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Saturday, February 09, 2013

Sorry, Wrong Number?

Just in case anyone has the wrong idea about the role of the U.S. military in global politics, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offered a simple reminder last week. From ABC News:
"The United States military is not and should not be a global 911 service capable of arriving on the scene within minutes to every possible contingency around the world," Panetta told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Put differently, don't call us, we'll call you.

This comment from Panetta reminded me of a similar one made by Bill Clinton's first Secretary of Defense, William Perry:

I've said before, and I will say it again, the U.S. Army is an Army. It is not a Salvation Army. We're not in the business of providing humanitarian relief.
I quoted a similar statement from Perry back in 2004. However, I also noted that when Perry offered this pithy turn of phrase, he typically outlined circumstances when the U.S. military could provide humanitarian assistance.

When do we decide it is important to do that? What are the exceptional cases?
First of all it has to be a catastrophe of large proportions. That was true two years ago, during this cholera thing -- 5,000 people a day were dying. It appears to be true today in the refugee problem in Rwanda and Zaire. Secondly it has to be something where the United States military forces have something unique that they can provide. Two years ago we were the only organization that had the combination of airlift, water purification equipment and engineers that could get in and solve that problem in time. So we did. And finally, it has to be an operation which is acceptably low risk, and in which we have an exit strategy.

All of those have applied to operations where we send forces to assist in humanitarian operations. Those are the criteria that we would be applying to any humanitarian operation which we get involved in Africa.
Presumably, the Obama administration would agree with this, by and large.

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