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Preventing Tomorrow's Wars

Authors: Micah Zenko, Senior Fellow, and Rebecca R. Friedman
June 21, 2010
Baltimore Sun


In an annual rite of spring inside the Beltway, Congress is contemplating a $4 billion cut to President Barack Obama's foreign affairs budget. Fearing the legislative scalpel, senior decision-makers vehemently oppose reduced funding for the State Department and USAID:

"The potential for conflict can be minimized, if not completely avoided, by State and USAID programs — thereby lowering the likely need for deployment of U.S. military assets," one testified.

"The more significant the [budget] cuts, the longer military operations will take, and the more and more lives are at risk!" another scrawled above his signature on a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

These warnings are not the desperate pleas of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah — rather, they come from the two most senior Pentagon officials: Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen, respectively.

That Congress is willing to ax programs that the military deems vital to U.S. national security should give us pause. What does the Pentagon understand that Capitol Hill does not?

Put simply: the essential role of civilian agencies in conflict prevention.

As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan grow more costly and the specter of crisis looms in North Korea and Iran, the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure has never rung truer. As President Obama said: "One of the best ways to lead our troops wisely is to prevent the conflicts that cost American blood and treasure tomorrow." Indeed, the war in Afghanistan costs taxpayers $6.7 billion per month, and Iraq $5.5 billion; the United States even spends $255 million every month in Pakistan.

It is the primary job of State and USAID to prevent weak states from becoming unstable and to prevent instability from becoming war. The chorus of military leaders begging for fully funding civilian agencies derives from three realizations of the past decade.

First, despite its remarkable efforts, the U.S. military is not equipped to serve as a one-stop shop for counterinsurgency. In conflicts that require building state capacity for governance, economic development and security, it is unrealistic to expect the armed forces to succeed at all three. Gen. David Petraeus has noted the 80-20 rule of thumb for past success in counterinsurgencies, where 80 percent of funding and focus should be on political activities and only 20 percent on providing security. Moreover, the military is bearing the brunt of the full spectrum of counterinsurgency activities, which are better handled by civilians outside of the security sector. That detracts from its core mission.

Second, given appropriate funding, State and USAID are very good at what they do. Military officials have witnessed firsthand in Iraq and Afghanistan the tremendous difference that a well-trained and well-resourced civilian presence makes. Last year, Admiral Mullen argued for reallocation of money from hard to soft power tools when necessary: "As an equal partner in government, I want to be able to transfer resources to my other partners when they need them."

Third, American foreign policy aims are best achieved without deploying U.S. troops abroad. Although the U.S. armed forces perform exceptionally when called upon, civilian and military leaders agree that they would rather the military not be deployed at all. As the president pointed out, military engagements and uses of force cost the United States dearly in lives lost and dollars spent. With success, the military can prevent conflict from resurfacing in areas where it is already deployed, but only the State Department and USAID can prevent conflict in areas where there is no military footprint. Civilians will determine the future of Iraq and Afghanistan, and they will also determine whether there will be future Iraqs and Afghanistans.

Of course, good policy does not always make good politics. Politicians and policymakers take credit for wars won, but praise is scant for a conflict prevented — a success defined by the absence of an event. But if Congress is willing to trust the Pentagon's assessment of its own budgetary needs and allocate the full $708 billion requested (not to mention supplemental funding), Congress should be equally accepting of the military leadership's plea to fund President Obama's foreign affairs budget with the full $58.5 billion requested.

Micah Zenko (mzenko@cfr.org) and Rebecca R. Friedman (rfriedman@cfr.org) are, respectively, a fellow and research associate in the Center for Preventive Action at the Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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