It's not a stretch to say that there is a lot of dishonesty in our political discourse in America. One of the most brazen but overlooked examples comes from the wing of one of our major political parties that claims to believe in no or very little government, yet is led by figures who spend their entire careers working in government under the questionable claim that they do so to protect the rest of us. To expect figures such as Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) to be good shepherds of government policy and programs they ideologically oppose is the same as trusting a cat with your gold fish bowl. Fortunately, the vast majority of Americans accept government has a role to play in our lives, especially regarding our national security. Unfortunately, blind ideological allegiance to slashing government in ignorance of this vital role threatens our national defense.
This week marks the tenth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and we should not ignore the lessons we learned from our struggle there. I served two tours in Baghdad and often the best metrics we had to measure the impact of our security operations and reconstruction was to measure how many hours of electricity were provided each day, how many shops were open, if the water, sewage, and trash removal were working, and how long the gasoline lines were. We learned that we can never ignore the aftermath of military actions and simply hope for the best. However, we also should have already picked up this lesson following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, as made famous by Charlie Wilson’s War. Had we spent money on international development then, perhaps we wouldn't be fighting there now. It would be more than a mistake to make the same mistakes twice.
Our troops were forced into the role of international aid workers, social workers, and public works directors. Though they certainly rose to meet the challenge, such work is best left to professionals who are experienced in such matters so our troops can concentrate on winning the fight. Our military leaders in Iraq and Afghanistan learned through experience on the ground that providing public works and educational and economic development is just as valuable as performing traditional military operations. They requested funding for such programs. CENTCOM Commander Gen. James Mattis recently testified before Congress, "If you don't fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition." That is quite an endorsement and these hard-learned lessons should not be ignored now.
Unfortunately, small government zealots such as Paul are doing just that. Just recently here on PolicyMic and elsewhere Paul has lumped spending on important international development programs in with the massive amount spent upon the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as an example of out-of-control spending that needs to be cut. Rather ironically, it was Paul's own party that pushed hard for America to enter into these long and costly wars. It seems to be a dishonest attempt to capitalize on the misunderstanding the public have on the amount spent on "foreign aid" to lump these two very different categories together. It is just as dishonest for Paul and others to lump international development in with our trade and borrowing deficit with China, a wholly unrelated issue.
In fact, the U.S. spends less than 1% of its entire budget on international development. Spending on international development returns much more benefit than military spending. Those truly concerned about getting the best for taxpayer dollars spent should take heed. It costs over half a million dollars to put one soldier in the field in places like Iraq or Afghanistan for one year. The effect of spending an equal amount to build schools or water treatment plants or a new local market lasts decades longer than a soldier's one year tour and the effect multiplies as local conditions are improved. It also keeps our troops out of harm's way when it works. If Paul or others are concerned with how America spends its money, they should welcome these programs.
Though its benefit is harder to quantify than the number of terrorists captured or killed, it has a real recognizable impact and for a longer period. The question should not be "can we afford to build a school in Afghanistan and not in America," but rather "is it more cost effective to build a school there now to avoid possibly having to send our troops there later?" Those concerned with spending our security dollars in the most effective way possible understand this.
Such spending also builds a positive image for America, as opposed to conducting armed house-to-house searches that, though often necessary, receive a negative response. A national security operation that builds a positive image and costs far less than fighter jets and smart bombs should be a welcome tool. Our military understands why international development funding is important, but some in Congress are not listening to them. They cannot honestly claim to know better.
The world today is a complex place and America cannot afford to retreat within its own borders as isolationists. Sen. Paul and his followers want a "little America" that has a smaller role in world events and that willfully gives up its mantle as world power. Such behavior will not make threats and our problems go away and they'll show up on our doorstep sooner or later whether we like it or not. The world is a safer place with America active in it. We cannot afford to ignore the lessons our troops fought and paid so dearly to learn. International development paired with the proper application of military force when necessary is an effective tool America should fully fund and apply. We cannot afford to ignore these lessons or to relearn them again the hard way.