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.