A broader approach to national security

Thursday, February 24, 2011

As several of the world's dictators have learned recently, political stability is about more than just military strength. Economic desperation and ineffective political institutions breed dissatisfaction that can eventually lead to uprisings. In other words, human insecurity leads to political insecurity.

The United States ought to be paying attention. We've made this mistake before. We poured billions of dollars' worth of military aid into Afghanistan during the 1980s to oppose the Soviet invasion. Once the Soviets withdrew, so did we, leaving in our wake a ruined country - which seemed just another casualty of Cold War superpowers jockeying for an advantage.

But as Charlie Wilson, the longtime Democratic congressman from Texas, wrote in The Post in 2008, "If we had done the right thing in Afghanistan then -- following up our military support with the necessary investments in diplomacy and development assistance -- we would have better secured our own country's future, as well as peace and stability in the region."

In the Hollywood retelling of U.S. actions in Afghanistan, Wilson gets laughed out of the room as "the congressman from Kabul" when he requests money for school construction. But what if we had helped rebuild the country? We might have avoided our current task -- trying to win Afghan hearts and minds while simultaneously winning and securing territory -- by building effective political and economic institutions before extremism could take root. Instead of spending millions to rebuild Afghanistan then, we're spending hundreds of billions to conquer and rebuild it now. How many lives and how much money could have been spared?

This isn't just an exercise in hindsight. It's also a cautionary tale for the future. It's much cheaper to address desperate poverty and humanitarian crises before they lead to security challenges that involve military intervention. It's also easier to help develop markets and trading partners than it is to slay all of America's enemies. It's in our national interest to promote human security across the globe.

This means that if we want to avoid making the same mistakes, we should ask: Which countries could be the next decade's Afghanistan? If history is any guide, the next threats to American national security will almost certainly come from countries with desperate poverty and ineffective, failed political institutions.

If we aim to save money while remaining engaged in the international arena, we need to change our approach -- identify these countries and, instead of thinking of national security solely in military terms, focus on human security across the globe. Political instability and threats to the United States develop in nations where individuals have few economic opportunities. Consider Yemen, home to a dangerous branch of al-Qaeda and the site of the USS Cole bombing. The unemployment rate is estimated in the high teens. Half of young girls in Yemen are married before their 18th birthday; for many of these child brides, their wedding day ends their schooling and active participation in economic life. If we address humanitarian crises before they lead to violence, we will save ourselves an extraordinary sum while doing an even greater amount of good.

Unrest across the Arab world highlights the importance of orienting our foreign aid toward human security. It's easy to cheer a population's pursuit of democracy, but overthrowing an authoritarian government won't immediately address the issues that sparked the uprisings. Nor will a democratic system quickly and cleanly take hold. Citizens who have won the right to freely participate in politics may still be grappling with economic desperation. Consider Egypt, where nearly half the population lives at or below the poverty line, and the interim foreign minister recently appealed for international aid. Economic opportunities are hard to come by. The United States should be ready to help new political institutions in Egypt and elsewhere develop, because it's both the right thing to do and to prevent them from lapsing into instability and insecurity.

Changing our approach to national security means we're going to have to change how we invest our resources. Last year we spent around 1 percent of the federal budget on foreign assistance, with much of that small slice going to Afghanistan and Iraq. By contrast, about 20 percent of the 2010 federal budget was spent on the military.

Is it any wonder that Americans usually think of national security in military terms? And thanks to GOP budget cuts, we may spend even less on foreign aid in fiscal 2012. This kind of shortsighted thinking could be disastrous not only for our long-term fiscal health but also for national security.

Conor Williams won The Post's 2010 America's Next Great Pundit contest. His e-mail address is punditconor@gmail.com.

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