NEW YORK: American foreign policy has failed in recent years mainly because the United States relied on military force to address problems that demand development assistance and diplomacy. Young men become fighters in places like Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Afghanistan because they lack gainful employment. Extreme ideologies influence people when they can’t feed their families, and when lack of access to family planning leads to an unwanted population explosion. President Barack Obama has raised hopes for a new strategy, but so far the forces of continuity in US policy are dominating the forces of change.
The first rule in assessing a government’s real strategy is to follow the money. America vastly overspends on the military compared with other areas of government. Obama’s projected budgets do not change that. For the coming 2010 fiscal year, Obama’s budget calls for $755 billion in military spending, an amount that exceeds US budget spending in all other areas except so-called “mandatory spending on social security, health care, interest payments on the national debt, and a few other items.
Indeed, US military spending exceeds the sum of federal budgetary outlays for education, agriculture, climate change, environmental protection, ocean protection, energy systems, homeland security, low-income housing, national parks and national land management, the judicial system, international development, diplomatic operations, highways, public transport, veterans affairs, space exploration and science, civilian research and development, civil engineering for waterways, dams, bridges, sewerage and waste treatment, community development, and many other areas.
This preponderance of military spending applies to all 10 years of Obama’s medium-term scenario. By 2019, total military spending is projected to be $8.2 trillion, exceeding by $2 trillion the budgeted outlays for all non-mandatory budget spending.
US military spending is equally remarkable when viewed from an international perspective. According to the Swedish International Peace Research Institute, total military spending in constant 2005 dollars reached roughly $1.4 trillion in 2007. In other words, the US spends roughly the same amount spent by the rest of the world combined – a pattern that the Obama administration shows no signs of ending.
The policy decisions of recent months offer little more hope for a fundamental change in US foreign policy direction. While the US has signed an agreement with Iraq to leave by the end of 2011, there is talk in the Pentagon that US “non-combat troops will remain in the country for years or decades to come.
It is easy to see how the persistence of instability in Iraq, Iranian influence, and Al-Qaeda’s presence will lead American policymakers to take the “safe route of continued military involvement. Some opponents of the Iraq War, including me, believe that a fundamental – and deeply misguided – objective of the war from the outset has been to create a long-term military base (or bases) in Iraq, ostensibly to protect oil routes and oil concessions. As the examples of Iran and Saudi Arabia show, however, such a long-term presence sooner or later creates an explosive backlash.
The worries are even worse in Afghanistan and Pakistan. NATO’s war with the Taliban in Afghanistan is going badly, so much so that the commanding US general was sacked this month. The Taliban are also extending their reach into neighboring Pakistan.
Both Afghanistan and the neighboring provinces of Pakistan are impoverished regions, with vast unemployment, bulging youth populations, prolonged droughts, widespread hunger, and pervasive economic deprivation. It is easy for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to mobilize fighters under such conditions.
The problem is that a US military response is essentially useless under these conditions, and can easily inflame the situation rather than resolve it. Among other problems, the US relies heavily on drones and bombers, leading to a high civilian death toll, which is inflaming public attitudes against the US.
After one recent disaster, in which more than 100 civilians died, the Pentagon immediately insisted that such bombing operations would continue. A recent survey showed overwhelming Pakistani opposition to US military incursions into their country.
Obama is doubling down in Afghanistan, by raising the number of US troops from 38,000 to 68,000, and perhaps more later. There are also risks that the US will get involved much more heavily in the fighting in Pakistan. The new US commanding general in Afghanistan is reportedly a specialist in “counter-insurgency, which could well involve surreptitious engagement by US operatives in Pakistan. If so, the results could prove catastrophic, leading to a spreading war in an unstable country of 180 million people.
What is disconcerting, however, is not only the relentless financing and spread of war, but also the lack of an alternative US strategy. Obama and his top advisers have spoken regularly about the need to address the underlying sources of conflict, including poverty and unemployment. A few billion dollars has been recommended to fund economic aid for Afghanistan and Pakistan. But this remains a small amount compared to military outlays, and an overarching framework to support economic development is missing.
Before investing hundreds of billions of dollars more in failing military operations, the Obama administration should re-think its policy and lay out a viable strategy to US citizens and the world. It’s high time for a strategy of peace through sustainable development – including investments in health, education, livelihoods, water and sanitation, and irrigation – in today’s hotspots, starting with Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Such a strategy cannot simply emerge as a byproduct of US military campaigns. Rather, it will have to be developed proactively, with a sense of urgency and in close partnership with the affected countries and the communities within them. A shift in focus to economic development will save a vast number of lives and convert the unthinkably large economic costs of war into economic benefits through development. Obama must act before today’s crisis explodes into an even larger disaster.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with Project Syndicate, (www.project-syndicate.org).