The Fox News boys and other imitators of "fair and unbiased" media have had a field day with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s minor rhetorical misstep in the Congo earlier this week. I’m speaking of her angry response to a misinterpreted question from a student while visiting that war-torn land — more on that part of her trip below.
But the unfortunate part of this headline-grabbing minute is that it obscured the vastly more important work she is doing to help the Congo and particularly Congolese women. I’ve covered women in international politics for some 20 years now, and I’ve never heard of atrocities as mendacious, perverted and quite frankly insane as those committed against the women of the Congo.
Former rebels who are now being "integrated" into society are using rape as a weapon of war on a scale never witnessed throughout the history of humanity. In 2007, the United Nations reported 27,000 sexual assaults in one province alone. Experts say that number was a fraction of the total committed nationwide. Also in that year, the New York Times recounted the words of a Congolese doctor whose tiny hospital was overrun by rape victims trying to regain control of their physical functions:
"Many have been so sadistically attacked from the inside out, butchered by bayonets and assaulted with chunks of wood, that their reproductive and digestive systems are beyond repair," the New York Times reported (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/07/world/africa/07congo.html)
The important part of the story is first, that just by visiting Congo, Clinton helped to shine a broad-spectrum light on the atrocities there. She also announced a new package of $17 million in U.S aid aimed at helping doctors and government officials respond to the rape epidemic with medical care and increased security.
Her visit also gave international media attention to rape victims when she walked cameras through crowded refugee camps on the outskirts of Goma where 18,000 men, women and children have sought shelter from revenge attacks.
"Under the shadow of an active volcano, Clinton toured the Magunga Camp, a dust-choked warren of tents and tin-lined huts, listening as officials and residents of the camp described the horrors of gang rapes and a litany of deaths from malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis and diarrhea," the Associated Press reported. (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090811/ap_on_go_ca_st_pe/af_clinton_Africa)
This slice of her Congolese trip was incalculably more important than the dustup I mentioned above, although the dustup unfortunately received much, much more media attention. It occurred when a male student asked Clinton a question about Chinese financial contracts with Congo. The student asked Clinton what President Obama thought of the deal, "but…the translator made a mistake, posing the question as what former President Bill Clinton would have thought.
Clinton looked surprised when she first heard the translation in the headset, and then sharply replied, "You want me to tell you what my husband thinks? My husband is not the secretary of state, I am. You ask my opinion. I will tell you my opinion; I’m not going to channel my husband." (http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/08/10/clinton.translation/)
Of course Secretary Clinton should have handled her response with a bit more aplomb. Displaying anger is the antithesis of "diplomacy." On the other hand, consider what’s going on in that country where that question was asked. Secretary Clinton has made ending violence against women in developing nations a centerpiece of her tenure as secretary of state.
Therefore, since she was made to believe that a man asked her a question about her husband’s opinions on an important topic, perhaps Clinton can be forgiven for a bit of an overreaction. Alternatively, her handlers on these trips ought to allow her to get a bit more shuteye and exert more control over the camera angles from which she is videotaped (the angle in the Congolese location was particularly unflattering.)
The Congo possesses one of the richest treasure troves of fuel, jewels and minerals remaining on the globe. The sooner its government can end its internal strife, the sooner it can harvest its resources and begin to end the nation’s terrible poverty. This is one country that exemplifies Secretary Clinton’s famed statement made while she was first lady Hillary Clinton, where women’s rights truly are human rights.
(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)