Topic: Foreign Policy and National Security

Obama Sends More U.S. Troops to …Uganda?

The Obama administration seems determined to demonstrate that there is no place in the world so geographically remote or strategically and economically irrelevant that U.S. military intervention won’t take place.  Any doubt on that score was eliminated earlier this week when the administration deployed another 150 Special Operations Forces personnel (along with CV-22 Osprey aircraft) to help the government of Uganda track down rebel warlord Joseph Kony.  The new deployment augments the 100 troops Washington previously dispatched to the region in October 2011.  At that time, the administration assured skeptics that the mission was strictly limited in nature.  Clearly, it has now become somewhat less so, and one must wonder whether there will be future deployments to enlarge Washington’s military intervention.

Make no mistake about it, Kony is a repulsive character.  Among other offenses, his followers have drafted children as young as 12 into the movement’s armed ranks, and there are numerous allegations of other human rights abuses.  But no rational person could argue that Kony’s forces pose a security threat to the United States.  And under the Constitution, the purpose of the U.S. military is to protect the security of the American people, not engage to quixotic ventures to rectify bad behavior around the world.

The willingness of the U.S. officials to send Special Operations personnel, who have been trained and equipped at great expense to American taxpayers, on such a mission underscores a growing problem: the unwillingness or inability of U.S. leaders to set priorities in the area of foreign policy.  America’s security interests can (and should) be divided into four broad categories: vital, secondary or conditional, peripheral, and barely relevant. Each category warrants a different response.

Unfortunately, in recent decades, U.S. leaders have had a tendency to lump almost everything into the “vital interest” category.  The reality is that for any nation, truly vital interests are few in number.  National survival is obviously the most important one, but the preservation of political independence, domestic liberty, and economic well-being from external threats all are part of the mix as well.  When vital interests are threatened, maximum exertions and sacrifices are justified.

But that ought to be the great exception, not the rule, when it comes to the conduct of America’s foreign policy.  Even an effort to protect the next highest category, secondary or conditional interests, requires a rigorous cost-benefit calculation.   Secondary interests are assets that are pertinent but not indispensable to the preservation of America’s physical integrity, independence, domestic liberty, and economic health.  An example would be the goal of keeping a key strategic and economic region such as Western Europe or Northeast Asia from being dominated by a hostile major power.  The defense of secondary interests justifies significant, but nevertheless limited, exertions–especially if they involve military measures.

The cost-benefit calculation shifts even more in the direction of restraint when the matter involved is one of peripheral interests.  That category consists of assets that marginally enhance America’s security, liberty, and economic well being, but the loss of which would be more of an annoyance than a significant blow.  The existence of an unpleasant regime in a mid-size country in Latin America (Venezuela comes to mind) is an example of a threat to a peripheral interest.  Russia’s crude coercion of Ukraine is another example.  It may be asking too much for Washington to be indifferent to such matters, but there is nothing at stake that normally requires more than a diplomatic response.

Many situations in the world do not rise even to the level of peripheral interests.  They instead fall into the category of barely relevant (or often entirely irrelevant) matters.  Whether Bosnia remains intact or divides into a Muslim-dominated ministate and a Serb republic, or whether East Timor is well governed, can and should be a matter of indifference to the United States.  It is highly improbable that such developments would have a measurable impact on America’s security, liberty, or economic health.  Washington ought to confine its role to one of routine diplomatic involvement on the margins—and sometimes not even that.

Joseph Kony’s activities in Central Africa are a textbook example of a largely irrelevant development.  That conflict certainly does not warrant the expenditure of defense budget dollars, much less putting the lives of American military personnel at risk.

U.S. Policy Blunder Made Ukraine Vulnerable to Russian Coercion

There is a lot of hand wringing in Washington and other Western capitals about Russia’s sudden invasion and annexation of Crimea. But as I point out in a recent article in The National Interest Online, a policy that the United States adopted more than two decades ago made such an outcome nearly inevitable. The administrations of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton bribed and pressured Kiev to give up the nuclear weapons it had inherited upon the demise of the Soviet Union, thus making Russia the only nuclear-armed successor state.

As University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer pointed out at the time in Foreign Affairs, that policy was extremely myopic. He argued that a Ukrainian nuclear deterrent was “imperative to maintain peace between Russia and Ukraine. That means ensuring that the Russians, who have a history of bad relations with Ukraine, do not move to reconquer it.” In a prophetic passage, he added: “Ukraine cannot defend itself against a nuclear-armed Russia with conventional weapons, and no state, including the United States, is going to extend to it a meaningful security guarantee. Ukrainian nuclear weapons are the only reliable deterrent to Russian aggression.”

The Crimea incident demonstrates how ill-advised it was for Ukraine to relinquish its inherited nuclear deterrent. Under intense U.S. pressure, Kiev discarded the one strategic asset that would have made the Kremlin exercise caution. Now, Ukrainians have no alternative but to accept a humiliating territorial amputation. Despite the abundance of rhetorical posturing, there is little that the United States and its European allies will or can do to prevent Russia from pursuing its goals regarding Ukraine—unless they are willing to risk a military confrontation with a nuclear-armed power in its own neighborhood. And no sane person advocates that. Even ultrahawks such as Senator John McCain concede that a U.S.-led military intervention is not an option.

True, if Ukraine had retained its nukes and Putin had nevertheless gone ahead with his military conquest of Crimea, that crisis would have been more dangerous than the current version. But it is highly improbable that the Kremlin would have adopted such a risky course against a nuclear-armed country. Moscow received a great geopolitical gift when Washington succumbed to its obsession to oppose nuclear proliferation in all cases, regardless of the strategic circumstances. That move effectively disarmed Ukraine and made it vulnerable to coercion by its much stronger neighbor. Both Ukraine and the United States are now paying the price for that policy blunder.

Visiting Nigeria: Tragic Failure, Greater Potential

ABUJA, NIGERIA—Arriving in Abuja, Nigeria results in an almost simultaneous impression of poverty and potential.  After decades of economic disappointment, even collapse, much of Africa is growing. Yet even its leading states, such as Nigeria, remain locked in an impoverished past and fail to live up to their extraordinary potential.

I’ve arrived with a journalist group organized by SLOK Holding Co., chaired by former Gov. Orji Uzor Kalu, a potential presidential contender. Although cities such as Abuja (Nigeria’s capital), Lagos (Nigeria’s most populous urban area), and Port Harcourt (dominated by the nation’s oil industry) enjoy significant development, poverty is never far away. 

In Lagos, wealth has created a genuine skyline on Victoria Island. Yet crowded streets filled with poor street vendors sit in the shadows of these fine structures. Electrical outages are constant, requiring any serious enterprise to maintain a generator. 

Rural Nigeria is much poorer. Even the main highways are in desperate need of minimal maintenance, while burned and rusted wrecks, stripped of anything useful, litter the sides and medians.

Trash is tossed alongside or piled in medians. Roads off the main drag are dirt, always rutted, often muddy, and barely adequate. Most shops are shacks built on dirt just feet from traffic. 

Still, hope remains. Every where in Nigeria I saw enterprise. Open-air markets, which seem to occur every couple miles, are bustling, with people dashing hither-and-yon selling most everything you can find in a department store or supermarket. At major intersections and along busy streets, people sit in the median and walk into traffic hawking most anything, including triangular hazard signs (quite appropriate given Nigeria’s roads!). 

Intellectual capital also is growing. Citizens of this former British colony typically speak English, the global commercial language. I visited a university filled with bright and engaging students hoping to make better lives for themselves and their country. 

Russians And Ukrainians Battle Over Crimea: The Tragic Perils of Nationalism

No good end to the Crimean crisis is likely.  Moscow seized territory historically part of Russia and won’t retreat.  Ukraine won’t accept Moscow’s land grab. 

The West can’t ignore flagrant aggression and is headed toward a “cool war” with Russia.  Crimeans unwilling to shift allegiance will have to leave their homes.  Such are the perils of nationalism, which remains sadly popular today.

Russia has officially absorbed Crimea.  The veneer of legality doesn’t disguise Moscow’s act of war.  A majority of the territory’s people may have wanted to leave, but a referendum framed by Russian advocates and conducted under Russian military occupation was certain to yield the result desired by Vladimir Putin, not Crimea’s citizens. 

Kiev is no more interested in the desires of Crimea’s people.  The West proclaimed itself shocked at Moscow’s move, even though the former routinely intervenes militarily for its own ends. 

While the Russian government deserves to be punished for its bad behavior, there is no chance it will reverse course.  The U.S. and Europeans are heading toward extended confrontation with Russia. 

The biggest losers are Crimeans who prefer Ukraine’s inefficient and corrupt, but still functioning—at least until the violent overthrow of the elected government—democracy to Putin’s wealthier but increasingly authoritarian wannabe empire.  Even some ethnic Russians might have preferred to deal with Moscow from afar. 

There is no right answer to the controversy.  Ukraine only had formal legal title to Crimea because in 1954 Soviet Communist Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev, who ran Ukraine before ascending to the summit of power in Moscow, transferred control of the territory from Russia to Ukraine.  At the time, no one imagined the Soviet Union dissolving.

But in 1992 Ukraine fled the collapsing Communist superstate with Crimea in tow.  Last month violent street protests shifted control in Kiev from Russophiles in eastern Ukraine to nationalists in western Ukraine. 

That angered the former and sparked a violent response from the Kremlin.  Putin’s conduct, though deplorable, was understandable.  As Henry Kissinger once said, even paranoids have enemies.

As I pointed out in my new column on Forbes online:

Since the end of the Cold War the West has pursued its version of the notorious Brezhnev Doctrine:  What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is negotiable.  The U.S. and Europe advanced NATO to Russia’s borders, poured money into Ukraine to promote pro-Western candidates, pressed Kiev to choose between Russia and the European Union, and pushed friendly politicians toward power after the ejection of Russia-friendly Yanukovich.

Yet none of this would have mattered if the majority of Crimeans had clearly wanted to switch allegiance and Putin had waited for them to act.  In general, people should be able to freely decide their political destinies.

Beware of the Kremlin’s Propaganda

Since the beginning of the turmoil in Ukraine, some have attributed a large part of the blame for the crisis to the European Union and the United States, whose meddling allegedly brought down the President Viktor Yanukovych.

While, as a general rule, the foreign policy of the EU and the US deserve to be criticized on various grounds, it should not be forgotten that other actors are present on the world’s geopolitical scene as well – some of them quite malevolent. The idea that the eclectic, bottom-up movement that fueled the revolution in Kyiv was somehow orchestrated by the United States (and/or by the notoriously unimaginative bureaucrats in Brussels) is grotesque – as is the notion that Russia’s invasion of Crimea is a response to genuine secessionist desires of the citizens of South-Eastern Ukraine.

In short, one needs to be careful to avoid the trap of falling for the propaganda spread by Russia’s current regime, as Alexander McCobin and Eglė Markevičiūtė, both from Students for Liberty, argue here:

It’s much too simplistic to solely condemn the United States for any kind of geopolitical instability in the world. Non-interventionists who sympathize with Russia by condoning Crimea’s secession and blaming the West for the Ukrainian crisis fail to see the larger picture. Putin’s government is one of the least free in the world and is clearly the aggressor in Crimea, as it was even beforehand with its support of the Yanukovych regime that shot and tortured its own citizens on the streets of Kyiv.

[…]

Some libertarians’ Kremlin-style speculation about pro-western Maidan’s meddling in Crimea’s affairs is very similar to what Putin’s soft-power apparatus has been trying to sell in Eastern Europe and CIS countries for at least 15 years. Speaking of the Crimean secession being democratically legitimate is intellectually dishonest given that the referendum was essentially passed at gunpoint with no legitimate choice for the region to remain in Ukraine’s sovereign power.

What Did the War In Libya Accomplish?

Three years ago tomorrow, U.S. and allied states began bombing Libya’s military in support of rebels. Today, Libya is back in the news. An eastern militia’s effort to export oil prompted U.S. Navy Seals to seize an oil tanker on behalf of Libya’s fledging government, which just fired its Prime Minister over the matter. Meanwhile, the political chaos that caused Ambassador Chris Stevens’ murder in Bhenghazi in 2012 continues. The New York Times recently reported that “Political Killings Still Plaguing Post-Qaddafi Libya.”

So Cato’s forum tomorrow on whether the intervention in Libya succeeded is well-timed. We will answer the question using the criteria set out by intervention’s advocates. President Obama, and the leaders of other intervening states, offered three major goals. First, it would avert a humanitarian disaster: the mass murder of civilians in Bhenghazi, which the Libyan state forces were poised to capture. Second, intervention would help Libya become a democracy. Third, defending Libya’s rebels would deter other authoritarian rulers in the region from cracking down on uprisings in their own countries. 

As Gene Healy notes today in the Washington Examiner, it’s doubtful that we achieved any of those goals. The one thing that the war unequivocally accomplished, the overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi, was never an explicit goal of the outsiders. That’s because forming a military alliance against Qaddafi required the pretension, manifest in the U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing war, that intervention could defend civilians without taking sides.

Christopher Chivvis, who served in the Pentagon at the war’s start, will likely make the argument from his recent book: the action was a moderate success, given its tiny cost. Alan Kuperman, pioneer of the moral hazard critique of humanitarian intervention, will argue that, rather than saving civilians, the intervention backfired, increasing the humanitarian toll and exacerbating the region’s instability.

I’ll say that the war probably did nothing to discourage crackdowns in other nations and might have encouraged them, and the current circumstance in Libya argues against aiding the overthrow of the Mideast’s rulers, even despotic ones. I’ll also criticize Congressional Republicans for obsessing over Bhenghazi without heeding, let alone opposing, the broader U.S. project in Libya. Register here. The event will also stream live on Cato.org.

North Korea: Dealing with a Human Rights Scourge and Security Threat

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea long has been recognized as one of the globe’s most difficult challenges.  For two decades concern over Pyongyang’s nuclear program has dominated international attention toward the Korean peninsula. 

What to do about The North Korea Problem has troubled three successive U.S. administrations.  The result is a tentative nuclear state seemingly ruled by an immature third-generation dictator willing to terrorize even his own family. 

Particularly unlucky are the residents of North Korea.  There never has been any question about the extraordinary nature of DPRK tyranny.  But the United Nations just released its own gruesome analysis. 

The finding is simple: “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed” by the DPRK.  “In many instances, the violations found entailed crimes against humanity based on State policies.” 

As I point out in my latest article in National Interest:

Yet the challenge facing the U.S. and other nations regarding human rights in the North is a lot like the security problem:  what to do?  The Kim dynasty has demonstrated no interest in disarming.  Nor has it ever hinted at the slightest interest in treating the North Korean people better.  Arguing that human rights should be an international priority doesn’t change matters.

Trying to convince the isolated and militaristic regime that a more pacific policy is in its interest so far hasn’t worked.  Trying to convince the same leadership that it also should dismantle the political system that it dominates is even less likely to succeed. 

However, the human rights report might be more effectively directed at another nation, the People’s Republic of China.  The PRC is North Korea’s chief enabler.  (For a time South Korea shared that title, with its bountiful subsidies as part of the Sunshine Policy.)  

The reasons are understandable if not necessarily laudable.  Washington’s push for Beijing to press the DPRK more seriously, repeated during Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent China visit, founders on the PRC’s perception of its interests. 

The North is unpredictable, except for always being ever unreasonable and difficult.  Nevertheless, Beijing fears destabilizing the peninsula more than it fears North Korea nuclearizing the peninsula.

To change China’s position requires addressing that government’s concerns, particularly regarding the impact of a united Korea allied with America at a time when the U.S. appears committed to a policy of soft containment.  The DPRK’s growing reputation as a human rights outlaw might help.

Beijing obviously is sensitive to the issue, given its own human rights failings.  Nevertheless, there is no comparison between the two nations.  China also has much at stake in the global order, including its reputation, which will be tarnished if it continues to be widely seen as the only reason the Kim regime survives.

Simply bashing Pyongyang won’t be enough.  Washington needs to develop a positive package for a reform North Korean leadership: peace treaty, trade, aid, and integration.  The U.S. also should involve South Korea and Japan.

This approach should directed as much at the PRC as North Korea.  Even Chinese officials frustrated with the DPRK tend to blame the U.S. for creating the hostile threat environment which led the North to develop nuclear weapons.

The PRC still might decide the price of cooperating with America is too high.  But the allies have no better alternative approach.  The DPRK has spent recent years alternating whispers of sweet nothings with screams of blood-curdling threats, tossing in occasional missile and nuclear tests for good measure.  Nothing suggests that the younger Kim has abandoned brinkmanship as Pyongyang’s preferred policy and decided to negotiate away his nation’s most important weapon.

Some day monarchical communism will disappear from the Korean peninsula.  It will do so sooner if China uses its considerable influence—and threatens to withdraw its even more important aid—to press Pyongyang to reform.  The UN’s scathing report on DPRK human rights practices might help win Beijing’s cooperation.