100 Million Viewers Can't Be Wrong

How Kony 2012 succeeded beyond our wildest expectations.

While Kony 2012 was being released, I was working with Invisible Children staff and community leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) on civilian protection initiatives. I was astonished to see the view count climb into the millions. None of us expected that a 29-minute film about Joseph Kony would go viral -- or that the backlash would include criticisms that Invisible Children was unaware of the current location of his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), when, in fact, our work has extended into currently affected regions of central Africa over the last two years.

What was perhaps most surprising to see in the wake of Kony 2012 was the misperception that the LRA are still in Uganda. Kony 2012 does portray the LRA's movement away from Uganda into the DRC, the Central African Republic (CAR), and South Sudan (minute 15:01), and a quick look at the LRA Crisis Tracker leaves no doubt about the LRA's current area of operation. Yet somehow the message in the film fell short of getting the point across. Perhaps it was due to the focus on a young Ugandan who was affected by the conflict, or perhaps it is driven by the unfortunate fact that only 20 percent of viewers actually watched the entire film, and the rest may have missed a few crucial details.

There has been much discussion about the video's impact in the days since Kony 2012 launched, but unfortunately almost none of the opinions have come from the three countries currently affected by the LRA. The insight of local leaders in the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan has been largely excluded from the broader conversation, as has their viewpoint on the apprehension of LRA leadership in 2012, and it is clear that the discussion needs to expand.

Kony 2012 is undoubtedly simplified. It is, after all, a short film geared toward high school and college students. It was also designed for the Internet, where attention spans are notoriously short. But the backlash criticizing the film for being oversimplified misses the point -- Kony and his top commanders are still committing atrocities today in central Africa with impunity, and international efforts to stop him have not succeeded.

Delving deeper into the issue quickly reveals its complexity. The LRA have become masters of evasion and survival, eluding regional forces by weaving between country borders and veiling their tracks among those of nomadic herders. They are much smaller in number than they were a decade ago, and yet the atrocities they commit against the civilian population remain devastating. Since 2008, the LRA has abducted more than 3,400 civilians, killed more than 2,400 others, and displaced more than 400,000 people from their homes. The history of the conflict is complex, and the solutions require a multifaceted response from an array of humanitarian and security actors. A 29-minute Internet video will inevitably fall short of addressing these nuances.

What is not complex, and what the film appropriately simplifies, is the morality of the issue. For 26 years, Kony has perpetrated some of the most egregious human rights abuses on the planet, with total impunity. This idea justly demands the world's attention, and in the simplicity of Kony 2012, the film has garnered just that. The film is a gateway to learning more about the conflict, its background, and involvement in broader social issues around the world.

In their rush to point out Invisible Children's oversimplification of the LRA, the critics made an error -- an oversimplification of Invisible Children itself.

Invisible Children and dozens of other groups have been directing attention to this conflict for years. We've made 11 films about the LRA, starting in 2003 when the group was still active in Uganda. After the LRA moved out of Uganda, we launched an advocacy campaign with hundreds of thousands of youth from around the world asking the international community to support the Juba Peace Talks in South Sudan. Yet in these talks, as in the past, Kony took advantage of the relative peace to stock up on supplies and abduct young recruits to strengthen his force. With dialogue off the table, we worked with a coalition of partners to pass the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which President Obama signed into law, pledging U.S. support to apprehend top LRA leadership and provide assistance to LRA affected communities. Most recently, we've expanded operations on the ground in the DRC and the CAR to support civilian protection and rehabilitation initiatives led by local partners. For eight years, we have been following the LRA's movements, working with LRA-affected communities and collaborating with local and international organizations to promote lasting solutions to the crisis.

Invisible Children's program leaders on the ground are from Uganda and the DRC, many of whom have been personally affected by the LRA, and who are leading the design and implementation of innovative recovery efforts in the region. In Uganda, Country Director Jolly Grace Okot has pioneered the model for our programs, taking a long-term approach to overcoming the effects of conflict by improving the quality of education at schools and offering merit-based scholarships to the region's most promising youth. In DR Congo, we've partnered on projects with local leaders like Abbe Benoit Kinelegu, who have committed their lives to stopping the LRA crisis, most notably through a civilian early warning network and FM projects that encourage LRA defection. A glance at our programs on the ground and the substance of our most recent advocacy campaign shows that we do our homework, and the choice to make this film "simple" was just that. A choice.

The true impact of Kony 2012 in this conflict will not be in its ability to raise awareness, but in its demand for results. This is not about tweeting a warlord into submission or ending a conflict with a click. This is about years of advocacy work done by groups in central Africa, northern Uganda, Washington, D.C. -- and, yes, San Diego -- united with groups around the world that have enabled us to reach this moment. Each person involved in the efforts to make Kony famous is helping to build a global constituency, bigger than any one person or organization, invested in the end of LRA violence -- pushing those in positions of power to increase their commitment towards peace in the region. And with the introduction of a new bipartisan resolution introduced into U.S. Congress this week, progress has already begun. To end the LRA threat to communities, we need to change the conversation to a solutions-focused approach on the ground in currently affected regions.

I was able to witness part of this dynamic discussion last October at a civil society conference in Dungu, DRC, where leaders from the DRC, the CAR, and South Sudan came together to lobby their own governments for increased action against the LRA. The leaders also asked President Obama to follow through on commitments made in the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act. Representatives from currently affected areas thanked Obama for support to regional efforts, and then demanded to see results. Kony 2012, in its simplest form, is asking each of us to demand the same.



Stuck in a Rut

If the Republicans really want to attack President Obama on foreign policy, they’re going to have to do a lot better than just recycling tired, old ideas.

In the opening sentence of their recent article in Foreign Policy on how to beat Barack Obama, Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie make a rather audacious claim about the president's standing on foreign policy, "In an American election focused on a lousy economy and high unemployment, conventional wisdom holds that foreign policy is one of Barack Obama's few strong suits. But the president is strikingly vulnerable in this area."

Really? Whatever one might think of President Obama's foreign policy performance -- if you think he has been feckless and weak; if you think he's been a militarist and neocon-lite; even if you can't find Europe on a map -- you'd have a pretty hard time making the case that foreign policy is an area of vulnerability for President Obama. In fact, it's one of the few places where the electorate gives Obama strong marks.

According to a recent AP/Gfk poll the president scores a negative or barely positive rating on a host of domestic issues: the economy, health care, the budget deficit, gas prices, unemployment, and taxes. But check out the foreign policy side of the ledger and it tells a very different story: handling of Iraq, 57 percent approve; Afghanistan, 54 percent; relationships with other counties, 57 percent; and finally terrorism, 63 percent. Other polls suggest that Americans see Obama as a strong leader and someone who will keep the country safe.

According to Rove and Gillespie, voters see Obama as "out of touch and in over his head" on foreign policy and national security, but there is literally not a single significant data point in public opinion polling that supports this assertion.

If anything, Obama's foreign policy advantage -- rather than being vulnerability -- may very well be one of the keys to his re-election.

Indeed, the only people who appear to be out-of-touch are Rove and Gillespie -- and not just with the current polling on Obama, but with the overall mood of the electorate on foreign policy. At a time when Republicans desperately need to find a new way to talk about national security that more accurately reflects the electorate's views on America's role in the world, Rove and Gillespie are calling on GOP presidential candidates to spin the party's greatest hits rather than writing some new material.

Three points illustrate Rove and Gillespie's confusion. First, they claim that the most important national security today is "the struggle that will define this century's arc: radical Islamic terrorism." Rove and Gillespie's argument presupposes that Americans are still living in the wake of 9/11 and are concerned about terrorism as a serious national issue. They're not. Rather, voters express little to no interest in hearing the candidates' views on terrorism. Beyond that, as Rove and Gillespie's own polling indicates, they think Obama has done a bang-up job in fighting terror.

Second, Rove and Gillespie argue that "the Republican candidate must condemn the president's precipitous drawdown in Afghanistan." This is a bit reminiscent of the approach taken by Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections when they railed against the Democrats call for a drawdown from Iraq. Didn't work out so well for the GOP that time; they lost both the House and Senate to Democrats. Even today, only about one in five Americans think Obama is withdrawing troops from the Afghan war "too quickly." So it's bit hard to see how this is a political winner.

And third, Rove and Gillespie claim that Republicans need to make an issue out of Obama's efforts to deal with "rogue states, particularly Iran and North Korea." They allege that Obama's "weakness and naiveté in dealing" with Iran is a political vulnerability. But again the evidence suggests otherwise. In October 2009 (months after the crushing of the Green Movement), voters were asked if they supported or opposed direct diplomatic talks with Iran to prevent Iran from procuring a nuclear weapons -- an astounding 82 percent of Americans supported this approach. Even today, most voters prefer that the U.S. exhaust all diplomatic and economic levers before considering the use of force with Iran. One can find certain similarities in these numbers with results indicating that -- while Americans don't trust North Korea either -- they prefer to eschew force in containing Pyongyang.

This gets to the core problem with Rove and Gillespie's analysis; they're living in the past. Rove and Gillespie assert that Americans want a strong leader who is willing to "adopt a confident, nationalist tone emphasizing American exceptionalism, expressing pride in the United States as a force for good in the world, and advocating for an America that is once again respected (and, in some quarters, feared) as the preeminent global power."

They appear to imagine that such a president would be someone who speaks about American power in Wilsonian-style rhetoric, who looks dismissively at diplomacy in dealing with potential adversaries, who views the world through the prism of existential threats to the United States particularly from rogue states, who believes that America should be a preeminent world leader and global hegemon, who maintains a hair-trigger responsiveness to potential foreign threats. In short, they believe that voters are looking for George W. Bush circa 2002. The problem for Republicans is that, for better or worse, when voters look for a candidate who is strong leader with the attributes that Rove and Gillespie enumerate as being most important ... they see Barack Obama.

Moreover, both men badly overestimate the continued resonance of the GOP's traditional advantage on national security issues. For as long as most of us reading this article have been alive there has been a popular perception in American politics that Republicans are the party of national security strength and Democrats the party of national security weakness. This advantage for Republicans was thought to be one of the most enduring in American politics.

But it's an over-determined assumption. Indeed, the GOP's foreign policy edge is one that has been of fleeting value since the end of the Cold War. In the five presidential elections since the fall of the Berlin Wall, not only has foreign policy played a less prominent role, but also fewer rewards have gone to the party that emphasized the sort of tough, no-compromising approach that Rove and Gillespie are advocating. Of course, the one exception to this rule was 2004, when Bush (under both men's tutelage) rode the GOP's traditional advantage on national security to a narrow electoral victory.

But this was a unique election at a unique moment in American history. It's not necessarily transferable, especially after Republicans squandered so much of that advantage in the bloody streets of Baghdad. If the last few congressional and presidential cycles have shown anything, it is that voters have soured on this traditional line of attack -- and if current polling is any indication, voters are willing to rate foreign policy results higher than antiquated stereotypes about Democrats and Republicans on national security and foreign policy.

The irony of all this is that Rove, who once criticized Democrats for having a pre-9/11 mindset, seems stuck in a 9/12 mindset -- one that is dramatically out of touch with the preferences of the American people on foreign policy. More than ever, Republicans desperately need to find a new way to talk about foreign policy; they need to get past the simplistic militarism and juvenile American exceptionalism that has defined the appeals of their presidential aspirants on the campaign trail; they need to stop the constant charges of foreign policy weakness against Democrats, because in the end it's just not working. Poll after poll suggests that while Americans want the United States to be a leading global power and remain engaged internationally they don't want the country to be a global cop. They would just as soon "lead from behind" as they would from the forward -- and they have tired of foreign wars that are only dubiously related to the national interest. In short, they want a foreign policy that still views America as a great power, but as a more modest and restrained great power that shares the burden of global leadership with other countries. (Indeed, if Ron Paul's vocal level of support is any indication, some would prefer going even further in constraining America's role in the world).

In the end, the various presidential aspirants intent on taking Barack Obama's job would be best off ignoring Rove and Gillespie's advice. But it's not just them; if the Republican Party wants to once again be taken seriously on foreign policy they need to get out of the mindset that might always equals right.