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The Squishy Side of Soft Power

September 16, 2010

The quiet side of the military’s effort to play an increasing role in providing human security has involved undertaking soft power missions around the world. One command in particular, AFRICOM, has been quietly but diligently working with local partners to bolster indigenous forces, provide humanitarian aid, and build civil and military institutions. David Axe points out that something that appears like an easy way to win goodwill, providing medical care to the war, famine and rape-wracked DRC, is not necessarily so easy:

KINSHASA, Congo — The local residents had been waiting for hours, and there was no guarantee they’d get in to the poorly lit room where administrators from the Forces Armées de la République Democratique du Congo (FARDC) were busy filling out paperwork. The U.S. Army and the FARDC were trying to register the Congolese civilians for a free health clinic that would take place the following week. The clinic, administered by military medical personnel from both countries, would be one of the culminating events of a two-week, U.S.-led exercise meant to improve the FARDC’s medical capabilities — all part of the “soft power” strategy advanced by U.S. Africa Command, based in Germany…

The U.S. Army had come to Congo in part to win hearts and minds. Turning away patients meant possibly alienating the very people the Americans were hoping to befriend. In underestimating the sheer depth of need in Congo, the Army could appear fickle, even cruel. The sick and injured who responded to the advertisements offering free medical care would instead discover that there wasn’t nearly enough care to go around…

Part of the problem with soft power is making accurate ties between ends and means. Firstly, the primary end we want to achieve is always political, generally a meaningful positive impact on regime or public opinion. But in soft power-mandated humanitarian missions, this only comes through the achievement of a material end, like providing medical services. Which end is actually more important? This makes determining the means allocated somewhat problematic. In the hierarchy of grand strategy, improving our popularity in the Congo and among people whose views of the US might be swayed by our actions in the Congo is probably quite low compared to say, winning the war in Afghanistan. But making a significant impression on the Congolese may require a large commitment of resources that, given other priorities, may simply be unavailable. Given the inflated expectations of American capabilities that come along with US soft power, it may be difficult for a busy military to meet local expectations, which may not appreciate being shortchanged to continue vastly larger military and humanitarian operations elsewhere. But on top of that perception problem is the issue of finding a reliable local partner. Afghanistan is hardly unique in this regard:

Congo’s current epidemic of sexual violence is a potential land mine for the U.S. Army’s well-meaning humanitarian outreach efforts. While the Americans have truly aimed to improve both the Congolese military and the lives of their Congolese patients, in affiliating with the FARDC they could be perceived as indirect accomplices to the Congolese army’s crimes.

Indeed, U.S. Africa Command, the Germany-based command overseeing Medflag, has been careful to deflect attention away from the FARDC’s history of sexual violence. The command co-funded a study, published in JAMA in August, expanding the definition of sex crimes in Congo. But the study’s participants avoided gathering data in areas controlled by the FARDC — a point not lost on Africa Command’s critics. Ciarán Donnelly from the International Rescue Committee lamented that in the study, the “FARDC are not listed among the reported perpetrators of sexual violence.”

The problem with intervening in conflicts where we do not have any strategic interest is that inevitably, we do have to take sides, especially if there is not an effective arbitrating power and we are unwilling to take on that role. But when the crux of the mission is maintaining good will and we come in under the banner of a benign support for human welfare, we have to recognize that the local partner we support for expedience or international legitimacy will act in the interests of human welfare or US PR. The FARDC will always be willing to do ugly things, because they are trying to win a civil war, not goodwill for its own sake. Because the US has even less leverage in these sort of purely humanitarian missions than it does in operations such as Afghanistan, it is unlikely that the US will be able to rein in the FARDC, and even if it does, it might destabilize the Congo even more and undermine the soft power it worked to gain in the first place.

This is all assuming that an under-resourced humanitarian mission will improve local perceptions in the first place, which Aid Watch suggests is a shaky proposition to begin with. The current strategy relies on deceiving Congolese about what their government is doing and building up a partner on the hopes exposure to US troops will make them more professional and disciplined, for the grand strategic payoff of some more influential people in more powerful or strategically vital countries having a better view of the US. In a time of financial and geopolitical constraints on US intervention, should missions like these really be the wave of the future?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2010 9:59 pm

    “The FARDC will always be willing to do ugly things, because they are trying to win a civil war….”

    Has committing mass rapes helped the FARDC achieve its military objectives? I strongly doubt it. (Plus, of course, it’s a war crime.)

  2. September 20, 2010 1:04 am

    Quite right. I am not trying to imply that the FARDC’s behavior is strategically useful, nevertheless it is likely to continue because the extreme violence and crisis situation that facilitate such atrocities are likely to persist. From the FARDC’s perspective, there may be some leaders convinced that terror is capable of winning the civil war, or that maintaining the loyalty of the soldiers (rather than disciplining them) is more important than winning civilian favor. Wrong as these beliefs may be, I doubt the has enough leverage to make the FARDC act differently.

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