History does not repeat itself, as the adage goes, but it surely rhymes. The U.S. government seems to be unaware that its “capacity-building” programs are a repackaging of previously abandoned nation-building strategies used in Latin America during the Cold War.
Collective amnesia has befallen Beltway minds. And too little evidence exists supporting the idea that building up developing nations remains a successful way of stopping the spread of a dangerous ideology, such as radical Islamic terrorism.
Therefore, Congress should reconsider the Pentagon’s role in these expensive security assistance initiatives. After all, the military desperately needs that funding elsewhere.
Politico’s Bryan Bender exposed what he calls the newest “arms race” between the State Department and the Pentagon over “who should make decisions on supplying military aid to foreign nations.” This arms race, however, is merely a part of a larger nation-building initiative, which has reclaimed the mantle of U.S. counterterrorism strategy.
Prevailing wisdom once again says U.S. national security policies must target the ideology behind the threat through taxpayer-funded modernization projects. But Latin America shows us the failure of these ideas.
The Alliance for Progress began in 1961 as comprehensive development program aimed at reforming social and political systems throughout Latin America for the express purpose of thwarting the spread of communism. For 10 years, billions of dollars in civic assistance and military aid flowed into government coffers of America’s southern neighbors, all in hopes that democracy, security and economic uplift would make communism less appealing.
The program’s architects, as one scholar surmised, essentially attempted to “immunize Latin American societies against radicalism.” Sound familiar?
Unfortunately, the goal of a modern, communist-free Latin America proved elusive. Income stagnated. Literacy rates and infant mortality showed little improvement. Meanwhile, communism still found supporters. This last issue proved particularly irritating to U.S. officials still smarting from the “loss” of Cuba.
In short order, stopping communism at all costs took precedence over democratic growth. Money and weapons flowed south to assist honest and dishonest leaders alike in their efforts to quell threats of a communist takeover, whether real or perceived. The funds incidentally helped entrench many pre-existing authoritarian governments. By the 1970s, military dictatorships controlled 13 countries in the region.
A wise man learns from his mistakes, but a wiser man learns from another man’s mistakes. Right? Well, the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and its “capacity-building” has an uncanny resemblance to the failed Alliance for Progress program.
Sure, there are subtle differences. The Cold War program was more centralized and depended heavily on state security and military enforcement. The current Trans-Sahara partnership remains more decentralized and the managers have no expressed interest in projecting military power.
However, the newest Africa initiative is simply another whole-of-government project designed to rebuild developing nations in hopes of lessening the appeal of an ideology. The theory undergirding it remains nearly identical to its failed predecessor.
Worse still, problems persist within the Trans-Sahara program itself. For one, the language remains vague, almost misleading. If the fight is to contain an ideology, the threat should be clearly defined. What is extremism: the disenfranchised Islamic terrorism of Boko Haram or the apocalyptic Islam of Iran? This deceptive language is a manifestation of the Obama administration’s national security policies, to be sure.
Meanwhile, poorly articulated objectives plague strategy and a lack of financial oversight complicates funding disbursement. More important, dangerously imprecise classifications of what constitutes human rights violations puts military advisers at risk from an administration more obsessed with optics and image than the execution of a mission.
The military cannot operate in this environment. And before further gutting the military’s readiness capabilities, Congress should consider using the coming National Defense Authorization Act to reallocate money previously dedicated to these capacity projects:
—Congress save money by pulling from the $11 billion authorized to security assistance programs, or from the $2 billion sitting in the Overseas Contingency Operations.
—Congress could scale back the military’s role in security assistance programs and encourage greater reliance on U.N. peacekeeping forces. The U.S. capital represents over a quarter of all peacekeeping funds, by far the most of any country at $2 billion.
—Dedicate funds to a quick reaction force. Congress should return the focus of our military to rapid response and mobilization capabilities, rather than participation in expensive civic programs. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, for example, introduced Senate Bill 1632 on Boko Haram that provides a useful framework.
“Capacity” today is a simply a euphemism for yesterday’s “development” — an idea that failed in the Alliance for Progress. Congress could find savings from within these broad, undefined capacity programs in order to improve military readiness.