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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.

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"When you have personal relationships with very senior officers, at times of crisis it gives you an ability to communicate easily," says Joseph Englehardt, a retired US Army colonel who served as US defense attaché in Cairo and Tehran in the 1970s.

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Gen. James Mattis, head of the command responsible for the Pentagon's operations in the Middle East, emphasized this point in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee Wednesday, noting that exchange programs, such as those at Fort Leavenworth, provide the US military common cultural touchstones--with Egyptian military officers who have completed these programs, for example--that are strategically important to the Pentagon. He attributed the ethical behavior of the Egyptian military to the time they spent in US military war colleges. He added in his testimony that "it is worth looking into" expanding such programs.

Still, there's no guarantee that billions in US military aid will count with a foreign government when push comes to shove.

Take, for example, the Iranian military, which received Pentagon training and weapons in the years leading up to the 1979 revolution.

"The hope was that the Iranian military was going to be part of our defenses against the Soviet Union," says Mr. Englehardt.

When US-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was deposed, "people in the US military wanted the Iranian military to step in to support the shah, or to replace him and prevent more radical elements from taking over," adds CATO's Mr. Carpenter. The Pentagon discovered that its influence was "very limited – surprisingly limited."

The conventional wisdom, that US military aid could forge an influential client-patron relationship, was often mistaken, even at the height of the cold war, say analysts. Yet the idea continued to hold sway in the months after the 9/11 attacks, when the US military expected Turkey to back its invasion of Iraq and its plan to open a northern Iraqi front on the Turkish border.

"Even though America had poured a lot of money into the [Turkish] military and forged relationships with the officer corps, 90 percent of Turkey's civilians were opposed to the policy," says Carpenter, "and the government wasn't about to do Washington's bidding."

American national interests, moreover, often diverge widely from those of the militaries the US supports. The US has different goals in, say, Pakistan than does the Pakistani military.

"We are supporting the Pakistani military because we are interested in Al Qaeda," says Marina Ottaway, director of the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Yet the Pakistani military wants the Pentagon's training and funds to better defend against or attack India.

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