Saturday, March 4, 2017

Must It Always Be Wartime?

[ed. Interesting. It never occurred to me how a good portion of the military budget might be allocated to aid and nation building as a form of preventative national security.]

If the fight against terrorist groups is hard enough to classify, consider new and emerging security threats—such as cyberattacks on critical infrastructure or the use of bioengineered viruses—that do not involve the kinetic or explosive weapons of traditional war. Does it make sense to speak of “combatants” when the attacker is not an armed soldier but a hacker at a computer terminal or a scientist in a biology laboratory? And even if they are combatants, is it a proper response to such attacks to authorize shooting or bombing them from afar, as is permitted in a traditional armed conflict?

International humanitarian law is clearly in need of elaboration in order to address these newer forms of conflict, but it should at least provide the starting point. For example, biological warfare unleashing deadly pathogens or cyber warfare shutting down electrical facilities are disturbing in large part because they could inflict widespread indiscriminate and disproportionate civilian casualties—concepts that are central to humanitarian law.

Similarly, a firmer grounding in international human rights and humanitarian law would have helped to avoid the kinds of perversions of that law that were orchestrated by the Bush administration, whose attorney general, Alberto Gonzales, dismissed the Geneva Conventions as “quaint” and “obsolete” and whose Justice Department cited a “new kind of war” to authorize “enhanced interrogation techniques” such as waterboarding, a form of torture. In fact, despite Trump’s musings about reviving it, international law prohibits torture—indeed, makes it a crime—in times of both peace and war.

Greater attention to human rights principles might also have led Trump to temper his executive order temporarily banning visitors to the United States from seven mainly Muslim countries. Ostensibly designed to fight terrorism, it made no effort to limit its scope to people who posed any identifiable threat, at enormous personal cost, if upheld by the courts, to the 60,000 people whose visas were suddenly not recognized.

Complicating matters further is the expanding role of the US military. Today, counterinsurgency strategy is broadly understood to involve far more than fighting an opposing military. It also has come to mean protecting the civilian population and building government institutions that serve rather than prey upon people, including a legal system that protects rights. Trump is now questioning the utility of such “nation-building,” but in the meantime it has led the Pentagon to sponsor a variety of programs that have little to do with confronting enemy troops.

As Brooks describes it, US soldiers now undertake public health programs, agricultural reform efforts, small business development projects, and training in the rule of law. This expanding mandate, as Brooks shows, has enabled the Pentagon to dramatically increase its budget—few in Congress deny requests for more spending on national defense—even as austerity eviscerates the budgets of the agencies that traditionally carry out these tasks, such as the State Department and USAID.

The radically different budgets of the Pentagon and its civilian counterparts only reinforce the tendency to look to the military to address nonmilitary problems—to treat it as a “Super Walmart” ready to respond to the nation’s every foreign policy need. “It’s a vicious circle,” Brooks explains, “as civilian capacity has declined, the military has stepped into the breach.”

Yet there is a cost to a self-reinforcing cycle of militarizing US foreign policy. Pursuing economic development, undertaking agrarian reform, expanding the rule of law—these are tasks requiring considerable expertise, including linguistic skills and cultural sensitivity not usually associated with the average military recruit, still chosen foremost for strength and agility even in a world in which traditional military tasks diminish in importance.

Moreover, humanitarian and development workers have typically enjoyed a degree of protection in the field because of their neutrality—their dedication to offering services on the basis of need rather than political preference. The militarization of these efforts has contributed to the “shrinking of humanitarian space” in which aid workers give assistance; they are increasingly endangered because they are perceived as military assets. The US may not be well served by Congress’s reflexive preference for military solutions to civilian problems.

by Kenneth Roth, NYRB |  Read more:
Image: NATO