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Obama's latest military commitment

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Michael Gerson
October 18, 2011
— When President Obama announced the deployment of 100 U.S. military advisers to aid in the pursuit of Joseph Kony and the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), reaction was swift. Michele Bachmann criticized "unnecessary foreign entanglements," while admitting, "I do not know enough about it to comment on it." Rush Limbaugh called the LRA "Christians" and accused Obama of sending American troops "to wipe out Christians in Sudan, Uganda," before promising to do some "research on it."

In both cases, it is remarkable that public figures feel no hesitance -- no internal check of propriety or shame -- about offering opinions while admitting ignorance. A few minutes on the Internet would have sufficed. The LRA is a brutal rebel group headed by a messianic madman. Its victims -- captured boys turned into soldiers, captured girls forced into sexual slavery, villagers put to the machete -- have been the focus of activism by Christian organizations and human rights groups for decades.


These advocates suffer a disadvantage. Kony currently operates in the ungoverned vastness of the border region between the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Reports of atrocities generally come out in rumors and human rights reports, not in images that create political urgency.


But Kony's crimes are vivid at close hand. In the region, I talked to a boy forced by LRA rebels to execute his neighbors in order to break his ties with the past and to deaden his sympathy. I met a boy forced to bow in Kony's presence -- the rebel leader claims divinity -- but who dared to look up in curiosity. The LRA soldiers took out one of the boy's eyes in punishment.


Obama is not sending in troops to hunt Kony as we did Osama bin Laden -- though it must have been tempting. He is sending in 100 mostly special-operations forces to help coordinate the efforts of regional governments in protecting civilians and "removing from the battlefield Joseph Kony." Unlike Bosnia or Libya, this is not an American humanitarian intervention. It is American aid for an African humanitarian intervention. The goal, one senior administration official told me, is "to support regional forces, to help make them more effective."


A similar approach was tried during the last weeks of George W. Bush's administration. An American military intelligence unit headquartered in Uganda provided support to Operation Lightning Thunder -- an attempt by Ugandan, Congolese and South Sudanese forces to corner Kony in a remote part of eastern Congo. The U.S. provided fuel, night-vision goggles, intelligence and operational planning. But the effort failed. Kony seemed to be tipped off. Cloud cover prevented the Ugandans from using their MiG aircraft. The movement of troops was disorganized. The LRA dispersed, then regrouped to attack more villages and abduct more children.


The Obama administration intends this time to be different. "What distinguishes this from past efforts," an official says, "is that (American forces) will be forward deployed," allowing them to play a more direct coordinating role. Instead of remaining in Uganda, they will be embedded with the regional forces going after the LRA in Central African Republic, the Congo and South Sudan (with permission from those governments).


The LRA is durable -- sustained by captured child soldiers and living off the land without external supply lines. But it is also vulnerable -- as any group defined by a single, all-powerful leader is vulnerable. If Kony were captured or killed, the LRA as we know it would most likely collapse.


The deployment of American special operations forces will help fill gaps in intelligence and coordination evident during Operation Lightning Thunder. But other problems were revealed in that failure, particularly a lack of lift capacity -- the ability to get troops and supplies quickly to remote locations. As a new military strategy against the LRA takes shape, other nations will need to help with this aspect of the operation.


Obama's deployment doesn't address every problem in the pursuit of Kony, but it is needed. If a humanitarian military operation is ever justified, it is justified in this case. The risk to American troops is small, the goal is realistic and the moral stakes are high.


Some critics insist that military force should only be used to secure the narrowest definition of national interests. But it is the president, not his critics, who must live with the ethical consequences of inaction. And most presidents conclude, as Obama has done, that a broader national interest is advanced when America aids its friends and shows its decency.


Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.



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