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Blue Crush

In the world today, there are three models for how to save a countryon the brink. The first is Iraq, where the United States--largelyalone--is trying to prevent a dictatorship from sliding into chaos.The second is Afghanistan, where the United States is doing muchthe same thing with nato support.

The third is almost invisible to Americans. It is the Congo, wherethe largest U.N. peacekeeping operation in the world is strugglingto rescue one of the most wretched countries on earth. And it isdoing so with virtually no high- level involvement by the UnitedStates.

The Congo makes Iraq and Afghanistan look prosperous. Seventy-fivepercent of the population is malnourished; 20 percent of childrendie before age five. In the 1950s, life expectancy was 55; today,it is 51.

During the cold war, when the West propped up anti-communistmegalomaniac Mobutu Sese Seko--for whom the term "kleptocrat" wascoined--many assumed that conditions in the Congo could notpossibly get worse. They were wrong. In 1996, Rwanda andUganda--angry at Mobutu for sheltering the Hutu militias thatcarried out the Rwandan genocide--helped replace him with rebelleader Laurent Kabila. But, as The Economist's Kinshasacorrespondent has noted, Kabila proved "equally brutal and corrupt,but less intelligent." While drunk, he sometimes ordered peopleexecuted, only to forget he had done so after sobering up.

In 1998, Kabila fell out with his Ugandan and Rwandan patrons, whosponsored a rebellion that nearly removed him from power. ButKabila turned to Angola and Zimbabwe, which saved his government inreturn for carte blanche to plunder its wealth. Soon, the Congo wasa vast carcass, picked at by nine of its neighbors and countlesslocal militias. In the civil war that raged until 2003, almost fourmillion Congolese died--the largest death toll since World War II.

Finally, after Laurent Kabila was assassinated and his son JosephKabila assumed power, most of the parties reached a peace deal,which the United Nations was brought in to enforce. At first, itdid nothing of the sort. Peacekeepers watched as violence continuedto ravage eastern portions of the country. One Congolese observerwondered if the blue helmets were "here to do anything apart fromcount the bodies."

But, a couple of years ago, the peacekeeping mission began stirringto life. It gained a savvy new head, replaced a hapless contingentof Uruguayans with more numerous--and more experienced--Indians,Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis, and moved aggressively into theCongo's lawless east. The European Union sent 2,000 of its ownsoldiers to help secure Kinshasa.

In 2006, in perhaps the greatest logistical accomplishment inelectoral history, the Congo held its first free election in 40years. In a country as big as western Europe, with only 500kilometers of paved roads, the U.N. spearheaded an effort thatregistered 25 million people and established 50,000 polling places.The election was moderately fair, and turnout topped 80 percent.This week, after a second-round runoff, the Congolese Supreme Courtcertified Kabila as the winner.

Only a fool would be sanguine about the Congo's future. Kabila,while better than his father, is hardly a democrat. His main rival,Jean-Pierre Bemba--who wields his own private security force--couldstill violently contest the result. The election revealed a countrysplit along tribal and linguistic lines. And the Congolese stateisn't merely corrupt and brutal; as a provider of basic services,it barely exists.

But, nonetheless, the Congo hasn't been this hopeful since the1960s. And the credit goes to an intriguing coalition of Europeanmoney, African diplomacy, South Asian muscle, and U.N. expertise.Although U.N. formulas require the United States and Japan to foota significant share of any peacekeeping bill, it was mostly theEuropeans who financed the elections. South Africa and Angolapressured Kabila and Bemba to respect the results. South Asiantroops kept the peace.

As the United States grows allergic to nation-building in the wakeof Iraq, some combination of these forces might be the world's besthope for nursing broken nations back to health. While Europeans aremore reluctant to wage war than Americans, they are often moreinclined to help keep the peace. In fact, the European Union isdeveloping a 60,000-person rapid-reaction force largely for thatpurpose. South Asia has become the world's largest source ofpeacekeepers, and the numbers could grow as India flexes itsinternational muscle.

Then there's the United Nations itself--which, while often mocked inthe United States (sometimes deservedly), has become the foremostrepository of peacekeeping expertise in the world. As rand's JamesDobbins has pointed out, both the United States and the UnitedNations did a lot of postwar stabilization in the '90s. But, whilethe Bush administration essentially discarded that knowledge andstarted from scratch in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United Nationsnow has a cadre of officials with extensive nation-buildingexperience. Of course, Turtle Bay can't overthrow governments. But,when it comes to ushering post-conflict societies toward democracyand peace, as Dobbins notes, the United Nations actually has abetter record than the United States.

Looking at the post-Iraq world, two realities jump out. In theUnited States, nation-building will be a dirty word. And, acrossthe globe, nation-building will remain desperately necessary. AsOxford University's Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler have shown,peacekeeping is the most cost-effective way to prevent a countryfrom sliding back into chaos. Indeed, the rise of internationalpeacekeeping deserves significant credit for the decline in civiliandeaths since the end of the cold war.

If the United States no longer has much appetite for such endeavors,we should at least support those who do. Largely as a result of theCongo, U.N. peacekeeping costs have shot up, and it is easy toimagine the United States trying to rein them in. We should doexactly the reverse. To consolidate its fledgling democracy, theCongo actually needs more blue helmets--and we should help pay forthem. The United States goes through missionary phases andantimissionary phases, but, in the end, this isn't really about us.The important thing isn't who saves countries like the Congo; it isthat they get saved.

By Peter Beinart