Shadow Government

McGurk nomination to Iraq post is worth applauding

There hasn't been a lot of good news on the Iraq front of late. But there is one bit, and I am going to grab it and hope for the best: President Obama has nominated Brett McGurk to be the next Ambassador to Iraq. I worked closely with Brett on Iraq policy back in the day and it is hard to think of someone Obama might have nominated who is more committed to success in Iraq. Brett was one of the earliest and most ardent supporters of the surge in 2006 and he has stayed active on the inside more or less ever since. There are few Americans inside or outside government with his breadth of experience and insider knowledge about Iraqi politics.

Senator McCain has expressed some very understandable frustration with Obama's handling of the Iraq file, but I hope those concerns do not hold up McGurk's confirmation. McCain is right that the prospects for securing American interests in the region would be better if the Obama administration had successfully negotiated a deal to keep the planned-for stay-behind overwatch force in place. And even if U.S. plans in Iraq have had to be scaled back, the embassy will still be extraordinarily large and something of a managerial nightmare; McGurk will need a very strong senior leadership team to manage it all effectively.

But those who still want to preserve as much of what the surge accomplished as can be preserved at this point will not find a more committed partner and advocate than Brett McGurk. I hope his nomination means we can count the president in that number.


Shadow Government

Who is in charge of U.S. humanitarian policy?

Yesterday, Josh Rogin highlighted testimony given by Peter Lavoy, acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific Security Affairs before the House Armed Services Committee about U.S. plans to not move forward with the 240,000 tons of North Korean food aid it had promised during recent meetings in Beijing. This decision was made as a result of North Korea's plans to launch a satellite into space, violating the moratorium they recently agreed to.

I have said previously that linking a U.S. humanitarian assistance program to the resumption of six party talks is a bad precedent. This type of action will lead many to believe that this would be a U.S. attempt to bribe the North Koreans to the table by taking advantage of a dire humanitarian situation.

Reports by U.S. non-governmental organizations working in North Korea are again saying that North Korean people are suffering from a severe shortfall in food supplies. This is not a new scenario for North Korea. The regime has continually struggled to feed its people since the famine of the mid 1990s, when over one million people lost their lives.

What is more shocking is the effect the many years of living on less than 1,700 calories a day have had on the general population. I saw this first-hand in a Pyongyang park in 2008 where some elderly people were quietly harvesting grass so they could supplement a meal. Today, a North Korean child can expect to be up to 7 inches shorter than his/her South Korean counterpart and 20 pounds lighter by adulthood.

Those in the NGO community with access to remote areas of the country have confirmed many in North Korea suffer from malnutrition and infection. In many cases, people outside of the capital are on the brink of fatal starvation.

Recently, five U.S. non-governmental aid agencies urged the U.S. government not to delay the provision of food aid, stating that "delay or potential cancellation of this program would violate humanitarian principles which hold that lifesaving assistance should not be used to achieve political aims." I couldn't agree more.

These five organizations have been working in North Korea for years, have first hand knowledge of the situation in-country, and have proved their ability to work alongside the World Food Programme to assure food assistance reached those most in need.

Where is Special Envoy Robert King in this scenario?

Why has the administration allowed the Department of Defense to announce food assistance has been halted?

It was Special Envoy King and a senior representative from USAID who were responsible for negotiating the resumption of food assistance during the March meetings.

It begs the question -- who is in charge of U.S. humanitarian policy in North Korea and what is the Obama administration's overall strategy?

Until a coherent strategy is articulated, questions will continue to be asked about the philosophical and practical origins of this administration's approach to humanitarian assistance and the need for North Korea to halt its nuclear agenda. These are, and should remain, separate issues.

Gerald Bourke/WFP via Getty Images