We ask too much of the military

A recent small piece in Stars and Stripes about the Navy Seabees working in Cambodia reminds me, yet again, of the mindless and increasingly risky way the United States is engaging overseas. The Seabees, it seems, have been building schools and health clinics and digging wells in Cambodia, all for the greater good and benefit of the Cambodian people.

Last time I looked, Cambodia was not a combat zone. There is not a question here of only being able to do good works with our soldiers because the enemy abounds and civilians are not safe. That was the reason the Seabees were created -- to provide engineering and construction where only soldiers were safe. They were not created as a foreign assistance force.

We have a foreign assistance force; it is called the U.S. Agency for International Development, which operates with the assistance of the State Department. But over the past ten years or so, we have larded up our military with missions that USAID and State should be doing -- development, governance support, social support, training for ministries, public diplomacy.

Iraq and Afghanistan and those questionable Provincial Reconstruction Teams put military foreign aid on steroids. The assumption that we have to bolster security around the world using Special Operations forces, the Seabees, and other non-combat military capabilities has expanded this type of engagement, with health clinics, schools, and wells (is that the recipe in the Seabee handbook?) springing up in the Horn of Africa and across the Sahel region. And now in Cambodia.

It all sounds very nice and gung-ho American. But it is both the wrong approach to assistance and dangerous to our security.

It is the wrong approach to assistance because, for all the vaunted Seabee capability, they are not a development force; they are not "best practiced" in development. They do not, and cannot put such construction into the context of Cambodia's development and governance needs; they can just sweep in and "do good." But that may have little to do with what the Cambodians actually need; Seabees have no competence in that area. As too many projects in Iraq and Afghanistan show, the short-term effort to "win hearts and minds" backfires when the schools lack teachers and material; the clinics lack doctors and medicines. In other words, the Seabees have no way to ensure the advisability or sustainability of such projects.

And it is dangerous. For decades, Americans have told the militaries of the world to stand down their social and economic programs, their corporate ownership, their civilian work, in their own countries. Militaries should do what militaries should do, not what governments and civil society should do.

By "invading" with militarized "soft power," we are contradicting this message. "See," we are saying, "the military can do all this great stuff." What lesson should the host country draw? First, that soldiers are more desirable for these tasks than civilians, which has the consequence of empowering military forces in countries that actually need stronger civilian government. And second, that the United States engages abroad, yes, but when it engages, it commonly wears a uniform. What does that tell the rest of the world about how, when, and why the United States engages abroad?

For all the smiling children and grateful mothers, expanding U.S. military missions in this way sets the United States on a very dangerous course, putting our long-term security and relationships at risk. Time to skill up and strengthen our civilian toolkit and send our military back to its core tasks and competence.


The Sheathed Sword

How did they do?

There was not much substance on the defense budget in Monday night's debate. That's hardly surprising, and the fact that the candidates kept slipping into domestic politics makes it clear that this is not a foreign policy campaign. President Obama mentioned the dreaded fiscal cliff only to say it would not happen. I'm not sure how he knows, since it is the law and will take a congressional deal to avoid. But the general silence on the subject indicates there is no political traction in the topic.

So, I posed a test on Monday for both candidates, and they took an incomplete on most of it. To wit:

1. Romney avoided his notion of spending 4 percent of GDP on defense. No points and a demerit for failing to recognize that defense budgets are going down anyway.

2. He ducked, as well, on whether his plan would add $2 trillion to defense, but he did not deny it, either. So no points either way.

3. They both stayed away from the subject of defense and the size of the GDP. No points.

4. Romney gets no bonus points, which he would have earned, for detailing a budget plan that paid for his $2 trillion add to the defense budget. Is there a plan?

5. A half a point to Romney for adding ships to the fleet and keeping the 100,000 troops, but that was already public. No full point, which he would have earned for a more detailed defense spending plan.

6. Romney loses a point for saying he would buy 15 ships a year, even though we have not done so since 1915.

7. One point loss to Romney for arguing that the Navy would be as small as it was in 1917 (he is actually wrong by about 30 ships). A bonus point to Obama for having the snappiest come-back of the debate.

8. A point loss to Romney for failing to say what Middle East country he would invade with the additional ground force. In fact, he would invade no country -- a new commitment and maybe a bonus point for him.

9. No point loss for calling sequester "doomsday," but maybe a point loss for Romney for arguing that Obama was responsible for a trillion dollars in defense cuts when (a) the first $487 billion do not cut the budget but simply reduce the previously planned growth to a pace that keeps up with inflation, and (b) both these and the $500 billion from a sequester are the result of the Budget Control Act, which the Republican House supported.

10. See point 9.

11. Nobody gets a point for fiscal acumen; neither noted that even after a sequester the defense budget would start to grow, again.

12. Neither candidate noted that the FY 2013 defense budget would still be at the
FY 2007 level, pretty historically high for defense.

13. Neither candidate gets points for proposing how to fix the procurement system. They didn't even talk about it.

14. Neither candidate gets points for history; neither noted that even with a sequester, the defense budget would decline less that it has in every previous defense draw-down (an average of 30 percent in constant dollars).

15. No points go to either candidate for political courage on military pensions. Neither called for reform of a system that deprives the military of a pension if they have served less than 20 years and then gives them a full pension regardless of age.

17. Can the Pentagon manage weapons programs with 9.4 percent fewer resources? Yes, but neither candidate said so. No points.

18. Budgets limit strategic appetite. Nobody said so Monday night. No points.

19. Neither candidate suggested that we do "less with less" in defense. No bonus points for a realistic military strategy, as a result.

20. Obama gets no points for admitting that there are no budgetary savings from ending the war in Afghanistan. He did not admit it, but, then, he did not claim the phantom savings, either. As I said in the last column: you can't save money from money you never planned to spend in the first place.

We only had a faint echo of the reality we face in defense: we are in a defense drawdown because the wars are ending, the deficit must be lowered, the debt restrained, and the economy fixed. So no final round of applause for finally recognizing reality instead of political pandering.