When “Atrocity-Curbing” Is Not What It Seems

Paul Pillar is one of the most astute thinkers on foreign policy around and there is much on which he and I agree. But his latest blog post runs far afoul from his usual incisive, realist analysis and betrays the spirit of his magazine’s blog which bears the name Skeptic.

Pillar says Obama’s decision “to assist governments in central Africa in eradicating the murderous band that calls itself the Lord’s Resistance Army is the right thing to do.” Primarily, he supports the mission because, he predicts, it doesn’t carry with it the potential for regime change, mission creep, extended deployments, or – presumably – worsening the conflict.

The target of the intervention is not a regime, and so there is no chance of confusing the atrocity-curbing purpose of the mission with regime change. The only respectable response of the international community to the Lord’s Resistance Army is to eradicate it. Because the target is not a regime, eradication would not involve the creation of vacuums or the need to establish a new order to replace one that has been removed. The LRA is a destroyer of order, not a provider of it.

And because there is not an issue of building a new order, there is not the risk of the initial mission transforming into something larger and more ambitious. If it looks like somewhat more than the one hundred people to be dispatched would do some good, the administration should be open to a modest enlargement without fear that this would be another step down a slippery slope into a quagmire.

How fortunate he is not to have to stress about things not going as planned. I’m afraid I don’t have that luxury. It’s true that the mission has little chance of morphing into regime change, as it did so quickly in Libya and other recent imperial adventures. But does that really preclude the possibility of an expanded role for these initial 100 US combat forces?

Indeed, this deployment itself is an expansion of US interventionism in Uganda. The US and Ugandan army have been increasingly close partners as the latter have been helping fight al Shabaab forces in Somalia for the former. In June, the Pentagon sent part of a $45 million package in military equipment to Uganda. The aid included four small drones, body armor and night-vision and communications gear and is in part being used against al-Shabab. The request for aid to Uganda in FY 2012 is set at over $527 million. Fostering closer ties by intervening against the LRA on behalf of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni could very likely lead to additional military support for the ruler. Heck, who’s to say this close relationship won’t end up the way a lot of America’s “close relationships” have been in the Middle East: training a potentially abusive military in an autocratic state, sending aid and arms, setting up military bases, permanent deployments, etc. – in essence, empire building in Africa. It is at least plausible that national security planners prefer such a relationship, especially considering the Somalia situation.

Or what if things really don’t go as planned. Pillar may not fear unintended consequences, but I’m sure civilians on the ground know better. In 2009, when the US teamed up with the Ugandan army to coordinate a series of raids on LRA encampments – codenamed “Operation Lightning Thunder” –  it failed miserably and let LRA forces escape only to go on a killing spree in surrounding areas, resulting in somewhere between 600-900 slaughtered and many more raped and maimed.  Ivan Eland has compared this to “needlessly poking a hornet’s nest.”

I can perceive very little warrant in Pillar’s predictions of greener pastures as a result of this fateful decision. The truth is, a whole host of things could go wrong. The area is one of the most dangerous in the world and if nothing else, the mission could merely solidify Washington’s plans for Somalia, which are apparently to conduct a secret and inhumane kill/capture program there while propping up murderous thugs to counter other murderous thugs.

And apparently, Pillar buys into the humanitarian rationale behind this intervention. He writes:

The United States can go into this mission without being seriously suspected of ulterior motives beyond the declared purpose of ending atrocities and saving lives.

Can it? So the impetus for Obama to send in 100 of America’s most highly trained, elite killing forces was merely out of concern for suffering civilians? The LRA appears to be a nightmarish group of homicidal psychopaths. But Pillar should know better, considering nearly all of America’s wars of aggression have had the humanitarian justification tied to it. The US is now administering and/or supporting atrocities of its own and is ignoring other comparable ones that don’t happen to be on the strategically important radar. Before we can applaud such fraudulent claims to be the policemen of the world, we are obligated to at least put a stop to our own needless violence.

Lastly, there’s the issue of the law. What authority, what right does Obama have to send US combat troops to a far off land without the consent of Congress or the people? Can we not recognize that the martial frivolity and aggressiveness which currently defines America’s foreign policy is, in part, lent credence when the lawful restrictions curbing war-at-will administrations are excused in the name of humanitarianism?

I don’t have the foresight to be able to predict what will come of this latest military intervention into Uganda. Nor does Paul Pillar. And nor does Obama, who we now know is as reckless and bellicose in his war-wieldling as his predecessor.

6 thoughts on “When “Atrocity-Curbing” Is Not What It Seems”

  1. I would like to propose a question to the author: What would you suggest the US do in response to the LRA? Idly sit by and let their reign of terror continue? Regional forces have already proven inept at stopping Kony.

    Also, a little more information about Operation Lightning Thunder. Yes, it was a botched operation that resulted in atrocious revenge massacres by the LRA, but the plan was botched by Uganda. They sent in their helicopter gunships before the ground forces were in position. The ground troops did not arrive until three days later. Then, DESPITE U.S. warnings that the LRA could do revenge killings, the UPDF did not invest forces in protecting the surrounding towns. The results were the Christmas Massacres, as those reprisal killings are now known.

    That means that the had the UPDF heeded US intelligence, it is very likely the Christmas Massacres would have never happened, and Kony might have been captured or killed. Now, with the 100 combat advisors, the US will have closer influence to make sure the UPDF does not make such drastic mistakes again.

    I look forward to your response.

  2. I got a better question, why should the US support a government that has killed it's own people without trial and committed human rights violations in the face of international law?

    Are we siding with one devil to stop another?

  3. Now this is funny this one is ok because it's not about regime change. But that didn't stop him from helping to take out Gadaffi did it?

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