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Why is Obama easing restrictions on child soldiers?

Why is Obama easing restrictions on child soldiers?

On Monday, the Obama administration waived sections of a law meant to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in Africa, paving the way for new military cooperation with four countries with poor human rights records — despite their use of underage troops.

"I hereby determine that it is in the national interest of the United States to waive the application to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen of the prohibition in section 404(a) of the [Child Service Prevention Act]," President Obama wrote in a memorandum to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In 2008, President George W. Bush signed the law, which prohibits U.S. military education and training, foreign military financing, and other defense-related assistance to countries that actively recruit troops under the age of 18. Countries are designated as violators if the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report identifies them as recruiting child soldiers.

The original bill was actually sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) before being added to a larger bill led by then Senator, now Vice President Joseph Biden. The only countries where the restrictions under this law are still in place are now Burma and Somalia.

The only reason provided in the memorandum was that Obama determined it was in the "national interest" to waive the law for those four countries.

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told The Cable that the Obama administration has decided that working with militaries that recruit child soldiers actually helps solve the problem more than ignoring those militaries would.

"In each of these countries, we are working with the governments to stop the recruitment of child soldiers or demobilize those who may already be in the ranks," Crowley explained. "These countries have put the right policies in place, but are struggling to effectively implement them. These waivers allow the United States to continue to conduct valuable training programs and by working with these militaries help them meet international norms."

So the Obama administration has determined that deepening military relationships with brutal dictatorships and unsavory regimes is the best way to reform them? That seems like a pretty big shift in policy. It still remains unclear what military assistance the United States actually plans to give to countries like Sudan, Chad, and Yemen, as well as how it will use its engagement to protect child soldiers.

"We will continue to work with these governments to reduce the recruitment or use of child soldiers within the ranks of their armed forces," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in an e-mailed statement. "We will also generally endeavor to prevent foreign security forces that recruit and use child soldiers from benefitting from any U.S. foreign assistance."

If you have any insight on the reasons behind this decision or its implications, let us know at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.