October 28, 2010

U.S. Military Intervention in Central Africa: On Further Review, Still a Really Bad Idea

My friend MK over at the Ink Spots blog has posted a tough criticism of my argument that Kenneth Roth's idea for the United States to lead a U.S. military intervention into Central Africa to arrest Joseph Kony and destroy the Lord's Resistance Army is the worst idea on the internet. Since MK never really disagrees with my conclusion -- that getting U.S. troops involved in Central Africa to literally act as the world's policeman and carry out arrest warrants from the International Criminal Court is madness -- I get the sense this post of MK's was a chance for him to show off his knowledge of Africa and throw a brushback pitch to those of us who are not area experts but have the temerity to write on issues relating to the Dark Continent. (This is what Africa specialists call it, right? Right?)

Fair enough. I should have included a disclaimer in my 300-word post that I have never lived south of the Sahara Desert and am by no means an Africa expert. And as someone who has spent several years of my life studying the peoples, languages, history and geography of one area of the globe, I deeply appreciate area experts and what they can offer. I similarly appreciate any and all attempts to correct any gaps in my horticultural knowledge. (Forests are not jungles. Noted.)

But I am responding to MK's post for two reasons. The first is that I cannot believe my luck. I am regularly accused on the internets of being some kind of wild-eyed liberal interventionalist because I have favored counterinsurgency operations as well as slower, conditions-based withdrawals in Iraq and Afghanistan. I think people just assume that I think these conflicts are fun and was in favor of the decisions that were made concerning our entry into each conflict. So whenever I get the chance to set the record straight and stress the fact that my experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have made me more reluctant to engage in expeditionary military operations, I welcome the opportunity.

The second reason has to do with my semi-flippant reference to the disastrous 1993 debacle in Somalia. I stick by this analogy for reasons I'll discuss later.

First, though, let's talk about international interventions. There are four questions* we should ask when considering whether or not the United States should engage in an international intervention:

  1. Will an intervention make the situation better, or worse?
  2. If better, should the U.S. government participate in this intervention?
  3. If yes, should the U.S. government lead this intervention?
  4. If yes, what should the U.S. government do?

No surprise, but Roth skipped straight to Question 4, which is pretty typical not just for humanitarian advocates but also for U.S. military types, congressmen, talking heads, think tank researchers, etc. Questions 1 and 2 are really important, though. Question 2 gets at interests: does the United States have a vital interest at stake? (With "vital" meaning you're willing to use force?) Question 1, meanwhile, gets at a tricky question about how an intervention would change the dynamics of the conflict: On the one hand, it might immediately end the conflict. (Good!) On the other hand, it might also prolong the conflict due to unforeseen second-order effects of the intervention. (Bad!) Can we make a determination about what it would do prior to the intervention? And Question 3 is pretty important as well: are there other nations or militaries that might be better suited to intervene? Would it be more appropriate, in this case, to work by, with and through African nations?

Obviously, we can all disagree on interests. Kenneth Roth and I probably disagree on the question of whether or not the United States has a vital interest in Central Africa or, specifically, whether or not the United States has a vital interest in leading an expedition to arrest Joseph Kony.

That leads to operational concerns and my use of the Blackhawk Down analogy. I stick by the use of this analogy, even though I employed it pretty flippantly (and drew some grief from Laurenist as well). Here's why:

Once upon a time, in Prussia, some dude remarked that everything in war is very simple -- but the simplest thing is difficult. I understand that the LRA is not exactly Hizballah. But we should be very wary of those who claim military operations conducted against them would be some kind of cakewalk. Because one of the reasons the best military units constantly conduct rehearsals and plan for contingencies is not to prepare for when things go right but for when, even independent of enemy action, things go wrong.

Things will always go wrong. You may embark on an open-and-shut humanitarian intervention, as we did in Somalia, and get dragged into something different. Or you may be hitting a relatively easy target in the Bakaara Market one day when boom! A helicopter goes down and suddenly things get a lot more complicated. And it doesn't matter that you and your buddies manage over the next 18 hours to kill 1000+ Somali militiamen: when dead U.S. soldiers appear on CNN, the reason why U.S. troops are on the ground has to make sense to people back home. Going back to Central Africa, what happens when a helicopter drops out of the sky -- as helicopters tend to do -- and eight U.S. servicemen are killed? Was it worth it? Does the mission still make sense to the public?

Things go wrong, folks. Things always go wrong. Which is why it is really important that we determine vital U.S. interests are at stake before intervening.

In the next few years, the United States will draw down in both Iraq and Afghanistan. On the right, the last neoconservatives will clamor for more U.S. military action against rebels in Yemen or Iran's nuclear program. Liberal interventionalists on the left, meanwhile, will argue for the employment of U.S. military force in humanitarian interventions from Burma to Uganda.

I may be the only person to have read Samantha Power's "Bystanders to Genocide" and come away thinking Richard Clarke was kind of a hero. Clarke was one of those who asked the tough questions of all the plans to commit U.S. military power on the ground in Rwanda, another landlocked area of Central Africa: How would we seize the airport? How would we resupply the troops? What is our endstate? How would we evacuate casualties?

I'm sorry, but these are the kind of questions responsible people have to ask. The fact that we often don't ask these questions depresses me.

*A varient of these four questions is in my notes from a conversation I had with Dave Kilcullen two years ago, so we can safely assume I stole these from him.

Update: The comments thread of this post is a good one, with some back and forth between Gian Gentile and Gulliver worth reading. But the real show is the comments thread at Ink Spots, where the five of them are locked in what can only be described as "intense disagreement" with one another.