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A Congo lesson for Bush

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DEAR MR. PRESIDENT:

Your interview in the Washington Post made headlines across the country Wednesday because you continued to talk about "victory" in Iraq — a hint that you may increase the number of American troops there.

But it caught my eye for a different reason. In it (after expressing some "befuddlement" at the suggestion that you do not read books), you explained that the most recent book you read was "King Leopold's Ghost," about the plundering of Congo a century ago. This pleased me because I wrote that book.

Sometimes college history classes that read "King Leopold's Ghost" invite me in for a seminar. Before you ask Karl to call me, however, let me just say that I regret that I'm not going to be able to do that in this case. The Christmas season is a busy time, after all, and I'm going away for a while. Instead, let me just raise a few follow-up questions with you here.

First, as you now know, the long effort by King Leopold II of Belgium to bring Congo under his control was driven by his avid quest for a commodity central to industry and transportation: rubber. Does that remind you of anything?

What's more, the king justified his grab for Congo's natural resources with much talk about bringing philanthropy and Christianity to darkest Africa. Now what did that remind you of?

Leopold cleared at least $1.1 billion in today's dollars during the 23 years he controlled Congo, and his businessmen friends made additional huge sums. Much of the money flowed into companies with special royal concession rights to exploit the rain forest. Final question, for extra credit: Do those companies remind you of anything? If you mentioned Halliburton or DynCorp, you're right again.

As a reader of history, you must have been interested, I'm sure, in something else in the Congo story: the case of another world leader facing his own Abu Ghraib scandal.

As you noticed, Mr. President, King Leopold II was a master of public relations. He was really his own Karl Rove — which saved money on staff salaries at the royal palace in Brussels. For years the press at home and abroad dutifully praised his efforts to bring "civilization" to Africa; a whole shipload of Belgian journalists went to Congo in 1898 to enthuse about the opening of a new railroad.

But, like you, he got into big trouble through photographs. These were mainly taken by a British missionary named Alice Harris, and they showed Congolese being whipped, chained as hostages and with their hands cut off by Leopold's soldiers. Through the efforts of a British journalist named Edmund Dene Morel, whom the king liked about as much as you like Seymour Hersh, these photos were splashed on front pages all over the world.

ARE THERE OTHER similarities between your situation and Leopold's? That's for you to decide. I hope you don't end up like him. Statues of Leopold in Congo have long been toppled, one in Belgium was recently mutilated, and streets named after him there are having their names changed. And all this despite the fact that his family remains in the monarchy — something that may well be the case for your family here as well.

If you send those additional troops to Iraq and don't swiftly withdraw the ones now there, I suspect that even the efforts of the twins, when their turns in the Oval Office come, or of Jeb's kids, when they get there, will not be enough to stave off a similar judgment on you 100 years from now. It's true that you've not slashed the population of Iraq in half, as Leopold and those who immediately followed him did in Congo, but that's small comfort.

For your next assignment, Mr. President, how about a different sort of reading? Ask Laura to stuff your Christmas stocking with books about people who've had the courage to change their minds. One former tenant of the house you live in, Lyndon B. Johnson, entered politics as a traditional segregationist but ended up doing more for civil rights than any American president of his century. Another, Dwight D. Eisenhower, spent half his life in the U.S. military but gave us (a little late) an eloquent warning about the military-industrial complex.

Another ex-military man, Maj. Gen. Smedley Butler of the U.S. Marine Corps, won the Medal of Honor twice, but then ended up denouncing the oil companies and agribusiness corporations he realized that he had been fighting for in U.S. interventions in Central America.

History is filled with such people, and I wish you many inspiring hours reading about them. And, in the coming two years, I hope you'll act on their example.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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