Jason Russell has an idea, and that idea is to arrest Joseph Kony. Jason has made a movie to explain how he is putting his idea in motion: crowdsourcing military intervention. Well, he doesn’t quite phrase it in that way, but that is what it amounts to. Armed with #KONY2012 hashtags, posters, bracelets and viral movie clips, Russell aims to make Joseph Kony public enemy number one (on a global level). As the name of a warlord from the middle of the African continent is now the top-trending topic on Twitter, I’d say he’s off to a pretty good start.
Let’s make no bones about this, Russell is pretty much on the money about the nature of Kony. If such things still existed, he’d be a prime example of hostis humani generis. But if this works, then the world gets a little bit more dangerous.
Russell’s film is hopeful (it even has the Obama ‘Hope’ guy in a fraction of the film). It presents a pretty simple and powerful idea: we identify a prime candidate for global public enemy number one, we get his name to the entire world with viral marketing and then leverage that to get policymakers to go after him. We the people speak, they the administrators listen and Kony gets handcuffed and dragged before the International Criminal Court. Russell even goes into the nuts and bolts of it – America needs to give the Ugandans the equipment/advisors to track him down.
To re-visit the “Underpants Gnome” model of foreign policy:
1) Give Uganda things.
3) Get arrest.
While this is in no way a criticism of the choice of Kony, here’s my problems with the above setup:
As the film indicates, the Lord’s Resistance Army operates in a pretty big swathe of Central Africa. Kony is pretty decent at manouvering between borders. It has kept him alive for the past couple of decades, so on a planning position, let’s take it is a given that he will carry on doing this. The LRA is currently operating somewhere between the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Combined with Uganda, those four states have him penned in. The problem being, pressure in one will lead to him skipping across the border into another. Unless Kony 2012 want state militaries to start walking across borders after him, that’s four pretty weak state governments that need to be considered. How much will their armed forces cost to bring up to scratch? The alternative might be to arm one, and let them play Texas ranger across the borders of three other sovereign states. I’m not using sovereignty here as a barrier, but it’s something to consider. Helpfully, the video excludes the fact that Uganda helped invade the DRC in the 1990s, DRC politicians are currently under indictment for war crimes committed in the CAR and when Uganda went into South Sudan to chase Kony, their own troops were accused of killing and kidnapping South Sudanese civilians. I’m no Africa specialist, but that sounds like a disaster in the making if one of them is going to be given carte blanche to go after Kony, if such a thing is possible.
Second problem: let’s assume that somehow, a government, or collection of governments, is armed and trained, and sent off after Kony. The immediate question is whether he is captured or killed. Might not be too tasteful if millions of youtube viewers worldwide wake up to the fact that they are directly responsible for the decision to go after a man, that gets him killed. I wouldn’t shed a tear over kony’s death, but it is worth considering. The second consideration is what happens afterwards. Will the armies involved give all those cool new toys that America has provided back? I think not. If America is induced to conduct a mass technology transfer, we wind up with 1-4 newly empowered state militaries. At least, technically state militaries. Lest we forget (or the helpful film casually ignores) the relationship between soldier and state isn’t the same in those four countries as westerners expect it to be. Have Kony 2012 put any thought into what the knock-on effects of the mass empowerment of these military forces might do? You only have to look at the role of the military in South Sudan’s internal conflicts to know that putting better guns and equipment in the state’s hand might have unforseen, lethal, consequences for the citizens that have to put up with the state long after Kony stops trending on twitter.
Third, and perhaps most important: Crowdsourcing intervention. Russell has picked an easy target: Joseph Kony. Why stop there? More to the point, if this works, will it ever stop? Will simplistic explanations of long-running wars, delivered in a Facebook-friendly manner become the future of foreign policy? If the opinion of Rihanna and George Clooney is going to dislodge ‘technocrats’ who do things like read the Military Balance, then what’s to stop intervention in Syria? Pretty much everyone with a passing interest in military affairs says “that is a very bad idea and lots of people will die” but I’m pretty sure that a bright person with access to youtube can come up with a better argument for a brighter world in which taking Assad down is an expression of democratic empowerment. The point about war and military affairs is that at some point, it requires restraint. That restraint is entirely arbitrary (and unfair) but it stops people getting killed. If Angelina Jolie in combination with Condoleeza Rice are to dictate American strategy, then restraints to force will disappear into a blur of “Let’s go get the bad guy” activism that is almost entirely ignorant of the second and third order effects of those decisions.
To finish: Joseph Kony deserves to be put in cuffs and dragged before the ICC. Raising the profile of the heinous nature of the guy’s crimes is awesome. The idea that popular opinion can be leveraged with viral marketing to induce foreign military intervention is really, really dangerous. It is immoral to try and sell a sanitised vision of foreign intervention that neglects the fact that people will die as a result. That goes for politicians as much as for Jason Russell.
Edit – For a continuation of this article that goes into a bit more depth on military questions, click here. Jack