Originally published in Institute for Policy Studies.
Dear President Obama,
You’re not the man I thought you were.
Roughly a week ago, you issued a waiver that would allow the US to continue to provide military assistance to four countries—Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen, and Chad—whose militaries recruit or deploy child soldiers.
You claimed the waivers would serve as a warning to the states to get their acts together. You claimed Yemen is a key ally in the war on terror and requires our assistance to survive. You said Chad, the DRC, and Sudan were making steps in the right direction and still required our assistance for force modernization and human rights training. Even your advisor Samantha Powers, someone whose human rights work I have deep respect for, tried to justify the waivers as a chance for these countries to do better.
Most progressives have no problem finding flaws with your first years as President to criticize you about, whether it’s the whittling down of the healthcare bill, decision to ramp up military operations in Afghanistan, failure to close Guantanamo, or deal effectively with Climate Change at Copenhagen.
For me however, it is the moments in which you have an opportunity to make a clear decision, with profound moral implications, and yet choose to act in a way that makes me ashamed to call you my President.
It has been one of the saddest and most disappointing aspects of your presidency that you have not only allowed militaries that use children to fight their battles to operate with impunity, but currently and actively assist these same militaries. I wish I could say these waivers were the first instance I suffered this extreme disappointment, but just last year you provided training, arms, and cash to the Somalia Transitional Federal Government, a known user of child soldiers. I still have not forgiven you.
I understand why the idea of professionalizing soldiers and training them in human rights could sound appealing, and even seem like the right course of action. However, a good soldier soon becomes meaningless if he is left to exist independent of the civil institutions necessary to both support him and hold him accountable for his actions. You are smart enough to know no amount of military training and good intentions will create civilian accountability and human rights in these conflict zones. The rule of the gun can never accomplish what the rule of law can.
If these governments lacked the institutional wherewithal to keep children out of their militaries in the first place, what should make us believe they will be able to control the soldiers we train for them? Should we believe that the key power players and military leaders in these countries who have shown their moral disregard for human rights before are suddenly changed men? That the war criminal Bosco Ntaganda has just been misunderstood by the ICC and only needs our help to change his ways? Why should we give these people a second chance to hurt more people?
I can believe that trying to achieve the progressive agenda you promised was difficult, and subject to many institutional constraints that kept you from doing everything the world hoped for. I don’t blame you for that.
That you have decided to make an exception for child soldiers in these countries, in the name of our national interests—for that, I do blame you. As a Senator, you supported and co-sponsored the Child Soldier Prevention Act that made what you are doing illegal. Perhaps more importantly, you are a father with two young children of your own.
What national interest of ours would be worth destroying the innocence of Sasha and Malia? And why is it acceptable for children in other countries to fight for these national interests?
All of this has lead me to one of two conclusions: either you lied to us, you lied about the bill you supported, about the type of man you were, about the promises of change, or perhaps more disappointing–the system has changed you.
You are the President of my country, but I’ll be damned if you do this in my name. This is your decision and your moral failing. Its consequences will be born by others, but the blame and the responsibility lies squarely with you.
Michael Sean Lally