Because We Can, We Should

By Ensign Matthew Gilbreath, U.S. Navy

With the release in May 1997 of its new strategic plan, the DoD has acknowledged that demand for smaller-scale contingencies is likely to remain high in the next 15 to 20 years. ...It also acknowledges that operations such as humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping are likely to be required in the next few decades, but that they must be undertaken selectively and with an eye toward continued readiness for major theater wars.

Humanitarian assistance and peacekeeping seem to be unavoidable in today's global environment, at least from the U.S. point of view.

Why should this country risk its citizens' lives and treasure to engage in these types of operations? One cannot "win" a food distribution operation the way one wins a war. Furthermore, there is a real danger that combat readiness may be degraded by focusing too intently on small-scale humanitarian operations.

But humanitarian operations actually exercise many of our core military competencies:

Humanitarian and disaster relief efforts will constitute the most frequent form of non-routine U.S. military operations, both at home and abroad. Key tasks associated with this mission include transporting food, clothing, shelter and other emergency supplies; providing potable water and emergency communications and medical services; helping repair damaged infrastructure; and providing physical security for relief personnel and endangered populations and facilities.

Peacekeeping can involve enforcing no-fly zones, separating warring factions, or preventing human-rights abuses. Peacekeepers often occupy a region with the express purpose of making sure that war does not break out. Both peace and aid missions are a far cry from the conventional combat engagements that the military rightfully spends most of its time and money preparing for.

The armed forces have distinct advantages over other agencies in carrying out humanitarian missions abroad. They are funded by the government and manned by highly trained, technically proficient personnel. In addition, the military's logistical capabilities are unequalled. What, though, are the benefits of using these advantages to help others?

Former National Security Advisor and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was a firm pragmatist in furthering America's interests. Realpolitik , as he called it, was not concerned with the suffering of others or providing relief during times of duress. It was not even focused on the spread of democratic ideals, but on stopping communism—not necessarily because communism was inherently bad, but because it was the doctrine of our enemies. This notion of realpolitik, the idea that no undertaking is worthwhile unless it has a directly positive influence on U.S. interests, has tended to dominate U.S. foreign policy through the last 50 years. Idealism, realism's political opposite, concerns itself with furthering U.S. ideals (e.g., democracy, freedom, constitutionalism) independent of the effect that those efforts may have on our national wellbeing.

It is time to temper our pragmatic outlook with a great deal of idealism. Never before has such a great opportunity presented itself. The most educated, affluent nation in the world has the most powerful military in history—and we have no one to fight for survival. No rival superpower is expected to emerge until at least 2010. Now is our chance to spread the ideals of the world's greatest and most successful experiment in freedom yet. We should render humanitarian aid to foreign peoples-because we can. We should alleviate suffering and build infrastructure—because it is the right thing to do. We should attempt to negotiate and enforce peace wherever possible because only the United States has the ability.

Does this serve our national interest? Yes. Stable governments, with some assistance at times, are a bastion for peace and security. Nations with infrastructure can participate in a global economy that the United States dominates. Governments that have relied on the United States for help and guidance, and have modeled their own constitutions after ours, can become valuable regional allies, to be called upon later. In fact, U.S. interests can be served every time our armed forces enter into a region to ensure peace or provide aid.

Should the United States help every nation when trouble arises? No. Sometimes there is a direct conflict between humanitarian impulses and national interests. We should not feed starving Iraqis while imposing sanctions on their government. Furthermore, throwing ourselves into every humanitarian mission is unwise. Sometimes there is no real opportunity to do much good, and stretching ourselves too thin degrades our own military readiness. This means that we must be selective in whatever operations we undertake:

Political necessity since the collapse of the Soviet Union has compelled the United States to implement a strategy of selective engagement. Criteria for engagement that specify when, where, and how we engage are the essence of such a strategy. Such criteria should provide guidance for undertaking the various activities that make up our national strategy. They help us decide, for example, when and how to intervene abroad, what trade-offs to make between our concern with human fights and our need to control certain regional balances of power. . . . Only with criteria for engagement in mind can we make such decisions and apply our resources in a rational way.

Americans support the use of our military for humanitarian operations and have done so for many years. But we should justify those operations to win over those who think that realpolitik —not idealism—should drive our actions and that our military should be reserved for fighting wars only. This period is our best opportunity to do the greatest good, and we should not waste our superpower status.

Strategy begins with fundamental national objectives that have not changed significantly since the founding of the Republic. They are: to protect the lives, safety, and property of U.S. citizens, home and abroad; to maintain the sovereignty, political freedom and independence of the United States with its values, institutions and territory intact; and to provide for the well-being of the nation and its people. Beyond these, Americans have a long-standing interest in the well-being of other peoples. Although the United States cannot always and everywhere intervene to prevent repression or human suffering, this will remain a motivating concern of U.S. foreign policy.

Ensign Gilbreath is a native of DeRidder, Louisiana. He was a systems engineering major at the Naval Academy, and will be a nuclear-trained submariner.


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