- The Washington Times - Monday, October 17, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

For the second time this year, President Obama has committed U.S. military personnel to distant battlefields, putting them in harm’s way pursuant - more or less explicitly - to what is known in United Nations circles as a “responsibility to protect.” The theory goes that the international community has a duty to intervene to prevent harm to innocent civilians.

As a practical matter, this new supranational dictate - known in U.N.-speak as “R2P” - translates into a purported obligation on the part of the United States to use force, or at least make it available, whenever called upon by others to do so. The only exception seems to be circumstances in which we might actually have vital interests, in which case, naturally, the “international community” would generally deem such a U.S. intervention impermissible.

R2P was essentially the animating principle behind the ongoing, U.S.-enabled NATO operation in Libya. We went in, as Mr. Obama famously put it, because we had been “volunteered” by the Arab League and the U.N. for the mission of protecting civilians there.

Never mind that untold numbers of civilians have been killed, wounded or dispossessed in the course of the civil war that was abetted by that campaign - to say nothing of the fact that more there and elsewhere will likely perish at the hands of a government we have helped bring to power, one that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and/or al Qaeda.

Then last week, Mr. Obama advised Congress that he was dispatching 100Special Forces troops to Uganda and three other Central African nations to protect civilians against the predations of Joseph Kony. Mr. Kony is the psychopathic cultist whose so-called “Lord’s Resistance Army” is best known for its terrifying mayhem, kidnappings, enslavement and military and sexual exploitation of children. His record has made him quite legitimately a public enemy throughout the region, sought for prosecution on war-crimes charges by the International Criminal Court.

Mr. Obama assures us that in both cases, U.S. military operations will be strictly circumscribed. In sub-Saharan Africa, as in Libya, we will, in his immortal phrase, “lead from behind”: American forces will not engage in combat, just train and direct the locals to put Mr. Kony out of business, similar to how we are trying to help the Libyan “insurgents” against Col. Moammar Gadhafi.

The desire to protect civilians from the Lord’s Resistance Army scourge is understandable. After all, Mr. Kony reportedly is inflicting his predations in parts of four African nations with a relative handful of followers, by some estimates as few as 300. Some Republicans have joined Democrats on Capitol Hill in enacting legislation urging that he be brought to justice. And Mr. Kony’s abuse of children certainly has earned him a special place in hell.

The trouble is that we and our sometimes fractious African allies in any effort to end Mr. Kony’s reign of terror may or may not be able rapidly to achieve the stated goal, or at least do so with so few American troops. In any event, the opening of this new front comes at the same time the Obama administration and Congress are actively making deep and far-reaching cuts in U.S. defense capabilities.

The newly installed leadership of the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin E. Dempsey, are the latest to warn legislators about the hollowing of our armed forces now under way thanks to roughly $465 billion in cuts already imposed by Team Obama. The breaking of our military - even without assigning it new missions - will become all the more certain if still more draconian reductions are made in the next few weeks. That particularly will be the case if the supercommittee charged with deficit reduction winds up triggering a massive, across-the-board reduction of about $600 billion more in Defense Department accounts.

Congress is on notice: Under such circumstances, we will not be able to maintain the forward presence and other power-projection capabilities upon which the nation has relied to protect its global interests and to keep the peace. Taking on additional overseas operations in distant theaters in the name of protecting innocent civilians only exacerbates that problem.

Unless and until the Obama administration and like-minded folks on Capitol Hill stop gutting our national defense capabilities, the use of the American military becomes what the political scientists call a zero-sum game. Personnel and equipment tied up in R2P operations in places such as Libya or Central Africa - which means, of course, not just the troops and gear immediately engaged but the substantial logistical “tail” that supports the war-fighting “tooth” - are thereby made unavailable for other duties.

The larger question occurs: Mustn’t the first call on our shrinking armed forces be to fulfill our government’s responsibility to protect innocent civilians who happen to be Americans and their country?

This is not an academic question. At the moment, there is a grave and growing danger to both arising in Iran. The latest alleged Iranian plot to blow up targets in Washington is but a foretaste of the kind of aggression that is in store for us and others when the mullahs finally get the bomb.

Before Mr. Obama dissipates any more of our military assets and capabilities with budget cuts and protecting innocent civilians elsewhere, he better take steps to protect our own against the threat posed by the Islamic Republic of Iran. The time to do that is now.

Frank J. Gaffney Jr. is president of the Center for Security Policy, a columnist for The Washington Times and host of the nationally syndicated program “Secure Freedom Radio,” heard in Washington weekdays at 9 p.m. on WRC-AM 1260.

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