Obama, Child Soldiers: False/Real Choices

“When America strays from our values, it not only undermines the rule of law, it alienates us from our allies, it energizes our adversaries and it endangers our national security and the lives of our troops. So as Americans, we reject the false choice between our security and our ideals. We can and we must and we will protect both. And that is just what you will pledge to do in a few moments when you raise your right hand and take your oath." President Barack Obama, U.S. Naval Academy commencement speech 2009.

Rhetoric is what the President does well. He made a similar statement in his inaugural address, a back handed slap to President Bush who was also on the dais that day in reference to his “enhanced interrogation” policy. Obama would soon have a better understanding of those types of choices, though the rhetoric remains unchanged.

More recently, at the Clinton Global Initiative, Obama said, "Now, I — I do not use that word, 'slavery,' lightly. It evokes, obviously, one of the most painful chapters in our nation's history. But around the world, there's no denying the awful reality. When a man desperate for work finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling for little or no pay and beaten if he tries to escape, that is slavery. When a woman is locked in a sweatshop or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving, that's slavery. When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed, that's slavery. When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family — girls my daughters' age — runs away from home, or is lured by the false promise of a better life and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists, that's slavery. It is barbaric and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world."

Moving. Yet for the third straight year the president will be issuing waivers for the Child Soldier Protection Act (CSPA) for reasons of “National Interest”.  The countries of Libya, South Sudan, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo must all receive CSPA waivers if they are to receive American aid.  

Various reasons have been given for each country, a humorous one being that South Sudan became a country in July of 2011, so the law does not apply. Back in 2009, for Obama to be on the grey line between our security and our ideals was a hypothetical choice, not a false one. It wasn’t his choice. Now it is a real choice for Obama, and our ideals and security are being weighed by him and he has made the choice, for a third time.

In fighting terrorism, we cannot always pick our partners, but Libya is a different case. This is a burgeoning democracy, and this would seem a perfect time to tie our foreign aid dollars to our ideals. By making the decision to “lead from behind” during the Libyan Civil War, we also made the decision to fund and arm groups that use child soldiers. Indeed children as young as seven did fight on the ground while we bombed from the air. Now there is an opportunity to make a course correction.

One of the groups using child soldiers currently in Libya is the Muslim Brotherhood’s February 17 Brigade – a group separately receiving American foreign aid dollars through the country they now control, Egypt. Incidentally, this group was reportedly charged with security at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi at the time of the attack which killed ambassador Stevens, during which they took no active part in the defense.

House National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “It is in the U.S. national interest to develop relationships with the new government to avoid the proliferation of loose weapons, tighten border security, develop counter-terrorism capabilities, and provide the stability the country needs to avoid further violence.” All true, but do we not need to define the terms of such a relationship, particularly in the wake of a successful terrorist attack where indigenous forces could have intervened? This is a true false choice and a situation where American foreign aid dollars should translate into fostering American ideals. There is no apparent reason to give them money with no strings attached.

Absent from the discussion is Syria. The U.S. is mulling over whether or not to get involved in a sectarian civil war which would depose another dictator in the name of human rights. But the makeup of the opposition is at best unclear. “Death squads” have committed acts of terrorism and have been raising the al Qaeda flag on rooftops which they then throw bodies off of. They are also using children as young as ten as frontline fighters. Neither American ideals nor security seem to be anywhere in sight. False/Real choice?


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