On Joseph Kony, War Powers and Liberal Interventionism


Joseph Kony Wanted Poster (image: Enough Project)

In the midst of a delightful weekend with family, I noticed in the few minutes I had to look at the computer that I have become the exemplar of Obama Derangement Syndrome with a hastily written Friday post about the White House starting a mini-war in Africa. Apparently it was front-paged on Saturday and caused a bit of debate. So let me make some additional remarks.

First, let me stipulate that Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot, and that I couldn’t disagree more with him. Joseph Kony is a real person, he is a horrible person, and he’s responsible for rape, murder and the conscription of child soldiers. M’kay? I actually have a relative who worked in the US Embassy in Uganda. These facts aren’t in dispute.

I was told that I lack reading comprehension for describing what transpired on Friday as a war and casting skepticism on whether it was authorized by the Congressional law cited in President Obama’s letter to House and Senate leaders. Keep in mind that Obama wrote to Congress “as part of my efforts to keep the Congress fully informed, consistent with the War Powers Resolution.” So “war” is a pretty good descriptor, however small a step it was.

I contacted Russ Feingold’s organization late last Friday, and haven’t heard back from them, on whether they believed that the law in question, the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, authorized Friday’s action, particularly on whether it would stand in as a war powers authorization. I’m perfectly willing to believe that it does, and the fact that nobody in Congress – all of whom voted in favor of the law originally, by voice vote – has made much of a stink about what Obama did on Friday leads me to think that they at least don’t think it’s worthy of arguing about.

But it’s worth pointing out that the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act is something of a red herring here. [cont’d[ Because as Jack Goldsmith pointed out, if you read the letter from the President closely, he writes that he took action “in furtherance of the Congress’s stated policy,” but he derives his specific authority for the action “pursuant to my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive.” So this intervention, in the theory of the President, could have been done without the consultation or Congress, and without any legislation backing up the action. He used Article II authority for it.

I think the precedents for a President Cain are worth thinking about here. It’s a hop and a skip to attacking Iran based on “my constitutional authority to conduct U.S. foreign relations and as Commander in Chief and Chief Executive,” in terms of the precedent. I don’t think we should be so cavalier about locating that authority in the hands of one person, when the Constitution actually stipulates otherwise.

And to be clear, as I said Friday, this is a failure of Congress. Congress doesn’t actually want the war powers authority they have. That’s why they pretty much dropped the confrontation over Libya. They prefer to carp from the sidelines, but to have the President rise or fall on the policy. That’s how it’s been for a long time, hence my description of a “slow slide” into foreign policy being run entirely out of the executive branch.

But undergirding all of this is a belief in liberal interventionism. People can wave the bloody shirts caused by Joseph Kony and say that a President is justified in “trying to take out” a terrible murderer. This is the same argument that liberal interventionists made in Libya, to “take out” a brutal dictator. I understand there are degrees to this, and that 100 advisors are not the same as a nightly barrage of air attacks to protect the citizens of Benghazi and remove Gadhafi from power. Though, shouldn’t the ones who have a problem with that be the liberal interventionists? If Joseph Kony is really so horrible – and Lord knows that’s why the netroots changed all their blog templates to red, gold and green back in 1987 – why wouldn’t you send more than just 100 trainers who can only shoot in self-defense to tackle the problem? If the cause is just, shouldn’t combat troops be put in the field with a shoot-to-kill order? Shouldn’t we have air support? After all, he’s murderous, the scum of the Earth, I’ve heard it told on liberal blogs for 20 years and not just three days ago to score a political point against an individual or a website.

The larger point is that I’m not a liberal interventionist. I have grown more isolationist over the past decade. I fully admit that. And most of the reason is a practical one, namely that I don’t think America does a very good job of “rescuing” people from the clutches of a dictator or provocateur. We just don’t have a great track record at saving the world. We cause a lot of unintended problems. The revolution in Libya has been good for many living under the thumb of Gadhafi, but not for black Africans in Libya and others plucked out of their homes and abused by vengeful rebels. We “saved” Afghans from Soviet invasion, and the favor in return was the rise of the Taliban. We don’t have as much power to control events as many Americans believe, and often we lead to more consequences for both the local population and sometimes our own national security.

Now 100 trainers running through four countries in Africa helping to hunt down Joseph Kony may lead to none of this. Heck, it probably won’t. Maybe it’s the right thing to do, maybe it’s the best use of our military yet devised. But my principles are the same. I’m not all the way down the road of pacifism, but I don’t see a lot to endorse from decades of bungled interventions and blowback. I don’t think America can solve every injustice in the world with the use of force. Maybe that leaves me open to charges of being insensitive to the use of child soldiers and rape as a weapon. Maybe it’s unpopular isolationism. Maybe it demeans American greatness. I’m sorry. It’s what I believe.

UPDATE: I should add that I enjoyed this take from Thomas Lane.

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