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.