Foreign policy is messy. It’s complex. And it rarely leaves all viewers feeling satisfied at the results. The Obama administration is being forced to confront that basic fact now in Uganda, a country that has in recent months proved itself to be one of the greatest balancing acts the U.S. faces in terms of satisfying its competing desire to provide human security, save lives from disease, encourage democracy, and promote the welfare of gays and lesbians.
On the security front, the administration on Monday announced that it was deploying more military resources into the central African country to aid in the pursuit of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Led by internationally wanted war criminal Joseph Kony, the LRA has cut a swath of violence throughout the region for years, leading advocates to press for a stronger response from the United States. In 2010, Congress passed the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, allowing greater U.S. involvement in the hunt of Kony and his compatriots. Starting soon, the 100 soldiers that the U.S. has had deployed in the region since 2011 will have company in the form of 150 Air Force special forces and other airman and at least four Osprey CV-22 transport helicopters.
“These aircraft are very helpful. They enhance our capacity, particularly in the search operations, reconnaissance, airlifts,” Lt. Col. Paddy Ankunda, the Ugandan military spokesman, told the Associated Press. And though weakened in recent years, the LRA is definitely a worthy target of American ire. According to a 2012 United Nations report, over the course of four years the group abducted at least 591 children, including 268 girls, and recruited them into their ranks. Kony himself is wanted to stand trial at the International Criminal Court for dozens of counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Uganda has also shown its impact in providing assistance in other security situations across central and eastern Africa. In particular, Ugandan troops make up a large portion of the African Union force currently fighting al Qaeda-allied al Shabab in Somalia. Tackling Shabaab and other terrorist groups that might take root is a goal of both Obama and Uganda’s President Yoweri Musevini, making it part of the reasoning in the U.S. is providing training and funding to the Ugandan military. But not all of its military actions in the region and beyond are in line with the United States’ interests. That can be seen in the case of South Sudan, where Museveni has deployed troops to fight on the side of the government.
So how does boosting Uganda’s ability to provide physical security from armed groups to Ugandans and their neighbors stack up against the other values that the U.S. champions? The latest test of the administration has come in the form of Uganda’s growing intolerance of gays. For years, the Ugandan parliament debated and amended a proposed law at times was referred to as the “Kill the Gays” bill. The measure finally passed last December and though stripped of its potential death penalty for Ugandan gays and lesbians, it still allows them to be imprisoned for life for committing the supposed crime of homosexuality. Advocates are also banned from promoting tolerance and citizens are encouraged to turn in their neighbors who they suspect of being gay to the authorities. President Obama himself publicly warned Museveni against signing the bill, noting that doing so would “complicate our valued relationship.”
He signed it anyway. In doing so, Museveni triggered what has been called a “internal review” at the State Department regarding the U.S. relationship with Uganda. Given the ties between the two, it seemed unlikely that much would come from the review process. In the statement announcing the review, Secretary of State John Kerry said the process would “ensure that all dimensions of our engagement, including assistance programs, uphold our anti-discrimination policies and principles and reflect our values.”
Acting in the name of those values, Kerry last week announced during a forum that the U.S. would be sending a team of scientists to Uganda to speak with Museveni and counter his claims that science backed his decision to sign the anti-gay bill. And on Sunday, Buzzfeed reported that the U.S. will be taking four immediate steps in response to the new law, including redirecting about $3 million intended for tourism and biodiversity programs and moving the Africa Air Chiefs Symposium and East Africa Military Intelligence Non-Commissioned Officers course, both currently scheduled to take place in Uganda, to other locations.
While such countermeasures seem relatively tame, the other planned steps are much more serious in terms of their financial — and potentially human — cost. More than $6 million of funding earmarked for the Inter-Religious Council of Uganda (IRCU) intended to help fight the spread of HIV/AIDS will go towards other organizations in response to the group’s support for the anti-gay law. The Centers for Disease Control is also cancelling a joint study with a Ugandan university intended to identify populations at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. While the IRCU will still get $2.3 million to treat nearly 50,000 current patients, the fact that part of the American counter-move relates to public health at all speak to the difficulty in punishing Uganda for its anti-gay stance.
The dollar figures in the newly announced measures may seem like a lot, but they’re just a drop in the bucket of the amount the U.S. contributes to Uganda annually. In fiscal year 2014, nearly $500 million went towards fulfilling American’s foreign aid commitments to Uganda — not counting military aid. However, that doesn’t mean there’s a ton of room of the U.S. to work. The vast majority of that amount went to public health programs: $303 million for HIV/AIDS-related funding and another $38 million towards malaria and tuberculosis prevention. Complicating matters further, even if aid is cut off, most of it doesn’t go towards the government. Instead, it’s divvied out to a complex mix of local advocacy groups, health centers, and other NGOs to actually conduct HIV/AIDS prevention, awareness, and treatment on the ground.
The U.S.’ challenges in determining what to do in Uganda aren’t unique to its relationship with that country. “Every one of our foreign policy relations is a mix of different interests and some often conflicting interests,” Jennifer G. Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Security and International Studies, told ThinkProgress. “I think that’s particularly evident in places like Uganda which have a fairly authoritarian government but we have perceived security stakes.” Over the years, Cooke continued, in Uganda the U.S. has privileged the security relationship to the detriment of its human rights agenda.
“There’s a huge debate within many of our foreign policy relationships,” Cooke continued, “where people that we see as allies on the security front have egregious human rights policies and trying to parse those can be difficult.” On Uganda specifically, Cooke said, “We need to think hard about exactly how important it is as a security partner — is it all that the U.S. government has perceived it to be?”
Evidence of the disconnect that can come when security interests clash with other values can be seen in the country’s recent electoral history. President Musevini most recently won re-election in a vote that the opposition has dismissed as fraudulent. When it comes to upholding the American ideal of a democratic society, Uganda has proved lacking at times. A 2006 BBC profile of Musevini noted that he amended the Ugandan constitution to run for his third term in office, after pledging to only spending two terms in command of the country, leading to fears that he intends to become “president for life.” A fourth term is now underway for Museveni, the start of which saw street protests against his rule, followed by his jailing of opposition leader Kizza Besigye and a crackdown against demonstrators. Despite that, his party has recently endorsed him to run yet again in 2016 — what will be his thirtieth year in power. The ties between the American and Ugandan governments have remained strong despite those human rights violations.
Five months into his first term in office, President Barack Obama laid out his vision for how American values would guide his thinking in crafting foreign policy. “We uphold our most cherished values not only because doing so is right, but because it strengthens our country and it keeps us safe,” he said at the time. “Fidelity to our values is the reason why the United States of America grew from a small string of colonies under the writ of an empire to the strongest nation in the world.” The next five years have shown the difficulty that comes when some of those values clash with each other, jostling for dominance.
But the administration insists that it is managing to criticize the Ugandan government while still maintaining its other priorities. “None of this diminishes our commitment to the people of Uganda, to promoting regional security and justice and accountability for perpetrators of atrocities like the LRA, and to ensuring that lifesaving treatment for HIV/AIDS continues to reach those who need it,” National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Lalley said in an email to ThinkProgress. “But we’re also not going to be shy about our views on this law, and on the importance we place on ensuring respect for human rights — including those of members of the LGBT community,” he continued, adding “we will continue to make clear our view that this abhorrent law should be repealed.”
(Photo: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel escorts Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni into the Pentagon ahead of a 2013 meeting.)