Guess Who's Coming to Breakfast?

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Joseph Kabila takes the oath of office to succeed his slain father as president

He may be a uniter, not a divider, but the Congo's civil war may be beyond even President Bush's healing powers. That's why although Congo's President Joseph Kabila will be among the guest at a prayer breakfast to be held by President Bush on Thursday, the U.S. president has no plans to hold a meeting with his Congolese counterpart. Administration sources tell TIME that Kabila was invited to the Washington event by a private organization, and that the State Department planned to use the occasion of his visit as an opportunity to discuss prospects for ending Congo's civil war. After all, the 31-year-old neophyte president presides over a country literally divided in half by a conflict that has drawn in troops from five neighboring states, earning the title "Africa's First World War."

Or does he?

"Presides" may be putting it a little strongly, since nobody really believes Kabila is running his own show. That much was clear at his father's funeral, when Congolese troops were kept far away and Kabila was guarded by the Angolan and Zimbabwean forces that had fought for his father against the rebel forces backed by Rwanda and Uganda. Indeed, there was more than a little irony in the spectacle of young Kabila at his father's funeral, flanked by the men whose soldiers occupied the capital — Angola's President Eduardo Dos Santos and Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe — while speaker after speaker praised the slain president's battle to rid Congo of "foreign" forces. The real question, in the Congo, is what the powers behind President Joseph Kabila want. And his surprise visit finds Washington's jury still out on how to deal with the new regime, save for reiterate its general commitment to the Lusaka peace plan that has been violated by all sides over the past 18 months.

A peace or a piece?

Washington has been working hard since last year to broker a consensus between Angola, Rwanda and Uganda on the need to end the war. Those three regional powers had sent in their forces in 1997 to overthrow dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, hoping to stop their domestic enemies from using Congo as a sanctuary from which to mount cross-border raids. But they'd parted ways a year later when Rwanda and Uganda sought to overthrow Laurent Kabila, the man they'd installed in Kinshasa, while Angola — left out of the loop and suspecting a plot favoring the Angolan rebel movement Unita — rallied to Kabila's defense alongside Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Tortuous diplomatic efforts eventually brokered the Lusaka accord, which requires the withdrawal of foreign forces, the deployment of U.N. peacekeepers and national elections to be held throughout Congo. While all sides have broken the agreement, the late President Kabila was generally viewed even by his own allies as the most recalcitrant party. His assassination was quietly acknowledged as brightening the prospects for peace. But even the brighter prospects are relative: The governments and military officers of the countries that intervened have done well economically out of their invasion of the resource-rich Congo, and being forced to leave would mean surrendering a few golden geese — something a number of the military men on any number of sides may be eager to find pretexts to avoid.

Zimbabwe the wild card

U.S. efforts appear to have helped forge the beginnings of a common understanding among the Angolans, Ugandans and Rwandans, all of whom were propelled into the conflict originally by their own immediate defensive concerns — and all of whom have sufficient respect for one another's military capability to diminish their appetite for escalating their conflict. The wild card remains Zimbabwe, which has no immediate interest in Congo outside of the agricultural and mining concessions awarded to companies close to President Mugabe as a means of paying for his army's presence. Mugabe is not only beyond the reach of U.S. influence, as an increasingly isolated and authoritarian statesman he's facing a growing domestic challenge to his 21-year presidency. It remains to be seen whether the calls by his opposition to bring the troops home prevail over the lucrative business of remaining engaged in what has been termed "Africa's First World War." And also whether the young Kabila is taking his cue from Mugabe or from the Angolans.

President Bush had planned to make Canada and Mexico his first forays into foreign policy, but now finds himself having to dance around the protocols of dealing with a head of state on whom the U.S. doesn't yet have a clear policy. If Kabila manages to get close enough at the breakfast, expect a cursory handshake, but no huddling.