Keith B. Richburg has spent more than 20 years overseas for The Washington Post, serving as bureau chief in Paris, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Nairobi and Manila. He covered the invasion in Iraq, the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. military intervention in Somalia, the genocide in Rwanda, and the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China. He is the author of “Out Of America; A Black Man Confronts Africa” (Basic Books, 1997). He speaks French and is currently studying Mandarin Chinese. He was the Post’s foreign editor from 2005 to 2007 and the New York bureau chief from 2007 to 2009. (Source: WP)
Richburg recently spoke with The SAIS Observer by phone to discuss the role and limitations of the U.S. in African politics and conflicts. Richburg was recently a guest speaker in Professor Michael Getler’s news media course at SAIS.
From 1991 to 1994, you were in Africa. What were you doing there? And could you tell us a couple highlights and lowlights during this period?
I was in Africa from 1991 until the end of 1994, basically January 1995, for the Washington Post as the main correspondent covering Africa south of the Sahara with the exception of South Africa, where we had another bureau. It was a fascinating time to be there because on the one hand there was a lot of hope that the pro-democracy movement that had swept through Eastern Europe might also touch on Africa. And there were some signs of that possibly happening. In Zambia, for example, they had the first democratic election in decades. But then the low points of course were the breakup of the old order in Africa. The downfall of a lot of the strongmen and dictators did not lead to democracy and it ended up leading to chaos, civil war and some pretty awful scenes in places like Somalia, Rwanda, even in Sudan.
You wrote a book called “Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa” in the late 1990s. In it, you describe a continent scourged with atrocities, dictators, and starvation. Has that narrative changed?
I went back again in 2007 or so to write a new forward to the book to look to see if anything had changed. And what I discovered was [that] there were some places that had improved. They had gotten better than they were when I was there, but some places had gone backwards. So in fact the overall narrative is the same although some of the names and places are different. Just one example in the book [is that] I actually held out hope that Zimbabwe might be a place that was doing okay, but obviously in the years since I was there and wrote the book under Robert Mugabe, it has basically slipped backwards.
[In] some other places I actually held out a little bit of hope that Ethiopia might be breaking that pattern of strongmen and officers from the military that would cling to power and that refused to leave. And also Uganda, another one, in the 1970s, all these years later since I was in Africa, they are still in charge. They are still basically manipulating elections so they [can] stay in power, [where they are] intimidating the opposition and harassing the independent press in their country. So places that I actually thought were hopeful are less hopeful than before, and some of the other places that I thought were basket cases are doing a little bit better, but I think overall, the narrative is the same.
The Rwandan Genocide and the Syrian War today seem to have one thing in common: a lack of foreign intervention to end humanitarian catastrophe. Why do you think this is so?
There is generally – and I think through our American history – a reluctance to get involved in what George Washington called foreign entanglements. I think he actually warned us about foreign entanglements. And so people kind of forget about that because a lot of people see the U.S. as playing the role of the world’s policeman, but they forget that among the American public, within the population, there has always been this kind of general reluctance to get involved. The American public did not want Franklin Roosevelt to get involved in World War II as you recall. It was only when we were attacked at Pearl Harbor that that happened. So in general there is a reluctance to get involved.
But in the specific case of these [modern] conflicts, I think there is also a recognition on the part of the leadership that there is very little that we can do. And so we see these atrocities that were happening in Rwanda and the atrocities happening in Syria [and] there is an acknowledgement that there is a limit to America’s military power to get involved. We just don’t think either of these places is of strategic interest to the U.S. And also there is one big similarity. Rwanda happened right after our basically failed intervention in Somalia. And so that really increased this kind of reluctance to get involved. Syria is happening after our – I wouldn’t say failed totally – but after our very unpopular intervention in Iraq. So there is a real reluctance after we have had one of these interventions to get involved in another one. That happened in Rwanda, and I think we are seeing the same thing in Syria.
Does the U.S. have an obligation to prevent humanitarian crises in Africa? If so, how should the U.S. define its role?
The U.S. has set a long time ago – after the Holocaust [and] after Cambodia – the bar very high before we would allow ourselves to intervene on moral grounds. And we set the bar very high saying basically [that] there had to be genocide. There had to be evidence that an entire group of people were being systematically eliminated before it would rise to the level of letting our moral indignation drive us to any kind of military action. Well that actually has happened. It happened in Darfur where there was evidence of real genocide. It happened in Rwanda where there was evidence of genocide.
What we saw in those cases were U.S. officials [that] were reluctant to admit what we all knew was happening, because to admit that would then trigger our response. And so they were so reluctant to intervene that we danced around using the words that we knew would trigger that response. We would not want to call it genocide in Darfur as well as in Rwanda. So despite the fact that we always said never again, we see it happening again and again. Because again there is this general reluctance on the part of the public and the reluctance on the part of leaders to push the public to get involved in some of these issues that are seen as morally indignant but far from the center of U.S. policy.
It is the responsibility of the regional powers to take the lead on these things. On the other hand, the U.S. can show leadership, and there is nothing like American leadership. And you can go back to 1990 to 1991 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. It was an unpopular attitude for us to get involved, but [President] George Bush Senior and [Secretary of State] James Baker were able to put together an international coalition that included Egypt and Jordan and Saudi Arabia and the others to get involved in kicking Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait. So that was a masterful piece of diplomacy in saying we are not going to take the military lead, but we are going to take the lead in putting together a diplomatic coalition that will then take the military lead. And that is what I see that we could be doing a lot more of in Africa, just using all the powers of our office and strenuously putting together these kinds of international coalitions that might help solve some of these things with the promise that we will be there with the military muscle to help back it up. But we are not going to do that unless you guys – neighbors, the ones who are most affected by this, the refugees – are willing to put your boots on the ground.
Could you talk about private donations to aid and humanitarian issues? Private donations seem to pour in after natural disasters significantly more than after genocides [and other civil wars] in Africa, and yet the Syrian conflict is the worst in a generation.
Yeah it is a fascinating question, and I am sure people have studied this at the PhD level have thought more about it far more than I. Americans are a very generous people. We do give. And we particularly give after humanitarian crises or disasters where it is seen as something that we can do something about – the [Haiyan] typhoon, the earthquake in Haiti, the Pakistani floods, [and] the tsunami that destroyed Aceh Indonesia. Georgia Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton have been great about going around and tugging on our heartstrings and raising millions of dollars from Americans for these causes. And Americans are a very generous people. We are a religious people, but often it is not just the religious people because we recognize how lucky we are in this country and we see disasters everywhere else.
But then we see civil wars and we see areas where we can’t do anything about the root cause of the problem as in Syria or as in eastern Congo for example. There is a reluctance. There is a tendency to say “well wait, that is a man-made problem [and] you have got to solve the root core of the problem, which is a civil war or one tribe going against another tribe.” That is why I think there is a reluctance to get involved. If there is a genocide, a massacre, even a civil war going on, there is an attitude that we can’t really do anything about that. Whereas if people have lost their homes in a typhoon or if people have lost of their belongings, we can donate money so they can buy new clothing or build a new house.
You have lived and reported in some dangerous places – Rwanda, Somalia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and many others. What sticks out the most?
Well that is a big question. I would have to really give it some thought. Off the top of my head, one thing I think that has changed for the worst is the fact that journalists have become targets in a lot of these places. It has gone from an area where journalists might be randomly killed to a point where journalists now are being victimized and targeted in places like Syria [and] in places like Afghanistan where there was a Swedish journalist that was just killed recently. That kind of started all a while back, but it reached a low point when Wall Street Journalist Daniel Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded. The idea that journalists are being killed for doing nothing but their job I think really changed the equation for the worst.
Journalists have always been – local journalists reporting in their own countries in the Philippines, in Mexico, in Pakistan – subject to attack. But when foreign correspondents were largely seen a generation or so ago as neutral [and now] have suddenly become targets, it makes it much more dangerous and difficult for reporters to do their job in the field. But also I think the public at large, the global public, is worse off when journalists can’t go out and get the story for fear of their own lives. It turns a lot of people off to wanting to do the job, and obviously people are less informed. It is hard for us to get inside and really report on what is happening in Syria because of the dangers like [in] some of these other conflicts. It is hard for us to actually know what is going on when journalists have to fear for their own lives because they might become targets. So that has been a huge change since I started out.