Obama's Ugandan Adventure

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Given the success of the Obama administration’s foreign policy efforts in Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iran and elsewhere, it is understandable that in pursuit of a more substantial challenge, the president has turned his attention to sub-Saharan Africa.

Or perhaps not.

Regardless, Obama this week committed the U.S. to sending combat-equipped special operations forces to Uganda in an effort to defeat a militarized revolutionary group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague on allegations of war crimes. American soldiers will stay as long as they are needed, according to the president. In addition to Uganda, they could also be deployed to neighboring countries such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.

Of course, special forces have often been used in the past to "advise" foreign allies on how to conduct counter-terrorist and anti-insurgent activities. But it is worth noting that, as with the U.S. commitments to support the NATO attacks on Libya, Obama has again failed to obtain Congressional approval for the Ugandan deployment. Meanwhile, the U.S. media has largely ignored the deployment and its potential consequences.

The LRA is one of the most brutal, and most feared, revolutionary groups in Africa. Children are frequently kidnapped to expand its ranks, whether as soldiers or as sex slaves. In order to desensitize their young "recruits," young boys are forced to murder other children in order turn them into killing machines, and embed in them guilt and dishonor sufficient to prevent them from returning to their families. Girls who refuse to be passed around as the property of LRA commanders are brutally killed. Villagers who are not executed by the LRA have been let go after their ears and lips have been cut off as a reminder to them, and a warning to others.

Kony’s army roams across the central African states, which are unable to effectively engage the LRA militarily or eliminate Kony, the army’s supreme leader. Known as the "Wizard of the Nile," Kony has previously executed senior members of his army who made the mistake of advocating for a peaceful settlement of hostilities.

Given the inability of militias in post-Gaddafi Libya to maintain the peace and prevent the country from collapsing into individual fiefdoms and city-states, and the upswing of violence against Coptic Christians in Egypt as Islamist groups prepare themselves for a leading role in a post-military government, Americans now clearly recognize that relatively straight-forward acts, such as bombing enemy forces or removing an unpopular leader, are not enough to produce security, prosperity and lasting peace.

Of course, the crimes against humanity that have been committed by Kony and the LRA are horrific. However, it is unclear at this stage how prepared American voters are to back their president on another prolonged military engagement in a region that lacks effective national institutions, and where local feuds and hatreds risk undermining the efforts of U.S. troops.

Clearly, the U.S. needs a long-term diplomatic strategy to engage both African leaders and the millions of young Africans who are in need of support and guidance. Whether risking another Afghanistan in central Africa is a step in the right direction remains to be seen.

Unsurprisingly, we are not alone in turning our attention to Africa. As with so many other aspects of modern life, China is allocating significant amounts of political and financial capital to the continent. Importantly, however, the Chinese avert their eyes from uncomfortable truths and proclaim a policy of "non-interference" when developing ties with their African allies.

How successful will such a mercantilist foreign policy be in a continent wrestling with corruption, extreme policy and the legacy of a colonial period that has left the continent criss-crossed by borders that often have little connection to the realities of ethnicity, language and culture on the ground?

The profitability of Chinese companies seeking trade and resources in Africa is a top-priority for Beijing. An ability to put dictators and senior members of local kleptocracies at ease can be, without doubt, a short term competitive advantage.

Impetuous military commitments, which make us hostages to fortune, are counter-productive in the long-term, but so is closing one’s eyes to the criminal activities of those notionally in charge of a country’s well-being and future prosperity.

Whether or not China can continue to hold its nose and remain profoundly agnostic about the morality and criminality of their trading partners remains to be seen. Anti-Chinese backlash has been building across Africa recently, which have even led to rioting in the streets.

China’s $100 billion a year in trade means that Africa will remain a priority for China. And Africa should be a priority for American policy makers. But just as closing our eyes to the shortcomings of our trading partners is short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating, so are spurious and open-ended military entanglements which lack broad-based domestic support, and risk expanding into costly and prolonged quagmires.

Africans deserve more from U.S. foreign policy on their continent, as do American voters.

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