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Does intervening in Uganda meet the Mathis Test?

Ooh. Self-referential headlines are ugly, aren't they? But back when President Obama announced the United States would intervene in Libya's civil war, I set out a list of questions to help guide me through decisions on supporting or not supporting America's military interventions abroad. Now that Qaddafi is dead, it's a good time to apply those questions to America's latest intervention—the sending of 100 troops to Central Africa to aid the fight against the brutal Lord's Resistance Army.

Here are the questions, slightly revised:

A: Does the party against whom the United States is considering military action threaten U.S. security? No. The Lord's Resistance Army isn't attacking the United States or United States' interests. Now that the U.S. is getting involved, though, maybe that changes.

B: Is the party against whom the United States is considering action committing genocidal-levels of violence, such that even by the standards of war or civil war the conscience is shocked? Yes. The numbers are staggering. LRA's campaign of terror in Uganda has displaced 2 million people; the forces are said to have raped, mutilated, or abducted another 66,000 residents; and Michael Gerson's account is especially striking: "But (LRA leader Joseph) Kony’s crimes are vivid at close hand. When I was there in 2006, I talked to a boy forced by LRA rebels to execute his neighbors in order to break his ties with the past and to deaden his sympathy. I met another who was forced to bow in Kony’s presence — the rebel leader claims divinity — but who dared to look up in curiosity. The LRA soldiers took out one of the boy’s eyes in punishment." The conscience is shocked, and this violence is taking place on a widespread level to destabilize and horrify an entire region. It's important to note that humanitarian reasons—while significant—aren't as important as national security when weighing these questions. Answering "yes" here doesn't necessarily mean we should send the troops.

C: If the answer to (A) or (B) is "yes," are there non-military means that could effectively mitigate the threat? No. The Lord's Resistance Army is a non-state actor; sanctions wouldn't work in this case.

D: If the answer to (C) is "yes," do that. If the answer to (C) is "no," then: What is the desired end state of U.S. military action? A return to a previous status quo? Regime change? What? I'd have to say the death or capture of Joseph Kony. He claims divinity for himself; he runs the LRA as a cult of personality. Cut off the personality, and the cult is likely to be greatly diminished.

E: What is the worst-case scenario that could develop from U.S. military intervention? Is the scenario more or less threatening to U.S. security than the current threat? That LRA, which has ignored the U.S., becomes motivated to attack America and its interests because of the 100 U.S. troops that are helping track him down. From a security standpoint, the potential costs of blowback are more than the costs of doing nothing. But how likely is that blowback? We probably wouldn't know until the attack occurred.

F: Does the United States have the military and financial resources to bear the burdens of that worst-case scenario? Yes. At 100 troops, our footprint is light and the cost—as these things go—is unlikely to break the federal bank.

This series of questions doesn't produce a neat, mathematical "yes" or "no" answer. On the "for intervention" side, you have the serious of Kony's acts, the inability to address them through non-military means, and the relative cheapness of the operation from a U.S. perspective. On the "against intervention" side, though, you have the fact that Kony doesn't now threaten U.S. security—but that intervening raises the likelihood he will.

And that's, ultimately, why I come down against the U.S. deployment to Central Africa—though it's a closer call, in my mind, than the Libya intervention. The U.S. troops are supposedly going there on a training mission, to "advise" the African troops on how best to combat the LRA and pursue Kony; they only shoot if shot at. Being there makes it quite likely they'll be shot at, and shoot. At that point, we're at war, even if minor. To what good end?

The interesting thing about the deployment is that it is, apparently, an effort to help the countries of Central Africa help themselves, by training troops from those countries on how to pursue Kony and battle the LRA. That's going in the right direction. If there's a way to do that without putting armed U.S. troops in the field against this villain, I might well support that.

Final thought: This set of questions almost certainly leads to a U.S. foreign policy that is a good deal more risk-averse and less adventurous than we've had in the post-Cold War era. I'm OK with us. I want our leaders to clear a high bar before taking us to war.

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