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Congress Presses Obama On African Conflicts

Despite Obama's Campaign Pledges, Action Has Been Slow; Lawmakers And Activists Are Pushing For More

Updated at 9:23 a.m. on June 4.

President Obama promised to take a hard line on genocide and other war crimes during the campaign, but since then he has been slow to tackle some of Africa's most intractable conflicts, leaving many activists impatient and Congress calling for more action.


Most recently, lawmakers have focused on the two-decade-long insurgency in northern Uganda, where the Lord's Resistance Army has kidnapped and conscripted thousands of children and displaced more than 2 million people. Obama talked tough on such atrocities during the campaign last fall, pledging to resolve the crisis in Darfur and recognize the Armenian genocide. And sure enough, the administration features some heavy hitters from the anti-genocide community, like Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide and now an adviser on the National Security Council, and Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice.

But in April, Obama avoided bringing up the Armenian genocide during and after a trip to Turkey to avoid offending a key regional ally. With a growing to-do list of other issues, Obama has been slow to act on current crises as well, and some activists are tapping their fingers.

"They're realizing that there aren't easy answers, that there needs to be bold action, and they haven't taken it." -- Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif.


"I think some of us are pretty antsy to have this administration get their ducks in a row, and while you have these champions in government, it may take time," said Julia Spiegel, a Uganda-based field researcher for the Enough Project, an anti-genocide effort of the Center for American Progress.

A bill introduced two weeks ago by Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan., and Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Brad Miller, D-N.C., and Ed Royce, R-Calif., would require Obama to develop a comprehensive strategy to end the brutal two-decade-long war in Uganda.

The U.S. has collaborated with Kampala to take out Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony before, with disappointing results. In December, the U.S. Africa Command provided financial and logistical support to the Ugandan army in a botched cross-border raid that failed to catch Kony and indirectly led to the slaughter of hundreds of Congolese villagers by retreating LRA fighters.

The Uganda bill is just the latest prod from Congress encouraging Obama to take action on African conflicts.


Five representatives publicly chided the president in March for not having appointed a special envoy on Sudan. A week later, Obama tapped former Air Force Major Gen. Scott Gration for the post.

Despite the president's perhaps understandable focus on other domestic and international issues, Royce sees the reliance on Congress for encouragement and leadership problematic. And at a time when the administration doesn't appear to have the appetite to pursue aggressive solutions, the California Republican worries that Obama is considering loosening sanctions on the Sudanese government as a sign of good faith, something he considers a mistake.

"I noticed that candidate Obama was very critical of [George W.] Bush's Sudan policy," said Royce, who has been active in resolving conflicts in Liberia and Sierra Leone. "Now they're realizing that there aren't easy answers, that there needs to be bold action, and they haven't taken it."

Obama's early moves on Darfur haven't been a hit with activists either, particularly the fact that there was no envoy yet in place when the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al-Bashir in March. The military strongman expelled 13 aid organizations in retaliation, worsening the humanitarian crisis. Jerry Fowler, president of the Save Darfur Coalition, said he and others had unsuccessfully lobbied the administration for months to appoint an envoy before the widely expected warrant was handed down.

Gration's belated appointment also raised some eyebrows among activists -- the general had previously lobbied for the top job at NASA -- and they are anxious for the president to follow through on a campaign pledge and present a plan to end the genocide in Darfur.

"There's a critical need for the administration to articulate what their strategy is on Sudan," Fowler said. "[For Obama,] just using his voice would be of huge importance."

The Enough Project had hoped that Obama would mention Darfur in his Cairo speech today, and he did, if fleetingly. Northern Sudan is overwhelmingly Muslim, as is most of Darfur.

Regardless of complaints that the administration isn't making these conflicts a priority, there are signs that the administration and Congress aren't communicating well enough with African leaders. In Uganda, many government and military officials were caught off guard by the recent bill, which they learned about from belated local press accounts, according to Angelo Izama, a Ugandan political reporter and founder of a think tank on security issues in the Great Lakes region.

"It took everyone by surprise," he said. "If anything, it shows you how removed some of this activism is from the players here."

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