Washington unrolls red carpet for Ben Affleck's Congo activism

Actor and director Ben Affleck on Wednesday urged Washington to keep an eye on eastern Congo as the region emerges from years of civil strife, and he was roundly applauded for his efforts.

The A-list celebrity received royal treatment as he arrived to testify about the work his nonprofit, the Eastern Congo Initiative, has been conducting in the region over the past four years. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted him alongside the State Department's special envoy to the Great Lakes region, and the Senate Foreign Relations panel gave him a bipartisan welcome, despite his deep blue political leanings.

“We welcome a home-town hero,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told the Boston-born Affleck in a packed hearing room. “We admire your acting, but we admire your activism even more.”

“I think your credibility is really remarkable because of the depth of your commitment,” added Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), whose wife Cindy is a founding member of Affleck's group.

The Hollywood star is close to Democrats and campaigned for Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) successful run against former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R).

Affleck also attracted interest as a possible replacement for Kerry when the longtime senator got the nod to become secretary of State at the end of 2012. He said at the time he wasn't interested, paving the way for longtime-House member Markey to win the seat.

Affleck urged lawmakers to stay focused on Congo after a brutal rebel faction, the M23, surrendered late last year. He lobbied Congress on five priorities: 

  • Supporting Kerry's special envoy to the region, former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.);
  • Extending the first-ever U.N. brigade tasked with taking the offensive to armed groups threatening the region past its March 31 expiration, while considering a sunset clause for a U.N. mission that was first authorized in 1999;
  • Urging President Obama to “directly engage” with Congolese President Joseph Kabila on promised security sector reforms; 
  • Demanding that the U.S. “robustly participate” in ensuring “free, fair and timely local and national elections that respect the Congolese constitution, including strict observance of term limits”; and
  • Scaling up economic development initiatives from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in the eastern Congo.

The visit from Affleck, on the same day that fellow actor Seth Rogen testified before Senate appropriators about his family's struggle with Alzheimer's disease, elicited social media sniping about celebrities' qualifications. And CNN's Jake Tapper ran a segment on whether “celebs outshine or shine light on their causes” on his show, "The Lead."

Affleck faced no such skepticism from his Capitol Hill fans.

“We are pleased to welcome Ben Affleck — who many of us here in Washington remember as Tony Mendez in 'Argo,'” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said in his opening statement. “But today, Mr. Affleck is here in his real-life role for which he will be long-remembered, as an activist committed to helping end the violence in Africa.”

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