In an excellent display of how US foreign policy can be used as a means of pandering to domestic interest groups, the Biden administration has threatened to impose sanctions on Uganda as punishment for that regime’s adoption of new laws criminalizing some types of homosexual behavior.
While it is abundantly clear that this move from the Ugandan state presents absolutely no threat to any vital US interest, the Biden administration apparently believes the situation requires immediate action by the US regime.
According to Axios, the Biden Administration’s proposed actions
includ[e] whether the U.S. will continue to safely deliver services under the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and other forms of assistance and investments. … Biden administration officials will also review Uganda’s eligibility for the African Growth and Opportunity Act, which provides eligible sub-Saharan African countries with duty-free access to the U.S. market for hundreds of products.
What exactly are these new laws that require the State Department to get involved in the internal affairs of a country 8,000 miles away? According to The Hill,
The new anti-gay law would impose the death penalty in cases of “aggravated homosexuality” and would impose a life sentence for engaging in gay sex. The state defines “aggravated homosexuality” as homosexual acts carried out by those infected with H.I.V. or homosexual acts that involve children, disabled people, or those drugged against their will.
Or put another way, the death penalty will be imposed in many cases on those found guilty of engaging in sex with children and with people unable to consent. Even in those cases, these are pretty harsh penalties, and certainly few Americans—from any part of the political spectrum—would support such measures.
The proposed method of punishing Ugandans is rather curious, however. Note that the sanctions being discussed include—ironically—cutting off AIDS relief dollars, plus dollars that the regime has long insisted are absolutely vital to economic development and poverty relief in the developing world. If that’s true, then the US regime proposes trying to impoverish ordinary Ugandans as punishment for acts of the Ugandan regime.
It is also notable that the US regime appears to now be fixated on such laws in Uganda when similar laws already exist on the books of several US allies. For example, the death penalty can be imposed for various homosexual acts in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. “Death by stoning” is also inflicted on alleged homosexuals in US ally Pakistan. Moreover, after 20-years of US occupation, Afghanistan imposes similar punishments. Those are just the places where the death penalty is potentially imposed. Homosexual acts are criminalized in a variety of countries that retain friendly relations with the US including Egypt—the top recipient of US foreign aid—plus Iraq, Jordan, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Homosexual sex between males can bring life imprisonment in Tanzania.
So why is Uganda now so much in the crosshairs while Saudi Arabia escapes notice?
The fact is the US regime is threatening sanctions on ordinary Ugandans because it can. Given that there is no sizable or electorally powerful Ugandan population in the US, it costs the administration nothing to denounce Uganda while also virtue signaling to extremely powerful and well-funded domestic LGBT interest groups. Denouncing the Saudis or the Qataris, on the other, hand might bring geopolitical “complications” and thus you won’t hear much about Saudi or Qatari punishment of homosexual acts in the US media or in Washington.
The US’s Moralistic and Imperialist Impulses
Moreover, Washington’s willingness to immediately begin threatening sanctions against some faraway country has been part of the overall imperialist impulse that has prevailed in Washington since the end of the Cold War. This was when the US shifted toward become an ever-more-aggressive world morality police that would attempt to globally “protect right” in vague mimicry of how the federal government—via the federal courts and threats of cutting off federal funding—dictates to the states what counts as acceptable law.
This new scheme was apparent by 1994 when Murray Rothbard wrote a sarcastic article suggesting that the US be prepared to invade any foreign country where the local regime has not sufficiently embraced the American regime’s cultural ideals. The key, Rothbard contends, was to define every foreign “deviation” as a threat to US national security. Rothbard noted that even by the mid 1990s, American interventionists such as the neoconservatives had already “cunningly redefined ‘national interest’ to cover every ill, every grievance, under the sun.”
This naturally would lead, Rothbard suggested, to the need to intervene in nearly every foreign country on earth:
Is someone starving somewhere, however remote from our borders? That’s a problem for our national interest. Is someone or some group killing some other group anywhere in the world? That’s our national interest. Is some government not a “democracy” as defined by our liberal-neocon elites? That challenges our national interest. Is someone committing Hate Thought anywhere on the globe? That has to be solved in our national interest. …And so every grievance everywhere constitutes our national interest, and it becomes the obligation of good old Uncle Sam, as the Only Remaining Superpower and the world’s designated Mr. Fixit, to solve each and every one of these problems. For “we cannot stand idly by” while anyone anywhere starves, hits someone over the head, is undemocratic, or commits a Hate Crime.
And so, since no other countries shape up to U.S. standards in a world of Sole Superpower they must be severely chastised by the U.S., I make a Modest Proposal for the only possible consistent and coherent foreign policy: the U.S. must, very soon, Invade the Entire World! Sanctions are peanuts; we must invade every country in the world, perhaps softening them up beforehand with a wonderful high-tech missile bombing show courtesy of CNN.
The good news in the Uganda case is that at least we’re not hearing any calls for actual regime change or “boots on the ground” in Uganda (so far).
Fortunately, many Americans haven’t yet bought into the idea that every objectionable act by foreign regimes can be defined as a threat to US national interests. This is why even today, when Washington targets some foreign regime for “regime change” or economic sanctions or a volley of cruise missiles, the American interventionists usually try to at least suggest that the target regime is some kind of threat to US “national interests.”
Experience suggests that if the regime really wants to get the American public riled up about a new war, Washington has to make the case for something beyond mere “humanitarian” intervention. This is why the Bush administration felt it had to trump up accusations of “weapons of mass destruction” in Iraq. It’s why President Obama claimed the US has a “national security interest in … ensuring that we’ve got a stable Syria.” It’s why those who wanted a US war with Bosnia insisted that conflict in the Balkans in the mid 1990s provided a threat to “vital” US interests such as “European stability” and NATO unity.
Sometimes, though, some foreign countries are so obviously not a threat to the US that “humanitarian” meddling through military action isn’t politically viable. In those cases, the regime usually falls back on “sanctions.”
This strategy has been around a long time. Murray Rothbard noticed this trend in 1994 as well, and he listed just some of the real-life suggested sanctions that could be employed to whip foreign regimes into line:
In recent weeks, in addition to humanitarian troops, there had been escalating talk of American “sanctions”: against North Korea of course, but also against Japan (for not buying more U.S. exports), against Haiti, against the Bosnian Serbs… Jesse Jackson wants the U.S. to invade Nigeria pronto, and now we have Senato[r] Kerry (D., Mass.) calling for sanctions against our ancient foe, Canada, for not welcoming New England fishermen in its waters.
Uganda is just one of a great many regimes targeted in this fashion in recent decades.
Yet the landscape has changed considerably since 1994. In 2023, the US obsession with sanctioning dozens of countries has backfired and begun to isolate the US more and more from the developing world and from any regime that doesn’t enjoy taking orders from Washington. This includes the regimes in some of the world largest economies, including China, India, and Brazil. The US’s tendency to incessantly turn to sanctions to make a political point—and the apparent capriciousness with which the US regime is willing to do so—only motivates the world’s regimes to insulate themselves from the US, whether through minimizing dollar transactions or forming tighter alliances with potential allies outside the US orbit. We may soon find Uganda looking for a similar way out.