- By Paul D. MillerPaul D. Miller is associate director of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Follow him on Twitter: @pauldmiller2.
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.