US military support for troubled states: a dangerous doctrine returns

To prevent terrorist attacks emanating from failed states, Defense Secretary Robert Gates urges US support for militaries of troubled nations. But that argument can lead to an embrace of repressive regimes and endless foreign adventures – and it ignores the crucial link between democracy and stability.

While ambassador to the United Nations during the Reagan administration, Jeane Kirkpatrick often argued that the United States should befriend authoritarian governments if they supported Washington’s policies. Because America was in the midst of fighting the cold war, her advice was often followed. While getting into bed with dictators did nothing to help win the war, it certainly made a mockery of American claims of respect for human rights and democracy.

Today an argument is being made that the United States, in effect, has to employ an undated version of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine to win the so-called war on terrorism. In a recent article in the journal “Foreign Affairs,” Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asserted that a terrorist attack emanating from a failed state is the biggest security challenge the United States faces. He proposed responding to such a threat by strengthening the militaries of countries that are in danger of failing so they can prevent their territory from being used for that purpose.

That cannot be done without the US once again embracing repressive regimes and leaving the rest of the world with the impression that it jettisons its values the moment it perceives a threat to its security. That will not just damage America’s image abroad. It will encourage new recruits and additional support for terrorist organizations. And American intervention will often weaken the regime that is supposed to be helped by unifying and motivating its enemies.

The link between democracy and stability

Foreign Policy magazine each year publishes its Failed States Index listing those countries that are in critical condition, in danger or on the borderline when it comes to political stability. The human rights organization Freedom House also publishes an annual report that classifies the countries of the world into those that are Free, Partly Free, and Not Free.

In the most recent Freedom House ranking, 47 countries (24 percent) were rated Not Free, 58 countries (30) Partly Free and 89 Free (46 percent). Of the 60 countries on the Failed States Index, however, half are Not Free and the other half only Partly Free.

There are therefore no countries in the world that are both unstable and democratic. As a result, helping faltering regimes defend themselves because they supposedly face a terrorism problem, which may somehow morph into a threat to the United States, will often just mean assisting repressive governments defend themselves against their own people.

The key to stability is not a strong military but a strong democracy. Unfortunately Washington refuses to support that concept. Thanks to the effectiveness of the lobbyists and think tanks that shill for the military industrial complex, Congress is always willing to waste money on weapons programs, even unwanted and unworkable ones. At the same time, politicians are eager to slash programs to support democracy abroad.

Short-sighted congressional cuts

For instance, congressional committees keep pushing for a second engine for the F-35 joint strike fighter and for an airborne laser that the Pentagon does not want. Meanwhile a $4 billion cut in the foreign affairs budget is being contemplated, a move Secretary Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, both testified against it, pointing out that starving the State Department and USAID would increase the chances for future conflicts. Those conflicts will be hard to avoid because any government that fears an outbreak of democracy will claim terrorists imperil it. Such arguments will make who is really worthy of being America’s friend as hard to determine as its enemies.

It should also be pointed out that Afghanistan, from which Al Qaeda launched its attack on the United States, was not a failed state in one sense. The Taliban, who were in power at the time, were firmly in charge (except for small patches in the north controlled by United Front rebels). The problem was not that they failed to control their territory, but that they actively collaborated with Al Qaeda. That would not have happened if democracy had ever had a chance.

It’s true that it is much harder to strengthen the institutions of democracy than it is to add muscle to a foreign nation’s military. It’s also harder to measure the “results” of building a nation’s capacity for self-government. That’s why there will always be greater pressure to boost military might, even though it will increase, rather than diminish, threats to America’s security. The post 9/11 hysteria still lingers among those politicians and pundits who demand that the government must “keep America safe” from any terrorist threat, real or imagined. That argues for endless foreign adventures, even when the best course of action is to do nothing at all.

Dennis Jett, a former US ambassador, is a professor at Penn State’s School of International Affairs and the author of “Why American Foreign Policy Fails: Unsafe at Home and Despised Abroad.”

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