The West’s warlord fetish

The debate about Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” campaign has been impassioned, but there haven’t been many efforts to put it in a proper historical context.  The fact that the campaign harnessed social media to get its message across makes it feel new and hip.  But if you get past the techno-blather, there are precedents, as my colleague Keith Stanksi points out in World Politics Review:

In the late-19th century, for instance, a British intelligence officer named Francis R. Wingate launched a similar campaign focused on the leader of the Sudan, Khalifa Abdullahi. The campaign went the equivalent of “viral” for its era after numerous European newspapers, magazines and pamphlets reproduced Wingate’s account of how the social inequality, turmoil and inequity in Sudan reflected Abdullahi’s depraved character.

The argument resonated in Britain. After months of debate, and amid growing public pressure, the British Parliament launched a war and a sustained manhunt that culminated in the overthrow of Abdullahi’s regime and, ultimately, his death.

Colonel Wingate can be seen above (on the right) in a cunning disguise.  Coming back to the present, I wouldn’t have any moral qualms about Kony meeting an ugly fate per se, but Keith points out that fixating on Bad Men can come at a very high cost:

Simplification is not the Kony 2012 campaign’s primary offense. Numerous activist organizations, including some more-established than Invisible Children, take liberties in crafting slogans and public awareness campaigns. Policymakers, supporters and journalists of all persuasions are willing to overlook sins of omission or moments of exaggeration in the search for compelling causes.

Rather, the Kony 2012 debate illustrates a more troubling trend. Fixating on Kony as a warlord leads many policymakers and Invisible Children supporters to conclude that some of the most troublesome features of Central Africa could be mitigated — if not eliminated — by targeting one man. Invisible Children leads viewers and supporters to believe that to capture or kill Kony is to restore order to Northern Uganda and the surrounding environs.

The danger of this logic can be seen in the United States’ most formative encounter with a warlord, Mohammed Farah Aidid. Almost two decades ago, Aidid became the target of a U.S.-led manhunt that, according to many policymakers at the time, would determine the political fate of famine-ridden Somalia. The failed mission and hasty U.S. exit from Somalia illustrated the danger of both underestimating the political complexity of local situations and overestimating the United States’ capacity to navigate them.