Many of today’s war zones – including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan – share basic problems that lie at the root of their conflicts. They are all poor, buffeted by natural disasters – especially floods, droughts, and earthquakes – and have rapidly growing populations that are pressing on the capacity of the land to feed them. And the proportion of youth is very high, with a bulging population of young men of military age (15-24 years).
All of these problems can be solved only through long-term sustainable economic development. Yet the United States persists in responding to symptoms rather than to underlying conditions by trying to address every conflict by military means. It backs the Ethiopian army in Somalia. It occupies Iraq and Afghanistan. It threatens to bomb Iran. It supports the military dictatorship in Pakistan.
None of these military actions addresses the problems that led to conflict in the first place. On the contrary, American policies typically inflame the situation rather than solve it.
Time and again, this military approach comes back to haunt the US. The US embraced the Shah of Iran by sending massive armaments, which fell into the hands of Iran’s Revolutionary Government after 1979. The US then backed Saddam Hussein in his attack on Iran, until the US ended up attacking Saddam himself. The US backed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan against the Soviets, until the US ended up fighting bin Laden. Since 2001 the US has supported Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan with more than $10 billion in aid, and now faces an unstable regime that just barely survives.
US foreign policy is so ineffective because it has been taken over by the military. Even postwar reconstruction in Iraq under the US-led occupation was run by the Pentagon rather than by civilian agencies. The US military budget dominates everything about foreign policy. Adding up the budgets of the Pentagon, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the Department of Homeland Security, nuclear weapons programs, and the State Department’s military assistance operations, the US will spend around $800 billion this year on security, compared with less than $20 billion for economic development.
In a stunning article on aid to Pakistan during the Bush administration, Craig Cohen and Derek Chollet demonstrated the disastrous nature of this militarized approach – even before the tottering Musharraf regime’s latest crackdown. They show that even though Pakistan faces huge problems of poverty, population, and environment, 75% of the $10 billion in US aid has gone to the Pakistani military, ostensibly to reimburse Pakistan for its contribution to the “war on terror,” and to help it buy F-16s and other weapons systems.
Another 16% went straight to the Pakistani budget, no questions asked. That left less than 10% for development and humanitarian assistance. Annual US aid for education in Pakistan has amounted to just $64 million, or $1.16 per school-aged child.
The authors note that “the strategic direction for Pakistan was set early by a narrow circle at the top of the Bush administration and has been largely focused on the war effort rather than on Pakistan’s internal situation.” They also emphasize that “US engagement with Pakistan is highly militarized and centralized, with very little reaching the vast majority of Pakistanis.” They quote George Bush as saying, “When [Musharraf] looks me in the eye and says…there won’t be a Taliban and won’t be al-Qaeda, I believe him, you know?”
This militarized approach is leading the world into a downward spiral of violence and conflict. Each new US weapons system “sold” or given to the region increases the chances of expanded war and further military coups, and to the chance that the arms will be turned on the US itself. None of it helps to address the underlying problems of poverty, child mortality, water scarcity, and lack of livelihoods in places like Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province, Sudan’s Darfur region, or Somalia. These places are bulging with people facing a tightening squeeze of insufficient rainfall and degraded pasturelands. Naturally, many join radical causes.
The Bush administration fails to recognize these fundamental demographic and environmental challenges, that $800 billion of security spending won’t bring irrigation to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Somalia, and therefore won’t bring peace. Instead of seeing real people in crisis, they see caricatures, a terrorist around every corner.
A more peaceful world will be possible only when Americans and others begin to see things through the eyes of their supposed enemies, and realize that today’s conflicts, having resulted from desperation and despair, can be solved through economic development rather than war. We will have peace when we heed the words of President John F. Kennedy, who said, a few months before his death, “For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal.”