In 2012, the Kony YouTube campaign went viral. It took an obscure guerrilla war and thrust it into the public’s frontal lobe, sparking back and forths about the efficacy of online advocacy (and shining a harsh light on its creator’s later meltdown).
It also shamed the United States government into deploying Special Forces to a remote corner of Africa with few immediate strategic advantages.
Quite a different time. From Clinton to Obama, each American president viewed human rights as a big part of American foreign policy. The rationale was twofold: first, it was the “right thing” to do, especially considering America’s lone superpower status. Second, and more realistically, it gave America an almost limitless casus belli against any rival. Back then, it was especially believed that democracies would never fight one another, and so the more democratic the world could be made, the more peaceful (and American-leaning) it would become. The Americans presumed that if they were seen doing “the right thing,” they would be rewarded with allies and influence.
Thus the Americans presumed that if they were seen doing “the right thing,” they would be rewarded with allies and influence. A permanent network of soft power, underpinned by an array of hard power assets, would steadily democratize the planet, and secure the United States forever.
Now Trump has come along and decided those transactions – human rights protection for influence – are coming up short for America.
Sadly, there are places where he has a point, like in Afghanistan where sixteen years of war and development work has not yielded victory. But not in the small war against the Lord’s Resistance Army.
The murderous Lord’s Resistance Army is on the march now that its butcher-leader Joseph Kony is assured the Americans will hunt him no more. From Reuters:
The outlawed Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has stepped up attacks in Democratic Republic of Congo close to the South Sudanese border as a U.S.-supported regional task force pulls out, the U.N. humanitarian office said in a report on Friday.
Forty rebels from the group, which is led by Joseph Kony, kidnapped 61 civilians in a June 7 raid in the Tanganyika mining area near the Garamba National Park in Haut-Uele province, the report said, citing local civil society and aid workers.
The LRA: what happens when there is no cop on the block
The LRA itself is a small outfit these days, down to perhaps less than one hundred from its estimated 3,000 a few years ago. It is absurdly nihilistic and apolitical, with no coherent governing ideology beyond the whims of its leader, Joseph Kony. Netflix’s excellent Beast of No Nation, a film about a fictional madman warlord with a penchant for betraying too competent subordinates and abducting child soldiers, was partially inspired by Kony. That film provides a window into just how poorly organized the LRA is.
The LRA came about as proxy between Uganda, Congo, and Sudan in the late 1980s, a vaguely useful tool shoved back and forth between the governments who didn’t want to fight an open war back then. Kony never developed a political thought beyond the spiritualism mishmash of Christianity and local beliefs that more or less justified anything he chose to do. Kony being Kony, the LRA became a geopolitical hot potato, burning anyone who held it too long.
Because of the weaknesses of the states he operated in, Kony has gotten away with his army far longer than he should have. Uganda has done a decent job of pushing him towards the border, but Congo and South Sudan both remain in chaos, and his current operational zone, Garamba National Park, is hard to police even when Kinshasa isn’t in the middle of yet more power struggles of its narrow-minded elite.
So the LRA has a combination of easy-to-hide in geography and basically no authorities able to stand up to it. Throw a madman with some basic organizational skills into the mix and a steady supply of arms, and you get the LRA.
The LRA would be readily wiped out in 2017 West Africa, where Nigerian-dominated ECOWAS is steadily cleaning up the geopolitics of the region in tacit alliance with the French. But east and central Africa have feckless regional organizations that go nowhere and do less. The East African Community has had a plan to build the East African Federation for over a decade, but which has never advanced beyond a wikipedia page. MONUSCO, the UN mission to Congo, is dominated by outsiders from as far afield as Bangladesh.
Only the Americans were both interested and able to hunt down the LRA. They were having some success, too.
Now Trump has pulled the plug. Predictably, the LRA is already starting to benefit.
President Trump’s zero-sum transactional approach to geopolitics – treating nation-states as if they’re companies – is already causing harm. The blockade of Qatar might never have happened if Obama were around to referee the Gulf states; it’s hard to imagine President Bush allowing a critical U.S. airbase to be threatened in the same manner.
It’s also causing states like Germany to consider widescale rearmament, something that will surely in the decades to come create a potential new rival to the U.S.
It’s also proving that human rights of any stripe are on the back burner of geopolitics. This is a lost opportunity since it means that either international law, shaky though it has always been, will almost totally be shredded by power politics. Things like the Geneva Convention will return to being enforced at the convenience of the victors. It’s not that international law were ever perfectly applied, but the attempt was made when it was possible, like in the war crimes trials of Charles Taylor’s equal barbarity. Imperfect though it was, it was a stepping stone towards a greater humanity.
Trump’s administration is prepared to ditch all that, even in places where’s it worked. Demons stilled by fear of American drones will stir once more as the troops go home. It’s too bad, especially considering the war on the LRA was winnable.