Aid in Conflict or Aiding Conflict: Whither the Pentagon?

The world of disaster relief, overseas aid, and development has always had a difficult time with mixed motives. Why does anyone give large sums to poor nations in desperate need of help? Millions of people donate money to thousands of non-governmental organizations precisely in order to help people who are sick, poor, and in disastrous circumstances, especially when natural calamities occur. The motivation is mostly altruistic. But governments are massive donors as well. The problem is that once government gets involved there is always the question of mixed motives, national interests and economic interests mixed with public expressions of altruism. The problem is even more acute when it is not just the government but the military. That is why there are strong objections to the U.S. military getting into the business of aid and disaster relief:

“Our [foreign] policy is out of whack,” said Kenneth Bacon, a former assistant secretary of defense who now runs Refugees International, a nonprofit organization. “It is too dominated by the military and we have too little civilian capacity.”

Bacon is particularly concerned about Pentagon plans for a new US Africa Command. In a report published this month, Refugees International called on the next administration to limit the military’s role in Africa to conducting security-related tasks, such as training foreign militaries and providing critical humanitarian assistance – and to leave the rest to civilian specialists.

“The military should not take on what [the US Agency for International Development] does or the State Department,” Bacon said. Still, US military strategists believe they have an expanding role to play in exerting America’s soft power.

The problem with the objections is that, when it comes to mixed motives the State Department will be no different than the military. Both will operate in places of the world in which they have determined some national interest for the United States. Furthermore, getting some part of the Pentagon to become deeply involved in humanitarian aid will set up a healthy tension between that aspect of the Defense Department engaged in “smashing things”, to cite the great humanitarian Donald Rumsfeld, versus those engaged in preventing things—and people—from being smashed. This will be good for the overall objectives of humanizing American foreign intervention. Of course, if I were a congressman I would give the most to funds for NGO’s, secondly to AID and State, and only thirdly to the Pentagon. But given the reality of the massive and excessive funds given now to the Pentagon which funds military bases in 160 countries, it is better that some in that building start seeing the advantages of “soft power” over “smashing things”. That is why these scenarios are welcome, in my opinion:

When a US military team arrived by helicopter in Cambodia’s rural Kampong Chhnang Province in late May, the imam from the local mosque spread the word and hundreds of locals descended on the Americans.

But it was not confrontation they sought. It was free healthcare. The Friendship Clinic, offering primary and vision care, dentistry, a women’s health center, and medical training, was part of a first-of-its kind humanitarian mission called Pacific Angel by the Honolulu-based 13th Air Force.

In recent months, Navy war ships have been dispatched to some of the poorest nations to administer medical aid, the Air Force is flying regular humanitarian flights, and teams of US military personnel are helping rebuild schools in Latin America.

© Marc Gopin