By Ivan Eland
American foreign policy has become so militarized that pressure groups can now seemingly order up a government armed intervention like customers at a fast food restaurant drive-through window can order up a burger and fries. The latest example is the U.S. Special Forces’ chasing of the wacky but brutal African warlord Joseph Kony in the jungles of central Africa.
Recently, there has been a rash of made-to-order interventions that seemed up front to have little or no strategic logic and offered the pregnant potential for counterproductive outcomes, high costs in blood and treasure, or becoming endless bogs. In fact, the only logical reason for such interventions was pressure from influential groups at home. For example, when all of the stated reasons for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq were eventually debunked, the invasion seemed to be driven by influential neoconservative pressure on a Republican president’s foreign policy. The war increased the influence of America’s greatest nemesis in the Middle East—Iran—and has left an Iraq that is moving back to dictatorship and maybe even toward a return to civil war.
In the case of the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi, a leader who had gotten rid of his nuclear program and was playing ball with the West, the United States responded to pressure to go to war from NATO allies such as France. The potential for post-Gadhafi factional fighting among armed tribes and militias is very real and could enhance the prospects of Islamist militants.
But the most curious of recent U.S. military adventures is the dispatching of 100 Special Operations troops to central Africa to chase Kony. In this case, the pressure group “winning” the policy battle was not a powerful domestic political faction or an influential nation-state ally, but a crusading nonprofit group that wanted to stop Kony’s violence. In 2010, the advocacy group Invisible Children pressured Congress to enact the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. This law made it possible in 2011 for President Obama to send the Special Forces contingent to hunt Kony, the leader of that army.
And to hold U.S. forces’ feet to the fire, Invisible Children earlier this year produced a video, “Kony 2012,” cataloging Kony’s brutality that has gone viral on the Internet. The New York Times reported that Gen. Carter F. Ham, the commander of American forces in Africa, has a “Kony 2012” poster on his office door and quotes a U.S. official as saying, “Let’s be honest, there was some constituent pressure here. Did ‘Kony 2012’ have something to do with this? Absolutely.”
As in most interventions, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. military is sure it is winning in central Africa, even when the results seem to indicate otherwise. The military insists that since it arrived a few months ago, Kony’s army of roughly 300 fighters has had to break up into smaller “desperate” groups. But United Nations officials say that the smaller groups have stepped up their attacks since the Americans arrived. We have seen this phenomenon before. When things didn’t go so well in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American military’s explanation for the acceleration of violence was that its opponent was “desperate.” The military, by the continued use of this preposterous public relations gimmick, has demonstrated the old adage that truth is the first casualty of war.
In fact, the U.S. government has become so interventionist that it attempts armed adventures even where they have been counterproductive in the past. In December 2008, lame duck George W. Bush dispatched military “advisers” to get Kony, but the outlaw got advanced warning of the U.S. plot, escaped, and went on a murderous rampage in revenge—burning villages and killing hundreds.
And that’s not the only unintended consequences that such U.S. meddling can cause. The military insists that American forces are avoiding combat by merely “advising and assisting” indigenous African militaries in their hunt for Kony. But in Vietnam and other brushfire conflicts, U.S. advisers were secretly fighting and therefore had the potential to suck the United States into an escalated or wider war. Also, aid and advice to indigenous militaries can unintentionally make autocratic and brutal militaries more efficient, as they did over the many years of American aid to Latin American dictators. And recently, a U.S.-trained officer overthrew the democratically elected government of the African nation Mali. U.S.-trained authoritarian governments usually have greater longevity and kill a lot more people over time than small, ragtag groups.
Finally, the U.S. can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. Instead, the U.S. should rely on regional groups, such as the African Union, to police conflicts in which the United States has no strategic interest.
If the wave of the future is nonprofit and other interest groups—some even well-meaning—using videos on the Internet to drive American military interventions in the developing world, U.S. leaders need to resist such pressure. Unfortunately, they rarely do. In Syria, home videos of the Assad regime’s repression are pressuring U.S. leaders to threaten to replicate what was done in Libya. The Obama administration needs to “just say no” to all of these brushfire conflicts.