In today’s Wall Street Journal, Cindy McCain (wife of Senator John McCain) makes a heartfelt call for the U.S. to increase its support and aid for the victims of chaos in eastern region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After giving a broad description of the great suffering occurring in the region due to lack of governance, instability, and corruption she states:

Only the international community and the struggling government of the Democratic Republic of Congo can restore real order to the country. But until then, the United States — the single largest contributor of food aid to these people — must make a choice. Will we walk away and let hundreds of thousands die of slow starvation, or will we push our aid package even harder?

This is a straw man argument of the kind typically used by President Obama. These are not the only choices on the table. If they were, Congo is doomed. The U.N. peacekeeping operation in the DRC is one of its largest operations in the world yet has failed to establish stability in eastern Congo. It has failed because the government of DRC is completely inept and largely corrupt. Sending aid, even on a more massive scale than is currently the case, into eastern Congo is a short-term solution at best.

What is needed is a long-term solution. Unfortunately, Mrs. McCain does not grapple with that problem and instead focuses on the tangent of increasing aid:

I hope that my country chooses to save lives in the Congo by continuing to support the World Food Programme as it strives to provide more aid to the orphans, the sick, and those torn from their homes.

As laudable as the WFP effort in Congo might be, it is not the central issue in addressing the ongoing problems in Congo. The international community has provided (and continues to provide) billions of dollars in aid to Congo, especially when the cost of the U.N. operation is taken into account. What is needed is a practical means for addressing the lack of governance while recognizing the political and economic realities of eastern Congo, the flaws of the DRC government and the limitations of international intervention.

Mrs. McCain would do well to take a look at a March 2009 articl by African experts Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst titled “There is no Congo” which concludes that:

The international community needs to recognize a simple, albeit brutal fact: The Democratic Republic of the Congo does not exist. All of the peacekeeping missions, special envoys, interagency processes, and diplomatic initiatives that are predicated on the Congo myth — the notion that one sovereign power is present in this vast country — are doomed to fail. It is time to stop pretending otherwise….

The West could start by making development and order its first priority in the Congolese territory, rather than focusing on the promotion of the Congolese state. This simple distinction immediately casts the Congolese problem in a whole new light. It would mean, for instance, that foreign governments and aid agencies would deal with whomever exerted control on the ground rather than continuing to pretend that Kinshasa is ruling and running the country. Such an approach might bring into the picture a confusing array of governors, traditional leaders, warlords, and others rather than the usual panoply of ministers. But that would finally be a reflection of who is actually running Congo.

Instead of continuing to spend billions of dollars on putting Congo together, the international community could regionally address actual security and political problems. For instance, troubles in eastern Congo have as much to do with continuing Rwandan insecurity than with what the government in Kinshasa is (or is not capable of) doing. A more realistic foreign policy toward eastern Congo would assign a high priority to Rwandan security interests, given that many derive from the wake of the 1994 genocide. Get this right and there might actually be a chance to reduce the violence that has haunted the Kivus. It would also incentivize the Rwandans to see Congo as a natural partner in trade and development rather than a security problem to be managed unilaterally. Joint Congolese-Rwandan operations early this year are a step in this direction.

The article has raised much controversy – to be expected as it challenges prevailing assumptions of the past several decades. But Mills and Herbst correctly observe that outsiders have exerted virtually no imagination to resolving the Congo situation. They have remained wedded to bolstering the fictional notion of a centralized government of the DRC. In reality, the government is a empty, powerless sham and offers little likelihood of serving as the key to resolving Congo’s many problems.

It is time to approach Congo with innovative thinking based on pragmatism. Mrs. McCain’s call to support more WFP aid by the U.S. is, to steal a phrase, is a “stale argument of the past” that does little to get eastern Congo on the path toward stability and peace.