By Ivan Eland
Disregarding American public sentiment—weariness of years of war in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and robust drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia—President Barack Obama is now involving the United States in another potential quagmire, this time in Central Africa. At the urging of humanitarian groups, he is dispatching about 100 U.S. Special Forces troops to four Central African nations—Uganda, Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic—to help combat the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a guerrilla group that regularly kidnaps or attacks civilians in those countries.
Allegedly, the Special Forces, who will be armed, are not to take direct military action against the LRA (except in self-defense) but are only to train, assist, and advise the Central African armies. In reality, if U.S. forces are patrolling with these armies when they are attacked, Americans could certainly be ensnared in many shooting battles. For the United States, the Vietnam quagmire started with American advisers fighting with South Vietnamese forces in the field.
Getting mired in an African bog is not in America’s vital interest. In the past, the only continent, aside from Antarctica, that the U.S. government did not regard as strategic was Africa, which had a meager GDP. With the creation of the Pentagon’s African Command, that view has changed at the behest of defense bureaucrats, who are in a perpetual quest for added military missions in a post–Cold War world to justify themselves and their programs as defense funding comes under threat. True, Joseph Kony and the LRA are ruthless guerrillas, but their puny force of 250 fighters, which already has been fighting for two decades, hardly presents a sudden dire threat to U.S. security, and the United States can no longer afford to the save the world. Even President Obama has argued previously that overseas wars sap resources that are now desperately needed at home.
And all this even assumes that U.S. intervention would be helpful to the innocent civilians being “saved” from the LRA. When George W. Bush sent in U.S. advisers to battle the same group in 2008, however, disaster ensued. Back then, the LRA escaped a U.S.-assisted Ugandan offensive and was sufficiently enraged by the failed military intervention to perpetrate a series of bloody massacres that killed hundreds of civilians.
The trigger for the present intervention, according to the president, was Congress’s passing, in May 2010, of a vaguely worded law that championed “increased, comprehensive U.S. efforts to help mitigate and eliminate the threat posed by the LRA to civilians and regional stability.” Given the fact that the Vietnam War was escalated by President Lyndon Johnson running wild with the amorphous Gulf of Tonkin Resolution of 1964, Congress should have been more careful and specific with its wording; nonetheless, the resolution nowhere specifically authorizes U.S. military intervention in Central Africa. The case demonstrates how militaristic U.S. foreign policy has become, since the administration, seeing a nail because it has a big hammer, came up with the military option to satisfy the ambiguously worded law.
And following yet another precedent from the Vietnam era—the War Powers Resolution (which was passed by Congress in 1973 to prevent a recurrence of escalation without representation)—President Obama notified Congress of the military action. The only problem is that he didn’t really comply with the resolution—and that’s probably the worst thing about the entire episode. The War Powers Resolution is commonly thought by the executive branch and Congress alike to allow the president to commit U.S. forces to potentially hostile situations without prior congressional authorization as long as he notifies Congress within 48 hours of the troop deployment. It is then thought that unless Congress votes to leave the troops there, they must come home after a few months. But this scenario occurs only if the military deployment occurs when the United States is under attack. Otherwise, for all other U.S. military interventions, the law requires, in keeping with the framers’ original intent as expressed in the debates at the constitutional convention, a specific prior authorization from Congress. In this case, that was not obtained, and Obama, as he did in Libya, has violated the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution in this unneeded, financially reckless, preposterous military adventure.