He opened the file. It wasn’t the first time he had looked at it. He glanced down the lines of the first page, a summary of the known sequence of events. The following two pages were intelligence background on the LRA and the regional political situation. The next page was an outline of possible options for response from his national security advisor. After that were pictures and short biographies of each of the dead Americans, four to a page. There were eight pages of them. Another three had died of their wounds since the file had been prepared, and a number of others were in critical condition.
He looked through the pictures. Then he turned back to the page that set out the options for response. He had issued an immediate condemnation of the killings. One of the options was to leave it at that. There were several others. In the wake of the attack, the Ugandan government had called on the US to aid it in eradicating the LRA.
He read over the options, thinking through the implications.
Thomas Paxton Knowles was a tall man of fifty-eight with a jutting, square jaw and a full head of greying hair. President for eighteen months, he had spent twenty years of his life making his way towards the White House, the last four as governor of Nevada.
Like any president, Tom Knowles had inherited a ready-made complexity of foreign involvements the day he walked into the Oval Office. Seventeen years after invading Afghanistan US forces were still deployed in and around Kabul, supposedly acting as advisors and trainers to the Afghan army, and American drone aircraft were a constant feature in the skies over the Pakistan border. Five years on from the Georgia crisis the presence of US troops remained a constant irritant with the Russians, without any obvious exit strategy. Closer to home, what had started as a program of joint US and Mexican border patrols had turned into a fortified deployment with a virtual war being fought with armed drugs gangs on both sides of the border and frequent US casualties. Colombia, Liberia, Haiti and the Philippines were all places where there were US missions of varying sizes.
That was a good long list and it posed enough challenges without requiring any additions. The Masindi Massacre was one in a litany of outrages by a longstanding, local insurgency in a distant country in which a group of Americans had happened to get involved. The charity had been warned by the State Department about sending people to serve in Uganda. It would be perfectly possible for him to do nothing beyond the condemnation he had already issued.
But thirty-two Americans—rising to thirty-five, and possibly going higher—had been killed in cold blood. And who was to say the LRA hadn’t targeted the hospital compound in Masindi because they knew Americans would be there?
A good part of the Republican Party was demanding some kind of response, but Knowles didn’t need political pressure to make him feel the need for action. From all he had been told in the last couple of days, the LRA was a cancer on humanity. It had no apparent program beyond the murder, rape and robbery of the local populations in a terrorized triangle of territory in northern Uganda, South Sudan and northeast Congo. Like some kind of hideous reptile, it survived in the dark crevices created by the political tensions between the three affected states. Every time the group seemed to be dying away, it flared back into life, usually with a spectacular atrocity like the Masindi Massacre. Peace talks had brought the insurgency to the brink of cessation a number of times, only to collapse when the leaders of the group disappeared into the jungle to restart hostilities. At other times the Ugandan army had mounted a drive to eradicate it but had ground to a halt in the dense jungle of the area through inadequate manpower and lack of resolve from the other two countries where the LRA found temporary shelter before reinfiltrating its Ugandan base. And while this was happening, the ranks of the insurgents were constantly replenished by the abduction of children and their forced conversion into soldiers. There were stories of children being taken back to their villages and compelled to kill their own parents to prove their loyalty to their abductors. After thirty years of fighting this monster the Ugandan authorities felt powerless to eradicate it.
Knowles could envisage himself agreeing to the Ugandan government’s request. If he gave the go-ahead, US troops could probably be on the ground in weeks. Eradicating the LRA was a clear objective, defined, contained, with a short time horizon, a willing local government, and an unambiguous case for intervention in the name of humanitarian goals. He hadn’t seen a military assessment yet, but he didn’t think an outfit like the LRA would pose much of a threat to the US army. His national security advisor, Gary Rose, thought likewise. The situation in Uganda had nothing in common with the awful embroilments in Afghanistan and Georgia, where military success was prevented by constant political double-dealing and corruption.
But Tom Knowles was a politician, not a crusader. As the standard bearer of the centrist wing of the Republican Party, he had taken the Republican nomination two years previously after a bruising set of primaries that narrowed down to a straight runoff with Mitch Moynihan, an Idaho senator out of the hardcore Republican right. The election he fought the following November was the first in which the recession that came out of the credit crunch of ’08 and its long, lingering shock waves were beginning to seem a thing of the past. The pendulum had swung back and the country right across the political spectrum, left as well as right, responded to a rhetoric of smaller government, tax cuts and reduced federal spending. Knowles carefully kept his program moderate. He crafted a kind of reverse-Obama coalition of Republicans and centrist Democrats that swept him to power. His first eighteen months in the Oval Office had delivered economic stability and rising markets. That was the first thing the American electorate demanded of its president and would be until the trauma of the economic crisis was a lot more distant still. Rectitude and trust, as he said in just about every one of his speeches on the economy. Growth without overheating. That was the focus, a sound and stable domestic economy, and that was what he aimed to deliver. New foreign adventures weren’t supposed to be on the menu.
Yet presidents aren’t elected so as not to raise their eyes beyond the horizon, even presidents elected to steer a steady course away from the reef of a monumental economic trauma. Like all his predecessors, Tom Knowles took his place in history extremely seriously. He did have an international agenda, although not one that he had talked about much in the election or in the eighteen months since he had been sworn in. Together with his national security advisor and defense secretary, he felt that over the last eight years the US had led too little, had been too much interested in consensus and too little prepared to act. It was as if the country had looked at what it had done during the Bush years, saw the results, and been fearful of doing the same again, so fearful that it hadn’t trusted itself to do anything on its own. It was a fearfulness that made him angry. Knowles believed that the world needed leadership now more than ever before. As China and India and Brazil rose to prominence—each with its different perspective and political culture—he felt strongly that the world needed someone to set out certain common, ineluctable principles and to be prepared to put those principles into action. Rightly or wrongly, Tom Knowles believed that only the United States could play that role.
The truth was, he couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity than the one the Masindi Massacre presented. It came at the perfect time in his first term, with eighteen months of solid governance behind him to show that he was no trigger-happy adventurer and enough time left ahead of him to get the whole thing done before he faced the American people again. None of the current US foreign interventions was of his making and each was bogged down in one way or another, in his view, because of compromises and poor decisions made by previous administrations. This one would be his, one that he could launch, prosecute and bring to a close on his watch, one that would allow him to show how a US military intervention should be done.
Beyond the effect of freeing the people of north Uganda from a terrorist menace, an intervention against the LRA would make a strong point. It would make the kind of statement Knowles wanted to make about American leadership in the world and about American willingness to exert that leadership when the cause was just.
Yet he knew enough history to recognize that his inclination to reach for the gun needed to be questioned. In the first flush of outrage after the massacre, the American people would support him. But it was easy to start something like this and then find, for reasons you hadn’t foreseen, that it turned into a quagmire from which there was no honorable way out. And the American people wouldn’t thank him for that. They wouldn’t thank him in two years’ time if he hadn’t got it done and American boys were dying in Uganda when he was up for re-election.
He leafed through the file. He looked at the pages of faces staring out at him, young American men and women. All good people, all motivated by altruism—all dead. He paused and read a couple of the biographies beside the pictures.
He just didn’t see how this could turn into a quagmire. It was so clear cut. The local political support was there, the objective was so well defined, the cause so just.