efforts of ECOMOG, the West African peacekeeping mission, and a judicious deployment of a battalion of British paratroopers to staunch the bleeding.

In any case, the story of the almost incestuous relationship between otherwise notable African-Americans like Leon Russell and Louis Farrakhan and miscreant African leaders deserves a fuller exposition at a later point. A brief sketch though: there's a two-way back-scratching that is at work here. On the one hand, there's the glamour of proximity to presidents that tickles the inflated ego ("Look here: a photo of me with President so-and-so. Did you know, he took the whole day off to chat with me!). And on the other hand, there's a aura of legitimacy that the African counterparts craves by association with this distinguished American ("Running a country is so easy, why not get some face-time with this guy, we can drink some fine wines"). Some have speculated there has been an element of monetary lubrication in these affairs whether it's plots of land, mining concessions or the ever-propitious perennial: flashy jewelry (blood diamonds anyone?). I'm not so sure that these shabby interchanges need much prompting since it's a perfect quid-pro-quo. The populace of these countries will show up for these affairs dressed in finery, sing and dance to puff up your sense of importance. They lay it all out for you. There's a power imbalance of course but when you're poor, you'll take any entertainment you can. Once you've stuffed your suitcases with loot and finally returned to DC or Atlanta, you should know, however, that your contempt is fully reciprocated.

What is interesting about the current situation in Congo is that many in the media are willing to go for go for the jugular to stiffen the spine of the 'international community' in how it deals with rogues and warlords. Take this recent piece from The Economist, The UN gets tougher:

"In January, Congo's transitional government invited five of Ituri's militia bosses to become generals in the still-chaotic national army, in the hope that they would encourage their troops to disarm. The new generals all say they are looking forward to serving their country, but some appear to be carrying on as before, snapping orders into mobile telephones from their air-conditioned rooms at the Grand Hotel in Kinshasa, the capital.

Little in the militia bosses' history inspires confidence. Your correspondent was once the unwilling guest of one of them, Jerome Kakwavu, a former traffic warden whose men control the town of Aru, on the border between Ituri and Uganda. During the course of a week, Mr Kakwavu publicly executed three of his own men, nearly flogged a ten-year-old soldier to death and kidnapped two Ukrainian pilots. He was hospitable to your correspondent, however, offering him the use of his sex slaves and the companionship of his pet baby chimpanzee."

And I quite agree, I'm all for quiet negotiation, entreatments and face-saving accommodations, but that should be for the diplomats. The commenting class, and I am a proud, keyboard-wielding member, often has the strength of the moral high ground. Let's simply call a spade a spade and shame these bastards.

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