Weighing U.S. Intervention: Syria v. Congo

President Barack Obama, in a January New Republic interview, was asked bluntly if the United States should actively intervene in Syria’s civil war. He thoughtfully explained his reservations. Several concerned Syria, but the last one pointed to larger ethical issues. “And how do I weigh,” Obama asked, “tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?”

With this comment, Obama cut to the heart of an age-old dilemma about humanitarian military intervention — whether it is worth addressing some conflicts when you know that others continue to simmer, or boil over, at the same time?

This was the case in the 1970s when wars in the Horn of Africa, Uganda, Cambodia and elsewhere killed many hundreds of thousands. It was true in the 1980s when conflict intensified in places like Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. And in the 1990s when the Balkans and Rwanda and parts of West Africa blew up, while Sudan, Somalia and other wars continued.

But for all the terrible headlines today, Obama enjoys advantages that leaders in previous eras did not have. There are fewer wars in the world; more international consensus on what to do about them, and more capable U.S. forces that can help in the task even as other nations generally provide many of the peacekeeping troops. These conditions free Obama to make decisions about the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as Syria, on their respective merits — rather than remain paralyzed by broader philosophical conundrums.

While neither decision should be made lightly, there is a case for more assertive U.S. action in both Congo and Syria. These are now probably the world’s two worst wars that Washington is doing little to address.

Take Congo. First, it is not the case that the nation’s leaders or its insurgents are ordering tens of thousands directly killed on the same time scale as in Syria. What has been happening in eastern Congo for two decades is a breakdown of the state, caused by sporadic fighting among various domestic and foreign militias.

The killing has indeed been horrible — including some of the worst sexual violence in the world, with rape used as a tactical weapon. But most of the deaths have been caused by malnutrition and poor healthcare, resulting from the lack of any real state. The war is killing huge numbers of people, to be sure, but largely indirectly — by preventing government from properly caring for its citizens — something Congo can barely do in peaceful regions.

There is now a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, roughly 20,000 troops. This is a small force for a country the size of the United States east of the Mississippi, even if the force is concentrated in the rugged east.

Second, that force is underequipped and largely made up of African and South Asian peacekeepers. It does not have nearly the number of helicopters or other capabilities to ensure mobility that could compensate for its small size. Even modest additions to this force could help a great deal, with little risk of escalation.

The United States has spent a decade handling far more violent insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. For this, Washington created formations such as “advise and assist brigades,” each roughly 1,500 to 2,500 troops. By the end of 2013, most of these and other units are due to be back in the United States. We have already cut our overseas troop strength in the two wars by almost two-thirds, from its peak five years ago (the peak was some 200,000 troops including 22 combat brigade teams). We could consider deploying one or two of these advise and assist brigades into eastern Congo, as part of the U.N. mission. This could make a big difference to the capacity of the foreign force and in the development of the Congolese army.

Meanwhile, in Syria, while Obama is right to fear a slippery slope to more demanding operations, the most likely scenario for U.S. troops resembles what the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did in Bosnia in the 1990s. First, we arm the weaker side. Then we support it with air strikes. Finally, we help negotiate a peace accord allowing some degree of autonomy for the various sectarian groups within a weak federal structure.

This approach might not work. Even if it fails, however, it is unlikely to lead to the kind of large-scale invasion that we carried out in Iraq or Afghanistan.

In Syria, such an operation would only make sense if it were a combined Arab League-NATO mission, in which U.S. forces were just a small fraction. Using the Bosnia precedent, and allowing for a population four times its size, up to 200,000 foreign troops could be needed in a post-war stabilization effort – if only for a time. But if their focus were on policing ceasefire lines, the number might be cut in half, with the U.S. share perhaps 20,000.

Such scenarios may be unappealing to the president (as they are to me) — especially after a decade of war and a half decade of economic crisis. But the alternative of watching the slaughter in both countries go unchecked, while hoping that the insurgency somehow wins without much support in Syria, is fast becoming no alternative at all.

In fact, given the likely requirements of each mission, we can as part of multilateral coalitions that intervene in both Congo and Syria at once. It is probably not Obama’s preference for his second term — nor is it what most Americans would want, to be sure. But we can make a big difference by addressing the world’s two worst humanitarian crises with limited numbers of U.S. forces.

Obama has an opportunity here to revalidate the Nobel Committee’s decision to award him its peace prize four years ago. It’s also an opportunity to show that the 2011 Libya mission, of which the president is justifiably proud, was not a one-off. Now, with his new Cabinet, Obama should seriously explore his options in both these tragic wars.