President Obama couldn’t have been more eloquent. Addressing the Clinton Global Initiative, for instance, he said: “When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed — that’s slavery.” Denouncing Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, or LRA, and offering aid to Uganda and its neighbors in tracking Kony down, he said, “It’s part of our regional strategy to end the scourge that is the LRA and help realize a future where no African child is stolen from their family, and no girl is raped, and no boy is turned into a child soldier.” In support of Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, whom he has lauded as “not only a great champion of democracy but a fierce advocate against the use of forced labor and child soldiers,” he’s kept her country on a list of nations the U.S. sanctions for using child soldiers in its military. And his ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, has spoken movingly in condemnation of the use of child soldiers, which she’s termed a “scourge,” from Syria and the Central African Republic to South Sudan.
Only one small problem, as Nick Turse, author of Tomorrow’s Battlefield: U.S. Proxy Wars and Secret Ops in Africa, points out in his latest reportage: the young, desperately divided nation of South Sudan is something of an American-sponsored creation, its military heavily supported by Washington, and so its child soldiers — and it has plenty of them — turn out not to be quite the same sort of scourge they are in Burma, Syria, or elsewhere. Somehow, they’ve proved to be in the American “national interest” and so, shockingly enough, as Turse reveals today, were the subjects of a presidential “waiver” that sets aside Congress’s 2008 Child Soldiers Protection Act. The willingness of a president to sideline a subject he’s otherwise denounced in no uncertain terms is worthy of a riddle that might go something like: when is slavery not slavery? And the answer would be, when it gets in the way of U.S. policy. With that in mind, let Turse take you deep into South Sudan, where children tote AK-47s and the sky is not cloudy all day.