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No Rest for the World’s Police

October 14, 2010

One of the pitfalls of blogging is letting personal ideological preferences obscure the real policy debates at hand. In ideological debates, it’s all too easy and all too common to construct straw men caricaturing an opponent’s view and then attack it. Particularly with the end of the last administration, realism, pragmatism and geopolitical calculation seemed back in vogue, even if the discontinuities in policy were far less drastic.

However, part of a recent FP piece proved that liberal interventionism still has proponents in very high places. Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, argues that Iraq has spoiled the good name of humanitarian intervention, and argues that the US should start upholding ICC rulings by arresting Lord’s Resistance Army Joseph Kony.

Now, we can all agree the world would be a better place without Joseph Kony and the LRA. But good things are not always easy or simple. As Andrew Exum points out, murderous thugs and masterminds are a lot harder to kill than we think. The US is already significantly involved in the manhunt for Kony, and examining the record shows one fiasco after another. Simply killing him will be hard, trying to physically capture him will be even more difficult.

With US special forces already involved the world over, many of them looking for the same high-value targets that we’ve tried to kill for over a decade, it’s not clear we can manage such an effort as it is. As Exum mentions, interventions in the Balkans involved thousands of troops, and Balkan belligerents were far easier to deter than the LRA would be. Deploying troops in the Balkans had a serious effect on belligerents that were interested in seeking territory – the prospect of invasion or occupation had a serious effect on their strategic logic. The LRA, however, is a roving gang of ruthless fighters living off the fat of the land and the fear of the populace. Trying to stop such a group will take much more than a small gang of special forces units and drones.

There is also problems with the grand strategic logic that Roth outlines. For starters, having US special forces arrest Kony on an ICC warrant would be an odd sort of way to promote the legitimacy of the ICC, since we have not ratified the treaty. That aside, Roth argues:

Arresting Kony would reaffirm that mass murder cannot be committed with impunity. And it would show that, despite the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, the humanitarian use of force remains a live option at the Obama White House.

Yet Roth advocates going after Kony because everyone in his neighborhood wants him gone. Many targets of the ICC, such as Sudan’s leadership, have control over state organs or at least some form of sponsorship. If Kony is only a good target because he is a complete pariah, the only people the arrest will deter will be those without major state sponsors. Frankly, it is not really clear to me that people such as Joseph Kony are really going to decide not to start private campaigns of mass murder and exploitation because one of their lot is occasionally arrested and eventually tried and ultimately, at some point, sentenced. If people like Kony are simply kill-crazy madmen, then they will not be deterred, and the only way we can stop them is to kill them all, to go to war against evil. If they are rational actors, however, going after Kony will probably just encourage future war criminals to just seek state patronage.

There probably are ways the US can contribute more to the hunt for Kony. Reviving liberal interventionism and sending a special forces team into Uganda and neighboring countries, however, have nothing besides good intentions to recommend them. While I apologize for potentially committing the pundit’s fallacy, selling another potential boondoggle of a morally justified intervention poses neither a popular nor a prudent undertaking.

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