Shadow Government

U.S. troops to Uganda?

The Obama administration's decision to deploy 100 U.S. special operations forces to Uganda to help defeat the ludicrously barbaric Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) -- or, in Obama's lawyer-esque euphemism, to "remov[e] from the battlefield Joseph Kony and other senior leadership of the LRA," -- is another example of just how muddy the Obama foreign-policy is.

To start with, deploying troops to defeat Africa's Hitler, as Kony will inevitably be called any day now, is not "in the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States," as Obama claimed in his letter to Congress. The LRA is not even a remote threat to our homeland, our allies, or our way of life. We have no important economic stake in Uganda or the region. Uganda is even more removed than Libya from vital American security interests -- and Libya's war was not "a vital interest of the United States," according to the Secretary of Defense who oversaw our intervention there. Uganda's fight is about as peripheral as it gets.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't go there. Obama would be on safer grounds if he gave up all pretense of our having an interest in Uganda and simply said "We're going after Joseph Kony because he's an insane barbarian with guns and if we don't take care of him, no one will." The United States is the global provider of public goods, and seeing off a well-armed lunatic megalomaniac wreaking havoc in states too failed to protect themselves might just be our human duty. Jonah Goldberg thinks so.

But what really confuses me is Obama's willingness to embark on adventures in Libya and Uganda while simultaneously calling for some of the deepest cuts in the defense budget in twenty years.

According to this analysis by Lt.Gen. David Barno, looming budget cuts may compel us to cut an aircraft carrier, reduce our strategic airlift, slow down or halt our procurement of next-generation weaponry, and eliminate several divisions from the Army and Marine Corps. Whether or not you think these cuts make sense, the question should be obvious: if we are in an age of austerity and cannot afford the missions and force posture we have, what are we doing taking on more?

The Ugandan deployment is unlikely to be the straw that breaks the budget camel's back. Considered in isolation, it amounts to less than a rounding error. But there are two reasons to be wary. First, it will almost certainly grow larger. Today, 100 advisors; tomorrow, a Foreign Military Financing (FMF) package; next year, access to excess equipment; and then more trainers to teach them how to use all the new equipment -- and soon Uganda costs $1 billion a year. Add in Libya and the next three interventions, and that's real money.

Second, Uganda appears to be a part of a pattern, of which Libya was also a part. Uganda and Libya together illustrate that Obama is perfectly comfortable using the U.S. armed forces not only in service of vital U.S. security interests, but in defense of peripheral interests, for humanitarian goals, and in defense of the global commons. I think those are at valid, defensible roles -- they are the price of global leadership which Obama says he wants to maintain. But those roles cost money.

By cutting budgets with one hand while maintaining U.S. military commitments around the world with the other, Obama is showing a lack of strategic thinking. A coherent strategy would match resources to requirements, increasing the former if insufficient, reducing the latter if necessary. Obama is doing neither. If Obama is going to use the military these kinds of missions, he'd better be prepared to foot the bill. If he, or Congress, is not willing to pay up, the missions to Uganda and Libya should be the first we no longer expect our military to perform.

LIONEL HEALING/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

A new line-up for North Korea talks

The administration announced on Oct. 19 that talks will resume with North Korea in Geneva and that a new team will represent the U.S. side. Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the administration's Special Envoy on North Korea and the distinguished Dean of the Fletcher School of Diplomacy, will make Geneva his last official meeting before stepping down. He will be replaced by Glyn Davies, the current ambassador to the IAEA. Meanwhile, Ford Hart, one of the Department's top China hands, will continue to serve as U.S. representative to the Six Party Talks.

This shift demonstrates several things about the Obama administration's diplomacy. First, it signals the end of candidate Obama's promise of dramatic new engagement strategies with the world's most difficult regimes. High profile special envoys (Mitchell to the Middle East, Grayson to Sudan, Holbrooke to Af/Pak, Bosworth to North Korea) are being replaced by steady but low-profile professionals from within the foreign service. Davies is only the most recent example. It turns out, as John McCain warned in 2008, that the problem with these regimes is NOT that we lack unconditional high-level negotiations. The Obama team realized that early on, but it takes a little time to reverse signature foreign policy promises.

The other factor at play, I suspect, is the 2012 election. I recall that in 2004 the White House began imposing message discipline and tighter controls over sensitive foreign policy issues like North Korea, Taiwan, and Iraq. High profile special envoys and message discipline tend not to go together, and the Obama White House is clearing the decks for a major fight for the presidency next year.

Finally, lower key professionals make sense at a time when North Korea is unlikely to yield much ground. Big breakthroughs are hard to imagine, given the fact that Pyongyang tested a nuclear device, conducted two lethal attacks on South Korea, and revealed its uranium enrichment program since the last tentative agreement was reached on denuclearization in October 2008. Of course, they also failed to implement their side of that agreement -- provision of verification protocols -- even after we unilaterally lifted sanctions to the great dismay of our Japanese and Korean allies. The North is in a more talkative mood, but Pyongyang has also been telegraphing its intention to consummate its nuclear weapons status in 2012 for some time. The talks in Geneva will at best yield something of a time out in which the North freezes its provocations and perhaps its facilities at Yongbyon. However, we know from experience that they will only agree to easily reversible steps and that we will likely have another crisis before too long -perhaps even in 2012. It is unlikely therefore that we, Japan or Korea will pay much to rent the North Korean nuclear program for a few months all over again. On the other hand, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing all have elections or leadership changes in 2012 and might be willing to take some steps if it keeps things quiet with North Korea for a while.

Given those realities, the team running North Korea diplomacy is reassuring. They are some of the best professionals in the Foreign Service and a bit like the unflappable cops on the old black and white TV shows. I don't expect we will have a problem with any melodramatic rush for supposedly historic breakthroughs.

"Just the facts, Ma'am."

Song Kyung-Seok-pool/Getty Images