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US military assistance for foreign forces: a wise investment?

The US military dispenses billions of dollars to foreign forces each year. Pentagon says the investment boosts diplomatic leverage, citing the Egypt crisis. Critics say it does little to advance US goals.

By Anna Mulrine/ Staff Writer / March 1, 2011

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (c.) inspected an honor guard with the Egyptian minister of defense in Cairo in 2009.

Jason Reed/Reuters/File

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Washington

Each September, 130 troops from more than 90 countries begin nine months of military instruction at the US Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. They make field trips to economically blighted neighborhoods and to the Truman Presidential Library, to learn about the integration of the American military.

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“What we’re trying to get them to see from the outset is openness, accepting responsibility for government or institutional errors of the past," says Jim Fain, director of CGSC's international military student division. This training of foreign officers makes up an important portion of the military ASSISTANCE the Pentagon extends to American allies.

Yet this assistance is now under close scrutiny as US-trained militaries have been used by some of those allies to try to suppress democratic uprisings by their people.

IN PICTURES: US military muscle

Given that unpleasant reality, plus the fact that the Pentagon spends billions of dollars a year in foreign military aid, both the public and defense analysts are asking anew: What can the American military reasonably expect for giving such support?

"We have to look at whether [US military aid] even succeeds in giving us benefits," says Christopher Preble, author of "The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free." Less ambiguous, he adds, are the costs: "what we have paid – in tangible dollars, and in terms of our values."

The Pentagon, not surprisingly, hopes for a big return on its investment: a bulwark against communism during the cold war, for example, and against terrorist extremists after 9/11. The hard truth is that such aid is, at best, a lever that can be used to try to push a strategic ally – say, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, or Yemen – to take greater account of US wishes than it might otherwise, many defense analysts say. And it doesn't always work, they caution.

"The expectation has always been that countries that receive US military aid and training will be bulwarks of stability and will further US interests in a particular country or region," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for foreign-policy studies at the libertarian CATO Institute. "Those expectations have often proved excessive."

If military aid buys less influence than the Pentagon imagines, it can still have value. During the recent uprising in Egypt, Pentagon leaders urged their Egyptian counterparts to exercise restraint against protesters – and they did (though perhaps for reasons of their own). Moreover, US law requires that aid be cut off if the recipient nation is using it to commit human rights violations – another leverage point.

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