The Fallout from Kony 2012

Did the Kony 2012 documentary do more harm than good?

The biggest African news story last week did not come out of Africa but rather from the San Diego offices of an advocacy group. Invisible Children last Tuesday released a thirty-minute video calling for the capture of fugitive Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. What followed was an awesome display of the power of social media as the mainly youthful fans mobilized their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts to push the Kony 2012 documentary, attracting the attention and endorsements of various mononymous celebrities like Oprah, Diddy and Rihanna. Just over the weekend, the video garnered more than 70 million views on YouTube alone.

The viral campaign has undeniably been successful in focusing attention on Kony. Whether that notoriety will translate into his being brought to justice remains to be seen—as does the impact social media has on the conduct of U.S. foreign policy in an increasingly interconnected world.

Who is Joseph Kony?

Even set among the rogues’ gallery of despots, warlords and other misfits who have bedeviled postcolonial Africa, Kony stood out for his bizarreness and brutality. A former altar boy and high-school dropout who had briefly apprenticed for a local witch doctor, he founded the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda in 1987.

While the LRA drew some of its initial recruits from groups which had either been defeated by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni in his rise to power or otherwise felt marginalized by the government, it never really advanced any ideological vision or articulated a political program. It was held together by brute force and terror—most of its “soldiers” were abducted children who were forced to carry out atrocities as part of their “initiation”—along with Kony’s messianic fantasies (he claimed to channel spirits and dabbed “holy” shea nut oil on his combatants to shield them from bullets).

Over the years, the LRA is estimated to have forcibly pressed as many as seventy-five thousand children into its ranks, the boys to serve as combatants or porters, the girls to be given as “wives” to fighters who had proven their loyalty. The group has been responsible for the murder and rape of tens of thousands of men, women and children across the middle of Africa and the displacement of over 1.5 million in northern Uganda alone. These horrors made Kony the subject of an arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and crimes against humanity and earned the LRA a designation as a “terrorist group” by the United States.

While efforts by the Ugandan People’s Defence Force (UPDF) and others have significantly weakened the LRA in recent years, Kony repeatedly eluded capture by escaping over the multiple borders in the region, and the group has enjoyed support from Sudanese authorities in Khartoum, which saw LRA attacks as a way to retaliate against neighboring countries for their support of South Sudan’s ultimately successful push for independence.

Kony and U.S. Interests

Between the atrocities committed by his fighters and the despicable bedfellows Kony has cozied up to during the LRA’s decades-long romp across central Africa, it is no wonder that two years ago Congress unanimously passed and President Obama signed into law the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which made bringing the conflict to an end a U.S. foreign-policy priority.

Last October, the administration announced the deployment of a small contingent of U.S. forces to the region to assist local militaries in a final push to end once and for all the threat posed by Kony and his now-dwindling band of followers. With the farcical exception of Rush Limbaugh’s confused championship of the LRA as a “Christian” group, the move received widespread support with frontrunner Mitt Romney leading the Republican pack with an endorsement of the deployment against what he described as a “virulent and malevolent force.”

Since then, about one hundred U.S. military personnel, mostly drawn from Special Operations Forces, have been living and working in forward positions in the bush and forests with their African hosts, bringing enhanced intelligence, logistical-management and staff-coordination capabilities to their efforts. These efforts and the assistance that the United States brought to them were even officially welcomed by the United Nations.

Moreover, since it is widely acknowledged that there is no purely military solution to the LRA challenge, Washington has also ramped up State Department and USAID projects aimed at local communities in the affected areas. All this has had the intended effect, as the assistant secretary of state for African affairs reported at the end of last year: “Dozens of LRA officers have been killed or captured or have simply surrendered. The LRA’s core fighters have been reduced to an estimated 150 to 200, in addition to accompanying women and children.”

All of this recent U.S. involvement with the LRA resistance suggests the timing of the “Kony 2012” campaign a bit odd. A number of experts have rightly questioned the accuracy of the information contained on video itself and Invisible Children’s finance stewardship of the funds it has raised in the past (to say nothing of the millions it undoubtedly raked in from the $30 “action kits,” $10 “Kony bracelets” and sundry other regalia hawked on its website).

Others, while sympathetic to the group’s objectives, have raised legitimate concerns that “the video shows only a Western audience, without any reference to African partners or leaders” and thus risks “disempowering and undermining the role of Africans . . . [who] must play the primary role in bringing peace to the region,” or going farther, have taken issue with the basic assumptions of the awareness campaign itself for “reduc[ing] people in conflict situations to two broad categories: mass-murderers like Joseph Kony and passive victims so helpless that they must wait around to be saved by a bunch of American college students with stickers.”

Unintended Consequences

There is no doubt that Invisible Children has had extraordinary success in galvanizing mass support behind its campaign. But what impact will this have, both on the ground in this specific case and, more generally, in foreign policy going forward?

Ironically, “Kony 2012” might set back its declared goal and the progress being made to end Joseph Kony’s terror spree. The key to the campaign’s success has been simplified messaging, both regarding abuses perpetrated by the villain and with respect to the solution proffered. The solution was reduced to bare bones by filmmaker Jason Russell: “In order for Kony to be arrested this year, the Ugandan military has to find him. In order to find him, they need the technology and training to track him in the vast jungle. That's where the American advisors come in.”

For someone setting into motion an awareness campaign, Russell appears blithely unaware of the complex political dynamics at work in the heart of Africa. First, the International Criminal Court is increasingly viewed with a wary eye by many African leaders who only see it indicting other Africans and have, rightly or wrongly, closed ranks against it. But Russell put this red-button issue front and center.

Second, the Ugandans indeed have the best trained and equipped military force in the area, but so what? It has been years since Kony operated in Uganda. As for the UPDF pursuing him into the Democratic Republic of the Congo, that might have been possible before “Kony 2012” publicized the option, but now that is highly unlikely: Congolese president Joseph Kabila, whose own political legitimacy is questionable after a fraud-ridden “reelection” in November, can’t risk allowing a Ugandan incursion; his own country’s weak armed forces are still smarting from the humiliation of the foreign interventions during the Congo Wars that ended less than a decade ago, including a partial occupation by the UPDF.

Third, given the incredible sensitivities surrounding the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) and its role on the continent—last week, the commander, General Carter F. Ham, was at pains to emphasize that U.S. contributions to countering the LRA are “best done through support, advising and assistance, rather than U.S. military personnel in the lead actually conducting the operations to try to find Kony and capture him . . . We are an enabling force to facilitate and advance the capabilities of the African forces”—highlighting the importance of the American contribution will just as likely force the U.S. military to take a step even farther back.

Social Networking and Foreign Policy

More ominously, the success of the “Kony 2012” campaign will undoubtedly give rise to similar efforts, and the management of international relations will be the worse off for it. As nasty and brutish as they are, neither Kony nor the LRA ever constituted a direct threat to the United States. The campaign against the LRA was and is a war of choice—although I have argued elsewhere that it is the correct one. But what makes it a viable policy option is that U.S. leaders have had a choice, both in making the commitment and in choosing how to go about implementing it. The freedom of policy makers is going to be terribly constrained if their choices are reduced to the most simplistic in order to be readily spread through social media.

Current strategic and budgetary constraints limit U.S. resources available for commitments abroad. In such an era, policy makers need to carefully husband resources, leverage every instrument of national power and rely on complicated and often messy compromises in order to resolve conflicts. The virtues of such statesmanlike prudence, however, are in direct opposition to the black-and-white, awareness-raising ethos of campaigns like “Kony 2012”—which seek to grab what political space they can, irrespective of any other claims which might exist or arise. In fact, the fatal conceit of Invisible Children and its defenders is solipsistic confusion: their own newly discovered awareness of an issue that already has effective solutions in the real world.

Fortunately, the fallout may be little this time around. Aside from possibly complicating the work of those who are actually doing something to hasten Kony’s end, this feel-good episode resulted in no subversion of international efforts or obstruction of U.S. national interests; serious efforts were already well underway. Alas, there is no guarantee that when the next batch of self-appointed crusaders asks Americans to don a tacky bracelet or accessory for some far-off cause the only faux pas will be of the fashion variety.

J. Peter Pham is director of the Michael S. Ansari Africa Center at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC.

Image: DJB