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Obama helps Uganda, does what’s morally right

The tentacles of the United States of America’s military extend to all corners of the world. On 14 October, United States President Barack Obama informed Congress that he dispatched about 100 US military advisers — mostly special operations forces — to Uganda to assist in the fight against a local militant group. The questions being asked are what America wants in return and whether Africa needs the assistance in the first place, and why militarize Africa when it is this very action that is perceived to be holding democracy on the continent back?

Many perceive this as a new development, but it is not. America has provided nearly US$33 million dollars in support to regional efforts to battle the LRA Army since 2008.

The help cannot be labeled successful or unsuccessful at the present moment, as it just too soon to tell. But now perhaps we will see whether the additional Special Forces ‘advisers’ who carry weapons for self-defense purposes will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Many around the world, and even most Africans hope this will be the case.

Although Uganda doesn’t want foreign militaries fighting their battles for them, it and the world’s newest nation-state South Sudan, for now, are welcoming the American assistance.[1] This is despite the African outcry in 2007 over America’s military in Africa and its Africa Military Command, AFRICOM.

The South Africans were scared that the Americans were going to invade South Africa to gain access to strategic minerals following the Iraq War, while others saw AFRICOM as an arm to thwart the growing Chinese influence in Africa.

Whatever the concerns, what many people don’t know is that two years prior, in 2005, South Africa became the 13th African nation to participate in America’s Africa Contingency Operations Training Assistance program (ACOTA).

Through ACOTA, which comprises of 21 members nowadays, the US provides peacekeeping and humanitarian aid, offensive training, particularly for regular infantry units and small units modeled on Special Forces and training for hostile environments.[2] The African forces are given standardized attack equipment (assault rifles, machine guns and mortars), and the emphasis is on ‘offensive’ cooperation.

One the key differences between AFRICOM and ACOTA was the media. For example, in August 2007, Waflula Okumu of the Institute for Security Studies based in Pretoria testified to the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs and explained that African public opinion is ‘really against’ the idea of ‘getting in bed’ with the US. This was despite all the positive cooperation forged through ACOTA.[3]

South Africans and Africans in general believe that the militarization of political and economic space by African military leaders is one of the factors that holds Africa back. Many want to see democratic systems do their work and leave the military out of it.

While African states are trying to put the culture of military rule behind them, the US is determined to demonstrate that many activities in Africa, civilian or otherwise, should be undertaken by armed forces.

Others agree. When I interviewed South African Ambassador Thomas Wheeler in 2008, he felt AFRICOM could make a contribution in helping Africa, but if so, American officials have not properly explained this, which begs the question: Why then has the overall response to Obama’s Ugandan deployment been so positive?

As I teach in my diplomacy course, States do not intervene for primarily humanitarian reasons and they are rarely prepared to sacrifice their own soldiers overseas unless there is some sort of national interest involved. However, sometimes States can achieve both their strategic goals and stop human rights abuses at the same time. This is what happened here.

Whether a State is successful in this endeavor often depends on perception and the US is desperately trying to reverse the world’s anti-American image.

This is the role of US public diplomacy; the ability to promote American ideals and beliefs to a foreign public to advance their national interest. This is the job of not only the State Department, but the Department of Defense as well. And as an American living overseas, I can undoubtedly say that it needs to be strengthened.

It can be strengthened through words in documents such as the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review that states “preventing human suffering due to mass atrocities” is a Pentagon priority. Positive media exposure, both new and old, can strengthen it. However, these tools combined with America’s ‘actions’ are the only real way to start reversing the damage done under the Bush administration.

The US appeared to take a back seat in the Libyan war or, at least, make it appear as such, by focusing on air strikes and providing intelligence to ‘protect civilians.’ The US let the European nations take center stage. And these actions haven’t gone unnoticed. The combination of discontentment of African leaders towards China makes this point in time an ideal opportunity for America to increase its standing in resource rich Africa.

The perception of a positive American influence on the continent is crucial in order to secure trade and investments, as various analysts predict Africa to grow at levels of above 5%.

South Africa’s Standard Bank recently identified five longer-term trends that have the potential to raise future ‘trend’ growth rates for many of Africa’s 57 countries. This includes the continent’s larger and more affluent population, which was set to expand to 2-billion people by 2050, as well as continuing urbanization, increasing technology adoption, the latent potential of Africa’s minerals and agricultural resources and the more innovative financial sector.[4]

Recently, elected Zambian president Michael Sata has threatened to run “bogus” Chinese investors and companies out of his country, which is welcomed by his citizens who see the Chinese as exploitative and as a violator of human rights. He is one of the few, though, as many African leaders continue to embrace the Chinese and their money.

Economics and military strength dominate international relations, with the former imposing more influence each day. So, if the US is not going to give strategic loans, it needs to continue using its military expertise to gain influence through programs such as ACOTA and should get involved in places like Uganda where atrocities are being committed. More US private sector investment is also almost always welcomed, but many Americans still can’t break this perception of Africa being the ‘dark continent.’

Since 9/11 and its aftermath and events surrounding the global financial crisis, Washington has been so focused on itself and its own immediate needs that its foreign policy has become so self-serving as to have alienated many more people and nations than it might realize. At times, the US appears to have drifted off into its own world, and in some respects become detached from other geopolitical developments, which in the past might have generated some interest.

Perhaps 15 or 20 years ago the US didn’t really have to care too much, but that world is long gone. Forces are being realigned and the geopolitical framework is changing without much apparent reference to America the superpower.

These changes might not necessarily go against America’s interests, but this could change if it continues to live a small and selfish bubble.

Trying to change its image by what is being promoted as helping to contain mass murder in Central Africa is a great place to start.

It is true that America’s Uganda move rewards it for its contributions to the African Union force in Somalia that fights the al-Shabab militia; It is true that regional stability serves America’s interests such as the war on terrorism and access to oil in South Sudan. However, African countries are also in need of stability to attract more foreign investment that will help lift itself out of decades of poverty.

Sometimes an act is selfish, but sometimes even a selfish act can also turn out to be the morally right thing to do.

Obama didn’t tell Congress, and in favor of the US constitution, he should have. His proposal would have been an easy sell; security and economic benefits for the US and African countries, along with a good opportunity to paint America in a positive light. Not even Congress could have turned that down.

Notes

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About the Author

Scott Firsing

Dr. Scott Firsing, an American residing in South Africa, is an international studies lecturer at Monash South Africa, a campus of Monash University Australia. Recent publications include “America and UN Peacekeeping,' in the Journal of International Peace Operations (July 2011). He can be reached at scott.firsing@monash.edu.