`Armed Humanitarianism' Has No Place in US Foreign Policy Use Checkbook Diplomacy, Not Troops, to Aid Troubled Lands

By Edward A. Olsen. Edward A. Olsen is a professor Department of National Security Affairs School . | The Christian Science Monitor, December 16, 1993 | Go to article overview

`Armed Humanitarianism' Has No Place in US Foreign Policy Use Checkbook Diplomacy, Not Troops, to Aid Troubled Lands


Edward A. Olsen. Edward A. Olsen is a professor Department of National Security Affairs School ., The Christian Science Monitor


AS the post-cold-war world evolves, the United States faces pressures to use its enormous geopolitical clout in pursuit of humanitarian world peace and stability. Americans are frequently admonished that their country's "sole superpower" status generates international obligations that Washington cannot fail to meet. We are told that our power requires Americans to lead because if we do not, who will? Cumulatively these pressures have led to humanitarian peacekeeping or peacemaking exercises in Somalia and Haiti, with another mission looming in Bosnia. Americans are wise to have profound reservations about these enterprises.

Popular concern has focused on whether the US is being led astray by its commitments to the United Nations and regional multilateral security organizations. One important part of that concern focuses on the question of placing US forces under UN command. This irritates American sovereign sensibilities and provokes opposition. Similarly, the United States' core role as the only country capable of providing sustained forward-deployed logistics and reliable intelligence threatens to entangle American forces in support of an endless succession of UN missions.

There is ample reason to question why the possession of enormous international power should necessarily translate into a mandate to use that power toward ends not required by US national interests. Just because we can do something does not mean we must or should do it. When it comes to applying US military power in the post-cold-war era, US armed forces should be tasked only with the defense of the US and any vital interests it proclaims that are amenable to military resolution. Other uses of such power are extraneous.

In particular, US armed forces should have no role in humanitarian missions. Two buzzwords of recent US strategic adaptations to post-cold-war circumstances - "peacekeeping force" and "humanitarian force" - are perverse oxymorons. Not one of those missions is best accomplished with force.

Using US armed forces in these capacities dilutes and confuses their prime function - to deter and (if necessary) wage war against those who endanger the US. Having expensive military forces deliver aid or help to develop infrastructure in troubled lands is a terribly inefficient use of such national resources. Money spent on such matters through the Pentagon will rarely, if ever, be cost effective, given that institution's management track record.

If Americans are stricken by their collective conscience after watching foreign calamities on CNN, the most cost-effective and least geopolitically risky way to assuage their concern is to have Washington write a check on the Treasury to appropriate private relief agencies. These are excellent instances where checkbook diplomacy might work, would be cheaper, and would make Americans feel better. There are many ways the US can and should pursue humanitarian agendas when confronted by horrendous situations abroad that arouse American moral indignation - but those means are all civilian in nature. …

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