Thursday, June 23, 2011

Now is No Time for Isolationism

A version of this article appeared on PolicyMic on June 24, 2011.

Many politicians are beginning to sound the call to ‘bring the troops home.’ The once-hawkish GOP’s Presidential candidates for 2012 have turned isolationist, as criticized by Sen. Jon McCain. It seems that this will be the year where many begin to argue that America can no longer afford to be a superpower with global reach.

But don’t you dare believe it. We’ve been in this position before. In the midst of the Great Depression in the ‘30’s many argued that what happened in Europe and Asia was their business and we have our own problems to worry about. It took Pearl Harbor to pull Americans out of isolationism after Axis invasions and refugee reports couldn’t do it. Just imagine what the world would look like today if the Greatest Generation hadn’t shrugged off isolationism. Imagine what it will look like if we don’t shake it off again now.

Though there have been comparisons, 9/11 is not this generation’s Pearl Harbor and the profligate action in Iraq and the early mishandling of Afghanistan have eroded any such feeling. Our world today is a very confusing place for an America used to having a clear enemy to shake a stick at. We have no clear enemy today. Islamic extremism is a movement, not a state. Whether or to what degree we should worry about China, Iran, Pakistan, or other places is uncertain.

This ambiguity requires us to be more vigilant, not less. In fact, it can be an opportunity. If we begin to approach problems in the world not just as military problems, but as security problems and take a holistic approach we can identify emerging threats and keep problems small. Besides our military, we need to use the tools of sanctions regimes, diplomacy, development, and economic assistance. If we’re not going to spend more money on these things, we certainly shouldn’t be spending any less.

If we retreat from the world now our problems are not going to go away. They’ll grow and maybe to proportions we can’t handle without large-scale war. The argument is made that our allies need to do more and they’ll step in. They won’t. Our British allies are already having trouble handling the military requirements of the Libyan bombing campaign, doveish Germans won’t send their under-equipped military anywhere, and Machiavellian France isn’t going to commit to anything that isn’t very much in French interests. Our European allies have turned to harsh austerity and there is no room in their budgets for stepping in where we don’t. Nobody will.

Except our potential foes, that is. In Africa China doesn’t care about human rights, just mineral rights. Iran fans the flames against us in the Middle East at every turn. When we didn’t step in to help those in need in Pakistan, Palestine, and Lebanon, Islamic extremists and terror groups did. If we go back to sleep now, a lot will go on without us. Wherever the light of America doesn’t shine our enemies move in the darkness.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Best Way to Fight Terror

This article originally appeared on 15 June, 2011 on

Usually, a person cannot name the exact point when his life changed.

For me, it was 6 p.m. on June 15, 2004. The man who changed the way I see the world was an Arab in his early 30s whom I would never meet, learn his name, or know his story. He gave me only a brief, desperate look before driving his explosives-laden truck into my military vehicle. The blast peppered me with glass shrapnel and blew out both of my eardrums. I walked away with my life and a Purple Heart. But I still see his face, even when I do not want to.

Afterwards, I often reflected on what drives a man to become a suicide bomber and what can be done to stop it. It was the look I saw in his eyes: Desperation led him to terrorism. He was born into a harsh situation from which he saw no escape; Islamic extremists easily took advantage of this and gave him a target for his anger. Desperate conditions are fertile ground for terrorism. Therefore, the greatest tool we have in our arsenal to fight terror is international development and assistance.

Most Americans believe we are spending a good chunk of our budget on foreign assistance and should reduce what we spend; the truth is it makes up just 1% of our budget. We need to fully fund these aid programs and work to reform the system. Foreign development is not charity; it is an important component of our national security. It costs over half a million dollars to put a soldier in the Iraq or Afghanistan field for a year. Spending the same amount to build schools, water treatment plants, and local businesses will last longer than a soldier’s one year tour.

In 2006, I was part of a Military Transition (MiTT) Team tasked to advise and assess an Iraqi Army battalion in the Ameriyah district of Baghdad. We assessed progress by the number of shops open, the length of gas lines, the amount of electricity generated, the availability of water, and the effectiveness of sewage and trash removal. Improving the Iraqis’ situation helped us complete our job more than traditional military operations did. However, this is not a soldier’s job. My job was to find, fight, and eliminate the enemy. As a soldier, I should spend my time providing security, not trying to run a power plant. Sadly, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates likes to point out, there are more military band members than development experts at the State Department.

Foreign development is not simply giving money to regimes; it is providing funds for specific purposes and can be tracked by the U.S. government and taxpayers. Development programs help to support and stabilize countries with weak governments or that are in danger of failing, which often makes them havens for terror. Afghanistan and Pakistan are perfect examples. Ending stabilization programs in these countries would undoubtedly make them more dangerous to America, as they would foster an environment conducive to terrorism and crime.

The same applies in situations outside of war. Positive public opinion among Pakistanis doubled because of U.S. assistance following its devastating 2005 earthquake. In contrast, the West’s slow response to Pakistan’s severe flooding in 2010 had the opposite effect. Islamic groups stepped in and the U.S.’s goals and image suffered as a result. Terror groups have even begun to provide their own food aid in such situations.

The U.S. has a successful history with foreign development programs. Just look at the Marshall Plan, which helped rebuild a Europe devastated by World War II, and the Berlin Airlift, which defied a Soviet land blockade. Germans remember these things and will tell you they owe their lives to America, my own German family members included. In terms of publicity, U.S. assistance even spreads to those who did not directly receive it; other countries know America is willing to help.

It took years of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan for us to learn that to defeat an indigenous Islamic insurgency, we must win the people’s hearts and minds. This is a lesson we should not quickly forget. Our commanders on the ground are asking for these programs because they know they work. Foreign development assistance is not a handout; it is a tactical tool our leaders need and is one of the most important components of our national security policy. We need to fully fund foreign development and assistance, as well as reform the system so it continues to work for America.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Gasoline Is Costing Us Our National Security

If you think $4 a gallon is a lot for gasoline, you should try paying $400. Sadly, we are paying 100 times the domestic price to get fuel to our troops in Afghanistan, if you include the costs from the source to the pump. In 2008, it was estimated that we paid $88 a day per soldier on the ground for gas in Iraq. 70% of Americans say they’re feeling the financial pain at the pump every time the price goes up a penny. For the military, those pennies add up to millions of dollars each month.

Even defense spending, long a ‘sacred cow’ exempt from budget cuts, seems to be on the cutting board. The question our leaders in Washington will have to struggle with is how much to cut. Either way, increasing fuel costs will continue to eat up a large chunk of our military’s shrinking budget, especially for the Navy and Air Force which require large amounts of fuel for their ships and aircraft. Though budget shortfalls for the military due to energy costs can often be made up with discretionary spending, it appears even this will be subject to cuts. This creates a scenario where our military leaders will have to choose when, where, and how to respond to threats in the field based upon whether or not we can afford it. Energy costs are beginning to put the squeeze on our national security. We shouldn’t have to worry about whether we can afford to keep our country safe anymore.

Fortunately, many are waking up to this fact. It is well documented that every branch of the military is making efforts to reduce fuel use and find energy from alternative, renewable sources. Every part of our national security apparatus, from the State Department, CIA, and the National Security Council to the Departments of Energy and Transportation, are working to find solutions to this problem. As cuts are made, the efforts of these agencies and departments to win the race for future energy should remain off the table. This is money we should spend to save us money tomorrow.

We cannot afford to let high fuel prices put the squeeze on our security. We need to continue to invest in finding alternative energy sources so our troops can fight and our military leaders can worry about keeping us safe, not whether they can afford the gas. High oil prices are compromising our national security and thats why its time to cut oil out altogether.