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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.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Chris C. #

    I’m amused by Invisible Children’s choice of target here. Maybe it’s because he’s the flashpoint of their organization and we know (comparatively) a great deal about him because of his activities in a country like Uganda, but Kony’s pretty small game. If you want to go after a real evil leader responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands and who has an ICC warrant for his arrest, go after Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir. Or any of the various other mass murderers cloaked in the virtues of sovereignty legitimacy in that area.

    There’s also a strange irony here. Many of the people criticizing Kony2012 are the same voices who criticize the mass public for not knowing about foreign policy or events around the globe. So does knowledge of all these events really matter other than being useful in impressing people in cocktail party conversations? I’m very curious to see when, exactly, the mass public should get informed about foreign events and if so what incentive they have for doing so.

    March 9, 2012
  2. Rick Marvin #

    I think that the essay is well reasoned. And while I can appreciate Chris C’s perception of irony, I fail to share his comment that the point of critics is the mobilized public does not understand foreign policy. Possibly from some but I conclude the essay’s point is that advocates of intervention should first carefully and deliberately weigh the costs in death, destruction, and money.

    March 9, 2012

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