Commentary

Obama’s New War in Uganda

Money burns a hole in the pocket of some people. Power does the same for some presidents. How else to explain President Barack Obama’s creation of his own variant of Germany’s fabled Afrika Korps, to serve in a small guerrilla war in Uganda?

It has been more than ten years since America was at peace. If President Obama has his way it will be many more years before U.S. troops stop fighting somewhere on earth.

After the demise of the Soviet Union left America as the globe’s dominant power, Washington made war commonplace. Bombing, invading, and occupying other nations became just another policy initiative advanced by presidents on both sides of the partisan aisle.

President George H.W. Bush had Panama and Iraq. President Bill Clinton intervened in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo. President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan and Iraq. President Obama adopted Afghanistan as his own, before adding Libya and now Uganda.

These conflicts had surprisingly little to do with American security. Only Afghanistan — the initial phase, targeting al-Qaeda for 9/11 and punishing the Taliban regime for hosting Osama bin Laden — was a defensive action. The first Gulf War responded to aggression, but not against the U.S.

Most of the other interventions were militarized social work, intervening where the U.S. had little or no plausible security interest. Unfortunately, rarely did the humanitarian consequences match the initial expectations.

Somalia and Haiti look little different than before American military action. U.S. intervention in Kosovo and Iraq sparked additional violence and human rights abuses — including from Washington’s new allies. Bosnia and Kosovo remain unstable quasi-states, held together only by allied pressure.

The nation-building exercise in Afghanistan has no end in sight. U.S. and European officials insist that military withdrawal in 2014 will be followed by even more intensive involvement — for years or decades. The future of Libya, after NATO’s deceitful campaign of regime change conducted in the name of humanitarianism, is anyone’s guess.

Now there’s Uganda. President Obama has sent 100 military personnel to Uganda to help destroy the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army and kill or capture the LRA’s bizarre leader, Joseph Kony. The president explained to Congress: “I believe that deploying these U.S. Armed Forces furthers national security interests and foreign policy.”

Fighting the LRA obviously does not promote American security. To encourage American support, Uganda’s acting Foreign Minister, Henry Okello Oryem, played the T card: “For 20 years, the government Uganda has been pleading with our American and European friends to help in the LRA problem, because these are international terrorists.”

International terrorists? In fact, that’s nonsense: the LRA (mischaracterized as “Christian”) is a garden variety, if extra brutal, insurgent force. Whatever Kony’s ambitions, striking the U.S. is not among them.

The group doesn’t even threaten the rule of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. The LRA has committed more than its share of murder and mayhem over the years, but has shrunk dramatically in size and capability. The LRA now is estimated at between 200 and 400 fighters, a tenth the number of just a few years ago — and without any heavy weapons. They are enough to unsettle a province, not destabilize a country, let alone a continent.

What foreign policy interests are allegedly being served? Some in Washington believe that there is nothing in the world which is not a “vital interest” for America. But as the globe’s superpower, the U.S. could — and should — remain aloof from most of the tragic but common conflicts which dot the globe. Especially with its problems at home, Washington should not become the counter-insurgency force for the world.

Yet, the president explained, while U.S. personnel are initially being deployed to Uganda, they are to “provide assistance to regional forces” and could end up in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and/or South Sudan as well. Columnist Michael Gerson argued that “this is not an American humanitarian intervention. It is American aid for an African humanitarian intervention.”

However, Washington already has checked that box. The U.S. has been providing military assistance to Uganda since 2008. This summer Uganda shared with Burundi about $45 million worth of American equipment, including four drones. In 2009 the U.S. Africa Command helped the Ugandan military plan a series of strikes called Operation Lightning Thunder. Washington also has provided aid to militaries from Congo and South Sudan to combat the LRA.

Alas, none of these steps have had much effect.

The latest move might still count as mere “aid” for someone else’s intervention if the mission was only intelligence sharing. But the administration is sending combat-ready forces to the front line. The claim that they will only fight in self-defense is meaningless: Americans will be on the spot aiding Ugandan forces taking offensive action. The LRA could not help but see the U.S. as just another enemy.

Ugandan President Museveni understands that Americans are likely to end up in combat. With obvious embarrassment he protested too much: “I cannot accept foreign troops to come and fight for us. We have the capacity to fight our wars.” Museveni added: “Better to call them U.S. personnel, not troops.”

As always, humanitarianism provides an emotional appeal for going to war. But if Uganda is the standard, is there anywhere American forces may not now be sent?

The LRA’s record is appalling, but the organization is a shadow of its former self. Total deaths caused by the guerrillas over the last three years are estimated to run around 2,500 to 3,000. Horrible though that is, such a casualty toll is a rounding error in the conflicts that typically attract outside involvement.

Humanitarian intervention usually is advanced to stop genocide and mass murder. Even then there are persuasive arguments against intervening, but at least the number of cases is few. However, hundreds and thousands of people routinely die in civil strife around the world. Now there no longer is any meaningful threshold before Washington is ready to go to war. Max Fisher of the Atlantic correctly called this deployment “a small but important shift in how, when, and why the U.S. uses military force.”

Moreover, the mission has no obvious endpoint. Administration officials have said the operation is expected to last “months.” Objectives range from capturing Kony to building local “capacity.” Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch even has advocated using U.S. forces “to arrest” Kony and other LRA commanders for presentation to the International Criminal Court.

Providing combat advisers also is a predictable precursor to deploying troops, as in Vietnam. Thankfully the LRA is not the Viet Cong, but administration officials told a congressional hearing that the Americans troops will be “equipped for combat.” Any casualties would create pressure for escalation, since, it would be charged, Washington would lose credibility if it backed down. One can imagine the immediate chorus for full-scale war.

Worse, the fact that the Ugandan government has not been able to defeat the LRA suggests that not all is well with Washington’s latest military ally. Gerson endorsed aiding America’s “friends,” but is Museveni really a friend?

The LRA grew out of years of civil war in Uganda: Acholi tribesmen in the north distrusted Museveni, who displaced Idi Amin as dictator in 1979 only to establish his own (admittedly softer) dictatorship. Justine Labeja, who represented the LRA in unsuccessful peace talks five years ago, contended: “You can cut off the head of Kony and kill the commanders, but that won’t help the people of northern Uganda, marginalized over so many years.”

Perhaps the question should not be, why is there violent opposition to the government, but why is there not more violent opposition to the government? President Museveni was reelected earlier this year in a dubious vote; Amnesty International cited reports of “numerous instances of electoral violence and human rights abuses.”

Amnesty added that “law enforcement officials committed human rights violations, including unlawful killings and torture.” Human Rights Watch criticized the illegal prosecution of civilians in military courts. Worse, author Pepe Escobar reported: “Museveni’s government (helped by Washington) has also perpetrated horrendous massacres against civilians,” with at least 20,000 dead.

Even the latest State Department acknowledged: “Serious human rights problems in the country included arbitrary killings; vigilante killings; mob and ethnic violence; torture and abuse of suspects and detainees; harsh prison conditions; official impunity; arbitrary and politically motivated arrest and detention; incommunicado and lengthy pretrial detention; restrictions on the right to a fair trial and on freedom of speech, press, assembly, and association; restrictions on opposition parties; electoral irregularities; official corruption;” and more.

In any case, the LRA mission should not be viewed in isolation. While one deployment of 100 men is but a blip for the Pentagon spending machine, the military budget is made up of a multitude of such interventions, big and small. This is the first combat deployment in Africa since Somalia two decades ago and the first by the U.S. Africa Command. In fact, in defending the current military budget — roughly double the inflation-adjusted level of a decade ago — the administration is warning that Washington might not be able to intervene so often in Africa. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified: “[J]ust by virtue of the numbers that we’re dealing with, we will probably have to reduce our presence elsewhere, presence perhaps in Latin America, presence in Africa.”

The president’s new Afrika Korps demonstrates how the “Defense” Department only rarely does defense these days. Most money goes for offense — intervening hither and yon for reasons having nothing to do with protecting America or Americans. With a world filled with various guerrilla bands, separatist factions, and terrorist groups, the potential for more wars is almost infinite.

The world would be a better place if evil was eradicated. But war has proved to be a very poor humanitarian tool. The Obama administration should be pulling U.S. troops out of wars, not intervening in more conflicts.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and the Senior Fellow in International Religious Persecution at the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.