Hillary's Gutsy Mission

Hillary Clinton met with South African President Jacob Zuma in Durban on Saturday, where the two discussed strengthening ties between the two nations and HIV-prevention efforts — an issue that's caused friction between the US and South Africa in the past. It was one more closely watched meeting on the Secretary's 11-day trip around the continent, during which she's courted controversy by meeting a Somali leader Bush deposed and taking on rape in Congo.

There’s a cynical kind of math that comes along with reporting on Africa. Forget positive, or complex coverage; the bottom line is death tolls have to be high for anyone to care at all, or for any news outfit to foot the bill on a given story.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s 11-day trip to Africa is a promising indication that may be changing. First, it’s the longest venture she’s taken out of the country thus far. Second, it comes on the heels of her boss’ trip to Ghana three weeks ago. Such heavy hitters so early on in Africa? It’s unheard of.

And then there’s the nature of the business at hand. In Kenya, Clinton has called out the wobbly-at-best coalition government over the deaths of 1,000 people during last year’s election. She is also risking the conservative political fallout at home to meet with the soft-spoken, smoky-eyed president of Somalia, Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed. (The Bush administration helped to oust him three years ago in the name of anti-terror.)

View Our Gallery of Hillary's Trip

Clinton also is not shying away from addressing the horrors unfolding in Zimbabwe. And she’s taking up an age-old unpopular issue of rape as a crime of war in eastern Congo. Nigeria is yet to come—a country the State Department has called “probably the most important in Africa.” (Read: It’s our fifth-largest oil supplier.) And to round out the itinerary, she’s stopping in Angola, Liberia, and Cape Verde.

This is an aggressive agenda for the secretary of State, who could use such a trip to bolster approval ratings, but in a way it’s uncontroversial foreign policy that pays lip service to Africa’s woes without having to do much but promise American money for intractable far-away problems—malaria, AIDS, global poverty. This on a continent where most people nearly deify the Clintons, and almost all American presidents. (Even George W. Bush was popular here.) But she’s taking on controversial issues and desperate problems without easy solutions.

Two examples: Somalia and Congo.

In Somalia three years ago, under Bush, the U.S. backed an invasion by neighboring Ethiopia, which ousted a popular Islamist government headed by the man Clinton met this week. America was then looking—and in the right place, it turned out—for three suspected al Qaeda members, but the fallout of that invasion was that it created a popular militant insurgency, the very enemy America was seeking to defeat. As Somalis put it: In the hopes of getting three bad guys, you supported the attack of 7 million people? Bad math.

It’s true that the U.S. initiated low-level talks before Barack Obama took office. But people who have urged such a high-level meeting in the past have been scoffed at as idealists, or simply idiots. Clinton’s choice to meet Sheikh Sharif not only will lend him the tremendous legitimacy he needs to try to bring peace to his country, it’s also a very smart move of trying to separate friends from foes, and not letting the foes borrow the too-easy banner of religion to mask an increasingly brutal insurgency. Now, thanks to this meeting, it’s indisputable that the U.S. is willing to work with those who want an Islamic state in Somalia. That will be hard for the militant thugs to spin on the sandy streets of Mogadishu. It is a major step forward.

While rape as a crime of war is hardly a new issue, for Clinton to stop in eastern Congo to address this seemingly intractable problem—from which millions of Congolese women suffer—is an important move toward establishing accountability for the perpetrators. One might think, oh, really, what does it matter that Hillary speaks out against rape? But if ragtag militias fear they might be thrown in jail—or even brought before the International Criminal Court—they will think twice about perpetrating these crimes. Such measures may sound theoretical here in the United States—and in truth, they are mostly bureaucratic nightmares—but sometimes the threat functions as a deterrent. People do think about consequences.

Several years ago, I met three rape victims—euphemistically called bush wives—in a priest’s home not far from the eastern Congolese town of Bunia. They had been held captive for months, and escaped their enemy’s camp by sneaking away in the middle of the night. There was no electricity, so we sat around a wooden table in lantern light, as one woman spoke of overhearing her captors’ instructions on how to handle the United Nations peacekeepers—the blue helmets—patrolling near their camps.

“Just don’t point your guns at them,” one of her captors had said. Meaning: The U.N. peacekeepers in the area—mostly Bangladeshis at the time—would not intervene if Africans were only killing, or raping, each other. They would react only if they themselves were physically threatened.

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That was the U.N. mandate, and everyone knew it. The woman’s heart sank as she realized that no one would care; that her life was limitlessly inconsequential to the rest of the world.

It is idealistic to think that Clinton’s visit might turn America’s eye more sharply on Africa. But it is also possible. Six months ago, it was utter lunacy to think that someone as high-ranking as Hillary would meet with the likes of the Somali President Sheikh Sharif. And yet today, it’s yesterday’s news.

Eliza Griswold is a New America fellow and a recipient of the 2010 Rome Prize. Her book, The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Islam and Christianity, will by published by FSG this spring.