Monday, September 18, 2023

Q&A with Stephen R. Weissman



Stephen R. Weissman is the author of the new memoir From the Congo to Capitol Hill: A Coming-of-Age Memoir. His other books include A Culture of Deference. He is a political scientist and public policy analyst and advocate.


Q: What inspired you to write this memoir?


A: Sometimes very important things happen in your life, but because they are somewhat traumatic or recalling them is not helpful for your ongoing activities, you largely shunt their memory aside. That is what I did with my 15 months’ sojourn as a university professor in the Congo.


Why then did I decide to write about it for a broad audience four decades later? Because in perspective and the luxury of retirement, I realized how unusual and interesting my experience was and that it cast light on such contemporary issues as racial conflict and the paranoia of certain authoritarian regimes.


I thought my personal drama also crystallized a widespread challenge: how to calculate whether to take a professional risk in a new, somewhat opaque, environment.


Finally, my dear wife Nancy had passed away a year earlier and writing about the experiences we shared in Africa was a way of kind of bringing her to life again.


After completing my draft, I decided to add an account of my subsequent 12 years as a key staffer for a congressional subcommittee overseeing U.S. policy towards Zaire (President Mobutu Sese Seko had renamed the country).


I had written a previous book on the decline of Congress in foreign policy and realized that Zaire provided a great long-term example of the anti-democratic dysfunctions of not only Congress but the State Department and some of the pundit press. I had seen things from the inside that were never publicly reported.


And there were unexpected continuities with my earlier experience. For example, I had been publicly fired from the university in Kisangani on spurious charges that the Congo government later dropped. But when I hit Congress, they were revived by President Mobutu and given credence by some State Department officials who resisted our subcommittee’s emphasis on human rights.


Q: You write, “Although I use the memoir form, that does not mean that my book is based mainly upon my recollections.” How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised or intrigued you?


A: In researching my book, I had access to a variety of resources, not just conventional historians’ favorites like official archives, congressional hearings, and newspaper reports.


Regarding my university experience, I relied not simply on my memory but on extensive corroboration from official university documents such as notes of faculty meetings and communications of the rector, various student newspapers, the local newspaper, dozens of letters Nancy and I wrote to our parents, Nancy’s journal, two Ph.D. dissertations and a book written by three colleagues, and interviews and feedback from former faculty members and students.

In the congressional section, I used more conventional documentation, but also drew from my extensive personal files, including internal subcommittee memoranda, briefing materials, notes from meetings, and correspondence. In addition, I benefited from interviews I had conducted with congresspersons and staff.


I turned up three big surprises in my research.


First, I discovered from a State Department cable in the National Archives that highly exaggerated reports of my actions during a Congolese student and staff movement to replace the white missionary American rector convinced Congo’s Minister of the Interior that I was “an anti-American American.”


Another cable reported that, after a subsequent student boycott, President Mobutu told the American ambassador, falsely, that I had been teaching the students “Maoism and other subversive documents.”


And I unearthed a doctoral thesis by one of my former colleagues, an anthropologist, which analyzed the racial conflict at the university.


Q: What impact did it have on you to write this book?


A: Composing this book has helped me to better understand myself, sometimes belatedly. A major thread of the story is the choices I made in challenging foreign or non-academic environments. How much of the outcome, I often ask, was determined by the external situation and how much by my own actions? 


For example, in taking the risk of sharing damaging information imparted to me by the American missionary rector with a student active in the movement to replace him, I failed to adequately recognize the emotional pull (sympathy for the movement) that influenced my poor calculation of the costs and benefits of my action.


In Congress, I learned that detached, academic-style counter-argument was not the most effective way to deal with the concerns of the opposite political party. It was often better to be forthcoming and seek areas of compromise.


Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misconceptions about the Democratic Republic of the Congo?


A: Most Americans who think about foreign affairs lump the Congo in with the nearly four dozen other countries of sub-Saharan Africa.


And because news coverage of the region is sparse, except for sensational events like violent conflicts and humanitarian disasters, most people tend to see these countries as grim places, sad objects of Western public and private charity. They remain unaware of the enormous variety of these countries’ experiences.


Still, there is certainly reason to perceive the modern-day Congo in the context of King Leopold’s Ghost, Adam Hochschild’s popular history of colonial exploitation and violence. Revenues from its ample critical minerals (including cobalt used for electric car batteries) have benefited a narrow elite, not the poor majority. Armed groups control a significant part of the East. There has been only one truly free election since 1960. 


What this picture omits is the long-term role of the United States in sustaining this dehumanizing system -- from the CIA’s secret complicity in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the Congo’s first democratically elected leader, and creation and sustenance of Mobutu’s disastrous reign to the State Department’s embrace of a fraudulent election in 2018. Further, it disregards the long struggle of the Congolese people to change the system.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: Writing this book has revived my interest in improving Congo’s future. Thus, I helped put together a coalition of nongovernmental organizations and individual experts that has lobbied administrations and congress for greater U.S. support of democracy, human rights, anti-corruption measures, and an end to internal violence in the Congo.


Otherwise, I continue to research and write articles on America’s foreign policy and the workings of its democratic process. Recent pieces have examined Special Counsel Jack Smith’s performance in the John Edwards campaign finance case, U.S. policy towards Ukraine, and congressional intelligence committees’ weak oversight of CIA covert action.


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: I hope readers will enjoy the feeling of inhabiting two fascinating worlds, one that of an American professor in a fabled African city hosting few other “Europeans,” i.e., Whites, the other the American Congress in Washington, D.C., often criticized but rarely understood. I believe this is the first book to convey what it is like to be a long-term congressional staffer battling over a major foreign policy issue.


For more information, please check out my author’s website.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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