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Should the US intervene in Congo?

By Taylor Marvin

Wired’s David Axe proposes that the long-running conflict in the north of the Congo calls for a US intervention, one that could be done quickly, successfully, and cheaply:

So why not get involved where it can really help? That’s what advocates of U.S. action in Congo are asking. After all, this is a mineral-rich country that takes millions and millions in foreign donations, mostly from America. So find the LRA, and kill or capture the chiefs before they make an already desperate country even worse.

But do it the Africom way. No massive troop deployment. No occupation. No drawn-out conflict. No headline news in the U.S. Just a few spooks, a few commandos, some airplanes and choppers and the permission of Congolese president Joseph Kabila. By American military standards, it wouldn’t take much. But it would make life a lot safer for millions of people in Central Africa — and might help reduce the cost to the world of keeping Congo on life support. Plus, it could show the way forward for a smarter, less expensive American way of war.”

Axe does have a point: if there’s one unresolved conflict on Earth where an American military intervention could do good, it’s in Central Africa. There soldiers from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) have spent the last two decades terrorizing civilian populations and combating already unstable governments. Also, on the surface this kind of intervention does seem fairly simple. The LRA isn’t motivated by ideological beliefs; because it’s basically a criminal gang who operates to increase its own power without credibly represent anyone it doesn’t enjoy any meaningful support among the local population. Axe claims that an American led intervention against the LRA could be fought with a small commitment of Special Forces soldiers over a short timeframe. The problem with these arguments is that we’ve heard them before — they’re at their core the same we heard in the lead up to the war in Iraq. Certainly this is a different situation; an intervention against a small violent organization with the approval of the local government is obviously much simpler than an full-scale invasion and installation of a democratic government where one has never existed before, so the claim that an American war in north Congo would be simpler is much more credible. But Axe seems to discount all we’ve learned about small wars in the last decade. Any counterinsurgency effort is bound to be both more complex and more costly than planned. And counterinsurgency is the correct term for a US intervention in Congo — despite its lack of local support and militarily experienced leadership the LRA is an entrenched fighting force with deep knowledge of their environment, probably making any attempt to kill the LRA’s leadership a much bloodier and more costly effort than Axe’s best-case-scenario proposal.

This case points to one of the deepest questions facing American foreign policy — when is the US morally obligated to intervene in foreign conflicts? It’s true that with enough time and effort the United States could probably destroy the LRA in Central Africa, just as the US has the capability to force an end to most conflicts around the world. What the United States does not have is any real ability to end the underlying causes of these civil wars and episodes of ethnic violence, a failing that casts deep doubts on our ability to really resolve any of the world’s violent confrontations. However, this doesn’t change one of the core facts of American strength — if the US wants to end a genocide or destroy a sadistic rebel group like the LRA we probably can, though at great cost to ourselves. Deciding whether these costs are worth the gains of military humanitarian interventions is our great dilemma. This calculus varies from conflict to conflict, but the apparent low cost of an intervention in the Congo is what makes it an interesting test case: if a humanitarian mission to destroy the LRA isn’t worth its cost in Central Africa any other foreign intervention probably isn’t either.

This gets to the fundamental contradiction in the message of Americans who call for America to prevent murder and atrocities around the world. Most American advocates of US peacekeeping efforts don’t hesitate to call for American efforts to solve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts yet angrily denounce our occupation of Afghanistan. This doesn’t make sense — they’re one and the same.

What many American liberal activists fail to understand is just what calling for America to “do something” about bloody and complex conflicts in foreign countries actually entails. Calling for an American intervention to end genocide in Darfur is popular, but few activists have the courage to say what they are actually advocating: an American military action to kill or capture the President of Sudan, and a long peacekeeping occupation of a rugged and violent area the size of France that would require thousands of US troops and would guarantee American deaths. When Invisible Children calls for a effort to “remove (LRA leader) Joseph Kony from the battlefield” they either don’t chose to say or realize what they actually mean. Removing the leader of a vicious rebel army boils down to one thing — sending American Special Operations Forces soldiers to hunt him down and kill him, and lots of regular Army troops to pacify the rest of his forces. Activists don’t like to say this truth out loud for good reason. Americans like to believe that the US can pursue humanitarian missions to end conflict while avoiding foreign wars and counterinsurgency stalemates. This is a dream — all too often the two are one and the same, and a decade of war in Afghanistan should have taught us otherwise. In a perfect world the US would be able to cleanly and cheaply remove the leaders of the LRA, rehabilitate their abused and damaged child soldiers and usher in a new era of stability in Central Africa. This is the fantasy world that President Bush and his advisors chose to inhabit when planning the invasion of Iraq, and the same where President Clinton dreamed of intervention in Somalia’s civil war. As much as Americans would like to save the suffering peoples of the world and punish their oppressors these types of interventions have real costs, ones that are almost always much, much greater than planned. Like everything else, here there are no easy answers.

Note: Axe’s blog, Danger Room, is excellent. If you’re interested in the American military or foreign policy check it out.

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