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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Willem van de Velde the Younger, Ships on a Stormy Sea, 1672.

Willem van de Velde the Younger, 'Ships on a Stormy Sea', 1672.

What I read this week:

This week’s Economist cover is pretty great.

The road to hell is paved with viral videos: “Kony 2012 exemplifies is not new thinking but a new delivery system for the humanitarian wing of the old imperial enterprise, in all its stunning condescension toward the Global South, its sense of entitlement, and not just its contempt for both historical and moral complexity and ambiguity, but its actual reveling in that ignorance.”

Al Qaeda in Iraq’s staying power.

Why is President Obama keeping a journalist in prison in Yemen? Glenn Greenwald is furious. Kevin Drum dissents. Adam Serwer wonders if we’re asking the right questions.

Advising local forces: Build a house and burn it down.

Ever wonder what all the buttons in a 737 cockpit do? Now you know.

Where Myanmar keeps trampling rights.

Photos of absurdly tiny homes.

Peter Beinart’s new Zion Square blog is worth adding to your reading list.

Community’s back. You should be happy about this (trailer via Slate’s Browbeat).

A journey to al Qaeda’s Islamic emirate in southern Yemen.

Heartbreaking photos from Israel and Gaza. Plus: Israel’s revolutionary Iron Dome missile defense system in action.

I really enjoyed John Carter. Vulture on how the film was doomed by atrocious marketing and big egos.

Ben Howard – Soldiers.

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Kony 2012 and Escalation

By Taylor Marvin

Ugandan military operations. Photo by Voice of America.

Ugandan military operations. Photo by Voice of America.

At The Atlantic, Robert Wright cautiously endorses Invisible Children’s ‘Kony 2012’ campaign:

“Invisible Children has accomplished what may be the most potent demonstration to date of the ability of new technologies to stir citizen activism. If it has done so irresponsibly, and/or in an ultimately ineffectual way, it still will have been part of a dialectic that yields something worthwhile, and maybe very worthwhile, down the road. Maybe some day the Internet will catch a Joseph Kony.”

The internet will never catch Joseph Kony; the Ugandan military will, or a US special operations forces team or Hellfire missile. The Kony 2o12 campaign’s ultimate goal is to destroy the Lord’s Resistance Army, and something as nebulous as ‘activism’ doesn’t win wars — soldiers do. Invisible Children understands that, even if the majority of their college-age supporters seem not to. From Invisible Children’s March 7th letter to President Obama:

“We encourage you to sustain the deployment of U.S. advisors until the LRA no longer poses a serious threat to civilians… Premature withdrawal of the advisors would jeopardize these gains and likely trigger drawdowns in the efforts of other governments as well. The duration of their deployment should instead be determined by progress made in securing the apprehension of Joseph Kony and other senior commanders and the demobilization of LRA fighters and abductees.”

This an explicit call for an indefinite deployment of US combat troops to a foreign war zone. Adopting a withdrawal strategy conditional on Kony’s capture or death removes the Obama and later American administrations’ control over US involvement in the conflict: because a strict advisory mission relies on the Ugandan People’s Defense Force to actually kill* Kony, the US has no ability to directly influence the mission’s success and consequent withdrawal timeline. This open-ended commitment without the force level necessary for a reasonable likelihood of success is a path to an indefinite US combat presence in Central Africa. If the Ugandan military is unable to quickly end the conflict — past experience suggests that the UPDF does not have the operational capability to do so — then the temptation to escalate the war will threaten to push the US into the conflict at a level it never originally intended. As Michael Wilkerson recently alluded to in Foreign Policy, when the UPDF fails to neutralize the LRA, Invisible Children’s advocacy for only ‘advisory’ missions will be replaced by impassioned calls for the drone strikes and bombing campaigns necessary to “end the war”. Invisible Children — and by extension the activists they’ve mobilized — have simplified the public narrative of Central African conflicts down to Kony the individual, and capturing or killing him is the only successful endgame this narrative leaves room for. In Invisible Children’s telling, the only reason Kony and the LRA continue to exist is Western apathy, not the real military challenges of battling irregular forces in unforgiving terrain. If the Obama administration’s current deployment to Central Africa and Uganda can’t force an end to the conflict, escalation is the only policy response with a place in Invisible Children’s distilled narrative of Kony as the exogenous devil — if military advisers weren’t able to bring Kony’s end, it must be because Americans just didn’t care enough.

Invisible Children’s founders either don’t understand this danger or don’t care. Grounding their narrative in “stopping at nothing” to “end” — read win — the military conflict with the LRA binds IC to endless escalation. Ultimately there’s no reason to suspect that US combat advisers are a magical solution able to end the multifaceted and endlessly complex, decades long conflict in Central and East Africa. The entire US military was unable to “end” the sectarian civil war in Iraq, and has failed to “end” the insurgency in Afghanistan. In the eyes of many of Invisible Children’s liberal supporters, the US military’s conduct in Iraq and Afghanistan is at best incompetent. Why should military force suddenly be more effective in Central Africa? US Special Operations Forces are enormously lethal, but moral certainty doesn’t simplify the “wicked problem” of counterinsurgency.

The LRA is a perhaps a simpler problem than other insurgencies — it appears to enjoy less indigenous support than other comparable forces, and is not supported by a powerful exogenous backer — but it’s still a ‘wicked problem’, and no war is actually simple. Given the enormous problems facing US military advisers operating with Ugandan and Central African militaries, IC’s blind faith in the efficacy of violence is irresponsible and myopic. “IC appear to perceive military force as some sort of silver bullet – pull the trigger, solve the problem, walk away like Clint Eastwood,” King’s College’s Jack McDonald remarks. “It never has been, and it never will be. If IC want to see the expansion of US military activity, then they should say so.” Invisible Children’s campaign never mentions the costs and risks of US operations against the LRA. These omissions and reliance on best case assumptions aren’t forgivable given IC’s mission to increase “awareness” — more Americans were ‘aware’ of the civil war in Somalia after the US-led Unified Task Force was ordered to southern Somalia in 1992, but that didn’t prevent the American intervention in the country from developing into an ill-conceived disaster. In addition to American lives, increasing AFRICOM’s presence in Africa comes with consequences many of IC’s supporters likely wouldn’t approve of. Any US effort to kill or capture Kony would be dependent on Camp Lemonier, a rapidly expanding US miliary base in Djibouti. Liberals often complain about the US military’s massive presence around the world. But you can’t have it both ways — if the United States draws down its foreign basing it loses the ability to conduct many military interventions, even the ‘just’ ones interventionists like Invisible Children champion.

Signing the Kony 2012 petition is directly lobbying the US government to escalate its involvement in a foreign military conflict. In a very real way Kony 2012 is nothing new: while Invisible Children’s aptitude for harnessing popular activism and new media is revolutionary, interest groups lobbying Washington policymakers is as old as the American superpower. If its advocates can create a popular demand for intervention, their lobbying stands of much greater chance of successfully shaping foreign policy. Invisible Children understands this. Arguing that current anti-LRA operations “are hamstrung by flagging political will, weak cross-border coordination, the absence of tactical airlift, and the withdrawal of more than half of the Ugandan troops initially deployed to the field,” IC’s letter to President Obama makes clear that the “hundreds of thousands” of Americans participating in the Kony 2012 campaign will “provide your Administration with a clear mandate to address these shortcomings.”

Mobilizing American voters to lobby for foreign interventions is not novel — after all, it’s a tactic that the neoconservative wing of the Republican party is deeply familiar with. But it is a dangerous one. While citizens’ voices should clearly play a role in the foreign policy process, the viability of activist campaigns like Invisible Children’s rests on their ability to create a simplified narrative of good and evil palatable to an uninformed audience. Unfortunately, the real world doesn’t follow these rules of showmanship. “Invisible Children has turned the myopic worldview of the adolescent — ‘if I don’t know about it, then it doesn’t exist, but if I care about it, then it is the most important thing in the world’ — into a foreign policy prescription,” notes Kate Cronin-Furman and Amanda Taub at The Atlantic.

Invisible Children’s aim to raise awareness among Americans isn’t harmless when it’s integrally packaged with war advocacy. Unfortunately, just because Invisible Children doesn’t offer any coherent argument why an intervention to destroy the LRA would be any easier than other, failed, US foreign adventures doesn’t mean their lobbying won’t be effective. Where will IC’s precedent lead? “Will simplistic explanations of long-running wars, delivered in a Facebook-friendly manner become the future of foreign policy?” Jack McDonald wonders. “If Angelina Jolie in combination with Condoleeza Rice are to dictate American strategy, then restraints to force will disappear into a blur of ‘Let’s go get the bad guy’ activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.” The LRA is a destabilizing force, but it’s not clear that any practical method of combating them is any better in long-term. There is strong reason to believe “advising”, or worse arming, African governments with long histories of war crimes and disastrous foreign adventures is a worse long-term policy than tolerating the waning problem of the LRA. Of course, tolerating evil is a truly awful thing to advocate. But the desperate urge to “do something” without acknowledging consequences and the refusal to consider anything less than unprecedented best case scenarios is reckless.

*In a perfect world Kony would be tried before the ICC. But few rebel commanders captured in combat by less-than-professional forces survive to the safety of international custody, IC’s emphasis on “capturing” Kony aside.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait, 1906.

Paula Modersohn-Becker, 'Self-Portrait', 1906.

What I read this week:

I’ve really enjoyed Robert Farley’s ‘Over the Horizon’ column at World Politics Review. Check out his final piece.

A majority of Americans opposed funding moon trips — during Apollo.

Earlier this week Annie Lowrey linked to a fascinating 2002 paper “The power of the pill: Oral contraceptives and women’s career and marriage decisions.”

Daniel Larison making all kinds of sense on Syria.

Dogs, diving. Wired has the story behind photographer Seth Casteel’s incredibly cute photos.

Illusions of alliances and the follies of burden sharing.

Second opinion or permission slip? Obama and military action abroad.

Why are lawyers so expensive even with the excess supply? (via Tyler Cowen).

The geology of democratization.

‘Kony 2012’, Cont.

By Taylor Marvin

Via Crispin J. Burke, Jack McDonald makes a strong argument about the pitfalls of Kony 2012’s style of mass advocacy for military intervention:

“More to the point, if this works, will it ever stop? Will simplistic explanations of long-running wars, delivered in a Facebook-friendly manner become the future of foreign policy? If the opinion of Rihanna and George Clooney is going to dislodge ‘technocrats’ who do things like read the Military Balance, then what’s to stop intervention in Syria? Pretty much everyone with a passing interest in military affairs says “that is a very bad idea and lots of people will die” but I’m pretty sure that a bright person with access to youtube can come up with a better argument for a brighter world in which taking Assad down is an expression of democratic empowerment. The point about war and military affairs is that at some point, it requires restraint. That restraint is entirely arbitrary (and unfair) but it stops people getting killed. If Angelina Jolie in combination with Condoleeza Rice are to dictate American strategy, then restraints to force will disappear into a blur of ‘Let’s go get the bad guy’ activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.”

The whole piece is worth a read.

The Invisible Children ‘Kony 2012’ Campaign is Reckless and Dangerous

By Taylor Marvin

Invisible Children’s effort to stop war criminal Joseph Kony is the cause of the day, with their ‘Kony 2012’ video –released on Monday — already at over 7 million [update 3:00p Thursday] 40 million views on YouTube.

The viral campaign, designed to raise awareness and support for further US action targeting Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, has been remarkably successful: my Facebook and Twitter feeds are dominated by students reposting the video and calling for America to bring Kony to justice. Invisible Children is explicitly calling for an increased US military presence in central Africa: according to the Invisible Children website, the goal of the ‘Kony 2012’ campaign is that the US combat advisers dispatched to Central Africa last October “support the Ugandan Army until Kony has been captured and the LRA has been completely disarmed.” Despite the organization’s peaceful aim to “inspire young people to help end the longest-running armed conflict in Africa”, it also advocates more kinetic options: Invisible Children has funded central African military forces and rebel groups and favors direct military intervention to kill or capture Kony.

“I completely agree that Kony needs to be brought to justice,” Morehouse College’s Laura Seay remarked this morning, “but nothing about this IC campaign will make that happen.” Seay’s critical view of the Kony 2012 campaign isn’t unique. “It is hard to respect any documentary on northern Uganda where a five year-old white boy features more prominently than any northern Ugandan victim or survivor,” Mark Kersten pointed out at Justice in Conflict (via Lauren Jinkins). These criticisms are all valid, and the organization’s apparent preference for generating media attention over actually helping Africans is troubling. But what’s much more dangerous is Invisible Children’s breathless advocacy for US intervention in Central Africa without offering offering any critical view of how risky this intervention could potentially be. I’m not arguing that IC’s founders and supporters’ hearts aren’t in the right place — Kony is a monster, and one that deserves to be killed. But their best-case assumptions, faith in the effectiveness of violence, and complete disregard for half a century of ill-fated US interventions in civil wars is enormously irresponsible.

Make no mistake, dispatching US combat advisers to intervene in a civil war isn’t peacekeeping; it’s an American war. The frequent pleas for the US to enter conflicts to ‘stop war’ are nonsensical: American intervention at any level can only end conflicts by winning them. Unfortunately it’s not clear if advisory missions to Central Africa or even direct SOF involvement is capable of capturing or killing Kony at an acceptable level of US involvement. It’s also important to remember that any level of US involvement in a dirty, decades-long African conflict will be distasteful. The LRA extensively use child soldiers, and combating the LRA means treating children as legitimate military targets, a reality that will be difficult to explain to US audiences watching graphic news reports of maimed kids.

As I’ve argued before, wars should not be fought for idealism or the desire to ‘do something’ in the face of atrocities. As Peter J. Munson recently noted, “war and military force is a brutal and imprecise instrument.  It is ugly, destructive, wasteful, and stupid.” Wars are always costly and always risky. The United States should only enter foreign conflicts if advocates of interventions can clearly articulate a realistic exit strategy from the conflict without relying on best case assumptions, and why the expected benefits of victory outweigh the risk and expected costs. Civilian deaths are awful, and it’s impossible to begrudge the desire to ‘do something’ to halt the slaughter of conflict. What is not forgivable is irresponsible advocacy of war without a clear-eyed assessment of its costs. The United States has no clear path to victory against the LRA, and while a stable Central Africa is certainly in the general interest of the United States, it is much harder to argue that this long-term goal merits US entanglement in a decades-long civil war. Kony is a monster, but the United States has no moral imperative to hunt down war criminals.

IC’s attempts to portray Kony as an exogenous cancer that can be cleanly removed from Central African society is misinformed at best. This morning Mark Kersten noted that “some reports suggest that the majority of Acholi people continue to support the amnesty process whereby LRA combatants – including senior officials – return to the country in exchange for amnesty and entering a process of ‘traditional justice’.” Even in the immediate-term efforts to kill or capture Kony would be difficult. The LRA is a highly experienced fighting force, and while it draws less local support than other insurgencies, its intimate familiarity with the terrain is a significant operational advantage over US SOF and allied militaries. While the lethality and coordination between US special operation forces and intelligence agencies have improved since the failed 2008 ‘Operation Lightning Thunder’ targeting Kony, operations against the LRA would be difficult and risky. Even increased advisory missions would not be casualty free — just last month four Air Force Special Operations Command-affiliated airmen died in Djibouti when their aircraft crashed, possible returning from a clandestine mission to Central Africa. Escalating US involvement in the conflict will mean more dead Americans.

Invisible Children refuses to acknowledge the risks and costs of the intervention they advocate. Indeed, IC’s founders seem to lack any understanding of the consequence of intervention.

Photo by Glenna Gordon.

Posing with weapons and looking hard doesn’t make you informed; it’s the face of a war tourist. Injecting arms into unstable regions is almost never a good policy — as journalist C.J. Chivers has spend a career ably documenting, guns don’t have half lives. “Modern military rifles can be adapted by their owners to tasks and roles their manufacturers had not foreseen,” Chivers recently wrote, noting “how long [weapons] can last after they travel from state custody.” An AK-47 has a service life measured in decades: arming the Ugandan military will have long-term consequences that are impossible to predict, but are unlikely to be positive.

As I argued when the Obama administration dispatched 100 combat advisers to Central Africa late last year, limited combat commitments create the conditions for unintended escalation by investing US credibility in a conflict’s outcome without the resources necessary to win it [slightly edited]:

“However, even advisory missions are investments in the outcome of a foreign conflict. This makes them vulnerable to an escalation dynamic: because advisory deployments publicly invest the US in a successful conflict outcome while often falling short of the force threshold needed to actually influence it, they create the potential for a frustratingly unsuccessful mission that encourages US leaders to ‘raise the stakes’ of their investment. This is exactly the dynamic that encouraged the gradual escalation of US combat commitment in Vietnam — few in the Kennedy and later Johnson administrations intended the US to fight a full scale ground war in southeast Asia. But advisory, and later limited combat, missions in South Vietnam invested US credibility in winning, a credibility problem that effectively committed the US to future escalation in the absence of immediate success. Restricting the publicity of limited deployments can reduce this future commitment problem: it appears that this is what the Obama administration is attempting to do with its limited and gradual deployment of troops to central Africa. But administration and military officials should be aware of this commitment dynamic, and be prepared to disengage and accept the reputation costs of public failure if the mission appears unable to achieve success.”

In US military history “advisory missions” tend to either be outright lies or escalate into open combat commitments. “One of the biggest issues with a simplistic ‘Stop Kony’ message is that discussions of Navy SEALs [sic] or drone strikes are inevitable when patience runs out with Ugandan-led efforts,” Michael Wilkerson argued today in Foreign Policy. This danger isn’t a problem for the Kony 2012 campaign: escalation is its specific goal.

Unless Invisible Children defines the upper end of “nothing” as napalm strikes and a full-scale ground invasion, I’m going assume that there’s some hyperbole here. Still, “stop at nothing” is not a rational approach to gauging the value of US intervention; it’s an explicit commitment tying US credibility to Kony’s death no matter the cost. If the authors of the recent Senate resolution “ruling out a strategy of containment for a nuclear-armed Iran” are, to borrow Spencer Ackerman’s description, “too stupid to make foreign policy”, then so are the architects of the Kony 2012 campaign. Letting your enemy dictate your commitment level is a strategy should be left in the dustbin of LBJ’s war room.

Invisible Children’s unquestioning belief in the United States’ ability to bring about a desired outcome through violence should be a red flag for liberals: we’ve been here before. Despite becoming frighteningly proficient at small unit unconventional jungle warfare, US special operations forces were unable to shift the balance in the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Three decades later US Rangers and Delta force personnel were unable halt atrocities in Somalia: despite enjoying complete tactical superiority over their irregular foes, US forces were ordered into a conflict they fundamentally did not understand, were unable to apprehend warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, and generally made the situation in Somalia worse by prolonging the violence and destroying UN credibility in the country. While the effectiveness of US SOF have increased by leaps and bounds since 1993, it’s unlikely that JSOC and the CIA would be able to kill or capture Kony as easily as Invisible Children assumes.

If we’ve learned anything over the last two decades, it’s that military solutions are never as quick and easy as their advocates assume. The US has rarely fought a war in the modern era that went according to plan. The advisory missions to Vietnam begun in the 1950s escalated to a war that killed over 50,000 Americans and nearly broke the US military. The Bush and Clinton administrations’ idealistic intervention in Somalia was an ill-conceived fiasco that Islamic militants still cite as evidence of the US’s fragility. The conflict in Afghanistan, hyped as a small war fought by special operations forces on horseback, devolved into a decade-long counterinsurgency that nearly everyone admits won’t end in a ‘victory’ anything near what its architects intended. The Obama administration’s war in Libya quickly escalated from the fiction of a no-fly zone to regime change, and only ended in Qaddafi’s blind luck capture and execution. Drone strikes targeting AQAP and al-Shabaab have become an open-ended and locally-inflammatory bombing campaign over two countries. Unconventional wars are risky and difficult. Why should operations against the LRA be any different? Unless Invisible Children can explain why, their advocacy for US intervention doesn’t deserve an audience.

Just because a cause is fashionable doesn’t make it wise. Invisible Children’s efforts to raise awareness is laudable, but its faith in military solutions isn’t. The Kony 2012 campaign is a good way to get Americans killed in a quixotic, ill-conceived war with no bearing on US interests.

Updated to include photo credit.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

“L’Atlantique”, Adolphe Mouron Cassandre.

“L’Atlantique”, Adolphe Mouron Cassandre.

What I read this week:

Misperceptions, foreign policy, and Iran.

I liked this Berstein piece on Ike.

The Star Wars saga suggested viewing order (via Ryan Bonneville).

For Republicans, it’s 2012 or never.

Stratfor is a joke and so is Wikileaks for taking It seriously.

From the NYT, the challenges of reporting from Antarctica.

Territorial taxes and the Right’s squandered opportunity.

The people vs. Vladimir Putin.

The world will be wonderful in the year 2000!

Slightly Stoopid – Runnin’ with a Gun.

And yeah, I know I need to write more. But theses don’t write themselves…