Soldiers As Samaritans: What’s the Right Balance?
The boundaries between the two have become increasingly fuzzier during the past two decades. It’s almost as if troops are expected to be Janus-like, with a single head looking in entirely opposite directions.
As the current thinking goes at the Defense Department, humanitarian assistance is a good fit for the military because it helps prevent wars and generates goodwill for the United States. But at what point should the military stop taking on duties that are best suited for civilian agencies?
Somebody had better come up with answers soon, or the military will
break under the pressure of an ever-growing to-do list, some experts
Not only is the military stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it
must also sustain a “global presence,” train foreign troops in friendly
countries, provide emergency relief after natural disasters, keep
terrorists at bay in dozens of so-called “failed states,” not to
mention prepare for high-tech wars against future peer competitors.
These unrealistic expectations are overstressing the military and
breaking the bank, grouse critics, who complain that the military is
responsible for far too many non-combat missions.
Such isolationist views stand in contrast to the Pentagon’s mantra of
“preventive” humanitarian actions such as naval hospital ship tours
around the world and the creation of a new Africa command. These
measures are viewed as deterrents against the rapid infiltration of
Muslim extremists in the poorest regions of the world.
Advocates of philanthropy as a sensible foreign policy vehicle —
including U.S. Navy leaders — say that good works should be part and
parcel of military strategy.
“We like to believe that the American instinct is to fly the human
rights flag and help people who are in danger,” says Victoria Holt,
senior associate at the Henry Stimson Center.
The backlash against philanthropy appears to be more about Iraq fatigue
than anything else. Iraq has so consumed the military establishment
that it may be clouding the judgment of policy makers about what makes
sense to do in the long term.
The Africa command, which is intended to boost ties with local
governments, assist in economic development and enhance the U.S. image
in the region, already has been taking a public-relations beating
because the Defense Department has sent mixed messages about the
command’s goals and responsibilities. That just proves how conflicted
the U.S. foreign policy apparatus remains about fusing philanthropy
with national security.
The idea of establishing a new military command to conduct
civilian-type duties has proved controversial on Capitol Hill. Military
personnel don’t necessarily mix well with aid workers and other
civilian organizations that have traditionally been responsible for
humanitarian work in Africa, says Caleb Rossiter, an advisor to the
House subcommittee on international organizations, human rights and
People who work in foreign aid and development are “horrified” by the
notion of working under a military command structure, says Rossiter.
Many members of Congress believe that the integration of Defense, State
and U.S. Agency for International Development staffs sounds all right
in theory, but may not work out in the real world. Others simply worry
about military personnel taking on more duties than they can handle —
counterinsurgency, occupation, reconstruction, in addition to
traditional combat functions. These issues have not yet been thought
It goes back to the fundamental question of whether humanitarian
efforts should be integrated with the military or kept separately. As
things stand now, the military is in charge simply because they have
the lion’s share of financial and human resources. The Pentagon’s cut
of foreign development funds has exploded from 3.5 percent to nearly
22 percent since 1998, while the percentage of aid dollars controlled
by USAID shrunk from 65 percent to 40 percent, according to a recent
study by Refugees International.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said the government should increase
funding for USAID and expand the ranks of foreign service officers so
they can pick up some of the military’s workload. He also recently
spoke against the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy and
suggested that the Defense Department should be working “in support” of
civilian development agencies, not the other way around.
Gates’ wish, however, is more like a pipe dream. The military, after
all, has more musicians than the State Department has foreign service
officers. USAID, with a permanent staff of about 2,000, has fewer
employees than the Pentagon has lawyers. As long as the balance of
power and resources remains that lopsided, the Pentagon can expect to
be running the show.