Does Egypt Show Obama Was Right About Child Soldiers?

At the time it seemed like an act of cynical political calculation and a sign of his wavering commitment to human rights: President Obama's decision last fall to suspend the enforcement of a new law that would halt military aid to a handful of nations that employ child soldiers; but in light of the ongoing situation in Egypt, perhaps there's evidence that the criticism was unwarranted. 

Congress passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, a law meant to suspend US military aid to countries that used children in their armed services.  The law was meant to combat one of the great human rights violations of our times; the indoctrination of individuals under the age of 16, and sometimes as young as 8 or 9 years old, into military service, often against their will.  Sadly, the armed forces in some of the world's worst conflict zones have come to rely on child soldiers to bolster their ranks and actually prefer their use, since once broken of any reluctance to commit violence, child soldiers can become brutally effective fighters – willing to follow orders without hesitation and kill without remorse.  That is at least until the conflict ends and the children are no longer needed for military service; former child soldiers carry deep emotional scars from the acts they committed while in uniform and often find integration back into normal society difficult and sometimes impossible.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act was scheduled to take effect late last year, any country in violation of the law would see their military aid from the United States suspended.  But in October, Pres. Obama quietly issued a waiver exempting four countries from the law's implementation: Chad, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan, meaning that military aid and cooperation with these countries could continue, despite their continued use of child soldiers.  Groups like Human Rights Watch slammed the Obama administration for issuing the waiver, contending it sent the message that the United States was willing to overlook egregious human rights violations if a country was deemed to be of some strategic value to the United States.  The administration countered by saying the President was taking the advice of the State Department and that the nations in question were not deliberately violating the ban against child soldiers, but rather were having difficulty in implementing policies meant to keep children out of uniform but were otherwise attempting to comply with the ban.

The State Department and Obama administration were also making a deeper argument that boiled down to a belief that in reality it was better to stay engaged with the militaries of even some truly distasteful regimes than it was to cut them off to make a stand on an issue of human rights.  The logic they employed in this argument was that these countries would simply brush aside the implied human rights critique of a ban, while if the United States remained engaged with them on a military-to-military basis we then had the opportunity to expose them to the professionalism of our armed services and to train their military to conduct themselves in a more professional manner - which would include things like not using children as soldiers. 

On the surface, it smacks of a certain realpolitik justification for continuing business as usual, but perhaps recent events in Egypt show that there is some substance to this argument.  As of Monday morning, the protests in Egypt were entering their third week.  The uprising in Egypt has continued this long for two simple reasons: the tenacity of the protesters and the unwillingness of the Egyptian military to put them down by force.  The Egyptian military has been on the streets almost since the protests began, yet unlike the nation's police or pro-Mubarak militias, they have not engaged the pro-democracy forces in any meaningful level.  The situation looked dire just last Tuesday as journalists around Cairo were beaten and detained, barricades were erected around the main body of protesters in Tahrir Square and pro-Mubarak gangs openly assaulted anyone they perceived to be against them; Tahrir had all the indications of turning into the Tiananmen Square of the new millennium, a bloody symbol of Hosni Mubarak's determination to remain in power.  Yet by dawn, the expected military crackdown hadn't happened, nor did it happen in the following days. According to numerous reports, the US military was actively contacting their opposite numbers in the Egyptian military; Secretary of Defense Robert Gates himself was stated to have been involved in the outreach efforts early last week.  The message they sent was simple: that the Egyptian military – a well-respected institution within the nation – should not move against the demonstrators in defense of a fading Mubarak regime.  Such an action would not only sink Egypt to the ranks of a pariah state on the global stage, but would also mark the end of US-Egyptian military cooperation.  Here it is important to remember that for the past three decades the United States has not only given Egypt billions of dollars of foreign aid per year, but has also been a primary backer of the Egyptian military – one major reason that Egypt today has one of the best trained and equipped militaries in the Arab world is because of lavish support from the United States.

In the end, the Egyptian army didn't clear out Tahrir Square as many feared they would last Tuesday evening.  The army even moved into a position to act as a buffer between the battling pro- and anti-Mubarak forces; though far from a definitive action on their part and far less satisfying on an emotional level than had the military called on Mubarak to face reality and turn over control of the country, given that we are dealing with an entrenched autocracy in a nation that has been governed under a state of emergency for the past 30 years, this is as close to a win as one could rationally expect to get.  Though the evidence to this point is anecdotal, one can assume that the direct military-to-military contact the Egyptians had with their American counterparts helped to prevent a full crackdown on the Tahrir Square protesters.  Had the Obama Administration cut off communications with the Mubarak regime following his tone-deaf address to his nation and his demand that the activists end their protests, these conversations would never have taken place, and last Tuesday may have had a very different outcome.

When viewed in that light, perhaps then there is a logic to the granting of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act waivers and the idea that engagement is more likely to end the scourge of children in combat than is a well-intentioned ban.  

Barack Obama, Egypt, Human Rights, Military, US Foreign Policy, Child Soldier