Iraqi Refugees 2016

Why Should We Care?

Why should Americans care about helping other countries when there seems to be so many problems in the backyard of every American? What effect does sending a million dollars to a village in Iraq or Afghanistan have on the national security of the US? Every day, these are the questions people ask when they consider foreign aid and development. Polls taken by The Kaiser Family Foundation in January 2016 show that most Americans believe 31% of the Federal budget is spent on foreign aid. Furthermore, Americans believe too much money is utilized to support other countries around the world rather than spending precious taxpayer dollars to fix domestic problems. It is understandable that Americans are outraged when foreign aid is brought up in the current budget debates. But if Americans were truly informed about how little is actually spent on foreign aid, would this opinion change?

The reality is, the US spends less on foreign aid than 19 other major countries. In fact, less than a penny for every dollar is spent on foreign aid. But what if Americans could see that coordinated, proactive development is a critical part of the national security strategy? If  the impact of these investments on protecting our blood and treasure could be shown, would Americans demand the less than 1% already spent on foreign aid be increased?

The present challenges in building a strong national security strategy requires a more modern approach, such as cross discipline, proactive development strategies. If these challenges are going to be properly addressed, it will require innovation, a willingness to deviate from traditional thought, and a new way of thinking rather than the mindset that existed when these challenges were initially created. The national security of America, as history has taught, is dependent on the development and stability of other nations in the realms of social and economic progress, the just enforcement of the rule of law, and investment in the health and education of citizens. When nations positively develop and are on the most viable road to progress, the security of America is strengthened.

However, when nations across the globe are not developing, have weak social and economic systems, and the laws of these nations alienate citizens, the security of the West is not only undermined, but is in great jeopardy from the radicalism, insurgency, and violent extremism that has fertile ground to fester and grow. When these nations fail to develop, safe havens for radical extremists, criminal gangs, and human traffickers are created. When America portrays a position of silence abroad, it creates a power vacuum that would be readily filled by other powers whose motivations, values, and security interests are not likely to align with our own.

The asymmetric threat of violent extremism is a major threat to national security and, to date, the focus of our strategy to defeat this threat has been mostly kinetic.  However, it is widely understood with practitioners that a singular strategy has been ineffective in stopping the spread of existing and the emergence of new violent extremists groups. 

How should our national security apparatus be structured to both prevent and counter violent extremism? Specifically, who should the contributing parties be, and what role do they perform in the strategy? 

Long-term strategies must incorporate development aid to prevent and counter violent extremism because the future of war is not conventional. Conventional war is relatively simple to plan for. Future wars will be complex and will not be won overnight in the way the First Gulf War was won. To win these wars, it will require planning now and employing methods to ensure extremism cannot grow in volatile areas.

A coordinated effort between the private sector, NGOs, and development experts is needed to help create a sustainable investment in stability-enhancement and in domestic security. In cross collaborative effort between numerous disciplines, Americans will see there is not a significant burden to shift focus in this way. It should be the upmost importance for policy makers if these policies are going to provide meaningful protections for Americans. Cutting foreign aid and de-prioritizing development is handing the hearts and minds of fragile nations over to other actors, including violent extremist groups.

To further show why proactive, coordinateddevelopment is such a necessary tool in national security, look at the growth of Al Qaeda, al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and ISIS. Many scholars and policymakers argue that the growth of these groups is attributed to a shared evil ideology against the United States. In reality, the growth and expansion can be attributed most to the ecosystem that fosters these types of groups. Aside from how these groups pervert religion to justify their actions, the growth of the aformentioned groups is all very similar because it is attributed to countries with shared characteristics. These countries were all fragile and were governed poorly, had weak financial institutions, a very high rate of income inequality and poverty, and a low quality life for its citizens; ultimately the indignity that all of these failures cause. These extremists groups came into villages and cities and tapped into the greivances against governments to recruit members and to obtain favor. At times, they were welcomed in because they offered better services, governance and protection that the legitimate government. Citizens of these fragile countries could either continue living in poverty or join an extremist movement that promised something better. What was the alternative to joining an extremist group that was willing to serve as the godfather to these failing communities?

There is a school of thought that believes a “military first” strategy should be the priority. However, if this were an effective strategy groups would already be eliminated in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan. History has given us many “lessons-learned.” But lessons aren’t truly learned until they are put into practice. Existing legal and political systems are unprepared for the changing nature of war. This is why it is time for a course correction and the employment of a different strategy moving forward.

Proactive, coordinated development is the ingredient often missing from effective national security and defense strategies. Lt. Gen. John Allen once said, “USAID’s efforts can do as much over the long-term to prevent conflict as the deterrent effect of a carrier strike group or a marine expeditionary force.” When policymakers take the focus off of development and providing aid to vulnerable communities, a vital weapon out of the arsenal is removed and volatile regions are handed over to violent extremists. Furthermore, it can almost be guaranteed that more bloodshed of men and women in uniform will occur. If proactive development is not prioritized, military action and conflicts will only increase to the point forces are spread too thin to be competitive in any region. These forces are already being spread thin, thus, a shift in focus to winning battles in the future without military force should be considered.

Protecting this country is a combined effort that should engage the government, NGOs, and the private sector’s rich resources to help promote security policies, innovative development, and governance that is rooted in fair and just laws and policies. Americans must come to terms with the knowledge that the future of wars will look dramatically different than they have looked in the past. Today, there needs to be more than simply military intervention, there should be investments into proactive, coordinated development. More than 120 retired generals and admirals recently wrote a letter to Congress arguing that U.S. programs “are critical to preventing conflict and reducing the need to put our men and women in uniform in harm’s way.” Secretary of Defense James Mattis famously said, back when he was commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other hotspots: “If you don’t fully fund the State Department”—which runs many of America’s key programs—‘then I need to buy more ammunition.’”

While many object to the use and increased use of taxpayer funds for developing other regions across the globe, an important consideration is that these efforts are actually more cost effective in the long run and would save more taxpayer dollars than having to fight in future conflicts. In fact, according to to the Friends Committee on National Legislation[1], prioritizing development would be sixty times less expensive than military intervention and the subsequent assistance required to helping nations rebuild in the aftermath of such intervention. For a nation looking to cut its budget deficit and find savings anywhere possible, this is a viable and necessary solution to cutting costs and saving taxpayer funds.

Former Commandant of the USMC, Gen. James Jones, said “stability equals development plus security.” Stability also means a strengthened and innovative national security. If Congress, the President, and other decision makers truly want to prioritize national security while also saving taxpayer dollars, they will listen to Gen. Jones’ words and prioritize proactive development. We have an advantage in a modernized world to use data and technology to understand conflict and instability before it is too late. Applying this kind of proactive development is a powerful weapon we have to fight the root causes of instability across the world. Where there is instability, violent extremist groups will grow and win the hearts and minds of the people. When these groups grow, national security is compromised because of the far reaching effects of violent extremist ideology and tactics. It is prudent that America steps forward and builds a modern national security strategy for the future that prioritizes and emphasizes thoughtful development.

Strategic development assistance is not charity — it is an essential, modern tool of US national security. Efforts to protect universal values and international order must be amplified through strong and sustainable American Leadership. It is not utopian ideology, but that of pragmatic thinking. American leadership and engagement in the world is a very real way to show the true nature of our character to the world. If we fail to show who we truly are, then what are we fighting for?