By John T. Bennett and Daniel Strauss - 10/26/11 09:15 AM EDT
President Obama’s decision to send 100 troops to Uganda is coming under new scrutiny now that soldiers are on their way to Africa.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle at a Tuesday hearing questioned the decision, with some suggesting it could draw the United Statesss into a long conflict.
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) was skeptical that U.S. troops would actually just be training and equipping Ugandan and other allied forces, saying that proved not to be the case in Vietnam.
A senior Pentagon official told a House panel Tuesday that the U.S. military deployment would not be open-ended.
“We will not go on indefinitely,” Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow told House Foreign Affairs Committee members. “We will pull back, and we hope [regional allied forces] will be able to continue with this training and finish the job.”
Obama has cited the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act as providing support for his decision to send troops to Uganda.
The House had approved the measure by voice vote and the Senate by unanimous consent last year. Both procedures are generally used for legislation that is considered non-controversial.
Obama’s announcement of a new intervention in Africa surprised many political observers, triggering criticism from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh and former Rep. Joe Scarborough, the host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” who on an almost daily basis since the announcement has slammed Obama for starting a new war announced in a Friday letter to Congress.
But the legislation underpinning the president’s decision has received considerably less attention.
While the measure did not explicitly call for troops to be sent to Africa, it said it would be U.S. policy to provide political, economic, military and intelligence support for “viable multilateral efforts to protect civilians from the Lord’s Resistance Army, and to remove” army leader Joseph Kony and his top commanders from the battlefield.
Some conservative Republicans who support the measure said no one in Congress should be surprised by Obama’s decision.
“I would say that unlike Libya, which was basically sprung on Congress in a pretty short manner, this is something Congress has been aware of for a number of years,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a member of the Armed Services Committee who supports the action in Uganda.
“I think members can’t say they were totally surprised,” Sessions added.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a lead sponsor of the Senate measure, said it had broad, bipartisan support.
“We had 64 co-sponsors,” Inhofe told The Hill on Thursday. “That’s the most in the history of the Senate on an Africa-related bill.”
Inhofe said Obama didn’t have to send troops to Uganda because of the legislation, but that Congress has full responsibility for the decision.
“I would have been disappointed” had Obama opted against sending U.S. troops there, Inhofe said. “It’s not that we mandated the president to act; we requested him to do it. I take full responsibility for that. I don’t hang that on the president at all.”
During a recent interview on ABC, Obama cited broad “bipartisan support” for his efforts in Uganda, but that has not silenced critics on Capitol Hill.
“I worry that with the best of intentions, that somehow we get engaged in a commitment that we can’t get out of,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) argued in comments earlier this month on CNN.
“That’s happened before in our history and we need an explanation, and I’m very disappointed, again, that the administration has not consulted with members of Congress before taking such action,” he said.
Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) told The Hill: “I have grave reservations about opening up a new front based upon all the things that we’re doing right now.”
Worries that military advisers will be drawn into conflict came out during Tuesday’s hearing.
Under questioning from Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Vershbow acknowledged that the mission could lead to Kony being “captured or killed.”
Committee members from both parties expressed skepticism about whether U.S. forces would be able to stay out of the fighting between Uganda-allied forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Vershbow and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Donald Yamamoto were frank in saying the administration could not give Congress such guarantees.
That’s because the deployment is different from other so-called “train-and-equip” missions that American forces conduct routinely, as it will send U.S. troops “into the field,” sometimes “at the platoon level,” to assist allied forces, Vershbow said.
That will put American troops close to the front lines. State and Pentagon officials explained that this is why they will be sent to central Africa “combat equipped,” in case they must defend themselves.