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Zaire's rebellion is Cold War's bitter fruit

Mobutu kept U.S. support because he was anti-Soviet

March 21, 1997
Web posted at: 9:49 p.m. EST (0249 GMT)

From Correspondent Ralph Begleiter

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The disintegration of central government control in Zaire and the subsequent military free-for-all now convulsing central Africa's largest country didn't happen in a vacuum.

These events are in some ways the fruits of Cold War policies pursued by the United States and its allies for decades, now recently abandoned.

Zaire's longtime leader Mobutu Sese Seko was considered a bulwark against Soviet-sponsored Communism in Africa. As such, he received strong American support, including military aid, in the years after his rise to power in 1965. He was even feted by American presidents at the White House.

But there was a price for U.S. support of Mobutu. Corruption was widespread. The regime repressed dissent. Poverty ran unchecked among the masses, while Zaire's elite prospered. Mobutu built himself a refuge on the French Riviera.

Resentment grew and grew among the 38 million Zairians. and rebellion and chaos are the result.

U.S. pulling away from Mobutu

U.S. officials now acknowledge the downside of their pro-Mobutu policy -- and have largely abandoned him as his standing in Zaire has weakened.

"Zaire has not had a democracy for the last 31 years," says Nicholas Burns, U.S. State Department spokesman. "Its people deserve to have a representative government ... some economic and political stability."

But, of course, hindsight is 20/20, and some of the architects of America's previous Zaire policy defend it as a Cold War necessity in the face of Soviet ambitions in Africa.

"I think we have no apologies to make," says Chester Crocker, a former assistant secretary of state. "We were in a state of global rivalry with a global adversary."

Compromise a must between rebels and elite

Most analysts believe Mobutu's regime is already finished, and some suggest that even he knows that truth.

What happens next in Zaire may depend on whether rebel leader Laurent Kabila and the country's political elite can compromise on a new government -- and whether a world power such as the United States puts its weight behind the effort.

"We clearly do have, I think, an obligation," Crocker says. "Not because of something we did in the past, but because of who we are today and who we want to be in the future -- to see to it that ... the people of Zaire have a chance for a decent future."


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