The Wrong Tool for the Wrong Job

McCaskill’s call for more C-17 worsens an already lopsided security imbalance.


by Andy Heaslet

On Monday, Feb 1, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates released the 2011 Defense Budget request, more than $700 Billion and more than half of the federal discretionary budget.  By Wednesday, the St Louis Post-Dispatch posted a video showing Senator Clair McCaskill using Boeing talking points, trying to convince Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of staff, that we need more C-17 cargo planes and to spend even more on an already bloated military budget.

Others have already argued more effectively than I, and during his release of this budget, the President shared the basic reason I don’t think we need anymore of these planes: “The department [of defense] reached its goal of 180 aircraft four years ago… Yet, [Obama] noted, Congress has provided unrequested funding for more C-17s in each subsequent fiscal year.”  Having my senator call for more of something the Secretary of Defense and President say we have enough of is infuriating to me, but it’s really her perspective on the planes’ use in Haiti that I want to reflect on: “The plane, McCaskill said, is proving its mettle in Haiti, where the military is using the C-17 to transport food and supplies into the disaster zone.”

Mind the Gap

While it’s commendable that our armed servicemen and women are delivering resources to Haitians in addition to inoculating children throughout the world, and trying to build infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere, that is simply not why we have a standing army.

“The mission of the Department of Defense is to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country,” writes the DoD website.  While tragic and occasionally violent, Haiti does not represent a security risk for the US and is certainly not a military threat.  When we send our armed forces to do humanitarian work, it’s asking them to do work well outside their mission.  But it also reduces the efficacy of the Department of State, the organization that is charged with this type of work.

Should the US government help Haiti?  Absolutely.  Should the US military be the purveyors of that aid?  Absolutely not.  And I’m not the only one who thinks this.

A little more than a year ago Admiral Mullen spoke to the role the military plays in foreign policy and American national security, both of which require “a whole-of-government approach to solving modern problems . . . We need to reallocate roles and resources in a way that places our military as an equal among many in government — as an enabler, a true partner,” he said.

What Senator McCaskill’s statement does is lay the ground work for making the funding gap between military and the rest government wider, pushing us away from equality and partnership and towards a military that is continually asked to perform even more tasks outside its mission.

Another Way/The Opportunity Cost

In 2005-06 I served in one of those government program that possesses a much smaller partnership share of the security and policy pie, the Peace Corps.  This organization sends qualified volunteers to integrate themselves into communities, share their stories of American culture, learn the stories of the host-country nationals, and provide technical advice in order to gradually and sustainably help people in these impoverished places pick themselves out of their various destitute situations.

This organization has also developed a new “Crisis Corps” to send very well trained and very experienced volunteers into areas facing immediate, unexpected needs, like, say, the earthquakes in Haiti or Chile.  This storied organization demonstrates one of the best of ways that the American government can assist foreign nations in need – and they don’t own a single C-17.

The total Peace Corps budget authorization this year, by the way: $400 million.  Or the cost of roughly two, yes, just 2, C-17s.

The Peace Corps is a small, but potent force technically housed within the State Department.  This department’s mission is to “advance freedom for the benefit of the American people and the international community by helping to build and sustain a more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.”  And the Peace Corps performs a remarkable amount of work to that end, but not without difficulty.

A common problem I encountered during my service in Paraguay was facing assumptions that I was a member of the US military or the CIA.  It took me nearly a year of living in a small community, sharing meals, playing soccer, organizing meetings, attending Quincenieras, and working in the fields before my neighbors trusted that I was there free of sinister intentions.  This hurdle was finally and happily resolved in sleepy little Paraguay, but imagine if I had been in south Asia or even Ecuador, whose proximity to US military adventures are more prominent in locals’ minds.

Volunteers across the world deal with this issue and struggle to distance themselves from our nation’s militaristic foreign policy.  The Peace Corps’ distinct separation from the armed forces allows its volunteers to gradually gain the trust of those they are working with, free of fear of violence or losing what little they have to armed or wealthy foreigners.  And this distinction, explained through humble hard work and long-term trust building, can get examples of the best the US has to offer— smart, caring, hard working people—into communities where people are often skeptical of foreigners, especially Americans.

When we are waging two wars, have American forces in more than 50 countries in the world and a military budget comparable to that of the rest of the entire world combined (SPIRI), it comes as little surprise that people were hesitant to trust me.  Residents of small towns and villages across the world are aware of our nation’s overwhelming military might and this knowledge plays a role in their reception of new Americans moving into their communities.

The sharing of our national treasure – our people – leads to stronger national security.  By developing trusting relationships at an individual and a State level, we are reducing the risk of extremism rather than failing to stamp it out wherever it lies.

Ignorance and poverty are ripe ingredients for creating fear, hate, and, of course, violent extremism.  And it takes resources to educate people and to help them work their way out of poverty.  The Department of Defense, while filled with countless patriotic and dedicated individuals, is not equipped to perform either of these tasks, nor should it be.  But it is because of its attempts to do just this, in places much like Haiti, that my senator claims she wants more airplanes.  And that quest for more planes is only making the problem worse.  It seeks to take precious, limited funds and give the wrong Department the wrong resources to perform tasks beyond its mission.

Fixing the Imbalance

Miriam Pemberton and Anita Dance recently wrote a terrific article about the security imbalance.  With the 2011 budget request, “The imbalance between the budget for offense (military forces) and prevention (non-military foreign engagement) actually grew from 11:1 [in 2010] to 12:1.”  “Spending on non-military international engagement,” they note, “actually decreased since last year, from $64.9 to $60.5 billion.”

As that gap is widening, while the federal government is making some very hard spending decisions in attempts to reduce the deficit, my senator is asking to make that gap even wider with the demand for these new planes.

But we simply can’t afford any more – and it’s not the only piece of wildly expensive military hardware that we should consider eliminating.

More than C-17s, more than extra engines for fighter jets that don’t exist yet, more than new nuclear weapons, we need an adequately funded State Department.  This would mean the State Department could fulfill its charge and the Defense Department wouldn’t have to go beyond its own.

Sure, Senator McCaskill, the C-17 might be a great plane.  But the military, who is already getting too much money and is being asked to do too much, says it has enough of them.  And there are other, much greater needs to fund, fixing the security imbalance not least among them.

Andy Heaslet is the Director of the St Louis based Peace Economy Project.

2 Responses to “The Wrong Tool for the Wrong Job”

  1. william Collins says:

    Why not develop a petition to sen. Mc.

  2. [...] its mission. (for more information on the role of the military, see a previous blog post, “Wrong Tool for the Wrong Job.”) -3- Not a practical alternative right now “Carnahan said he hopes that Karzai will [...]

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