Now that the so-called supercommittee has failed in its task to find $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next decade, if Congress does not manage to reach a deal before 2013, across-the-board cuts will be implemented. These cuts would hit the military particularly hard. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta says that any additional budget cuts (on top of the several hundred million dollars' worth that were previously scheduled to take place) would "hollow out the military" and leave our country less secure.
You would be hard-pressed to find anyone who wants to make our country less secure. However, many members of Congress would like to see cuts made to our international development budget, which would unquestionably harm the United States' overall security. As an Iraq War veteran — and a civil affairs operator specifically — I have seen for myself how international development keeps all of us safe.
The United States military is equipped to do many things well. But the members of our armed forces can't do it all. They can engage our enemies with laser-like precision; they can take out targets from thousands of miles away; they can drop bombs and fire missiles so accurately, they can virtually eliminate civilian casualties.
The military leadership on the ground does a fantastic job matching up military occupational specialties to the needs of the local population. But can a Marine show a local farmer how to grow sustainable crops? Can an airman explain to a village elder what good governance is? Can a tanker captain negotiate a dispute between two tribes? Can any of them do these things with the nuance and cultural sensitivity needed in delicate situations? Well trained as they may be, very few service members can do this.
Local disputes, ineffective governments or food shortages open the door for terrorists to operate freely. This is why we must complement our military might with the skills of Foreign Service officers and development experts from the State Department and USAID. As former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen has stated, "Our troops, Foreign Service officers and development experts work side-by-side in unprecedented and ever-increasing cooperation as they execute our strategic programs. We need to continue to grow the important capabilities that are unique to our nonmilitary assets, ensuring they have the resources to enhance our security and advance our national interests, in both ongoing conflicts as well as in preventive efforts."
At just over 1 percent of our overall budget — much less than what most Americans think we spend on foreign assistance — this combination is the most cost-effective way to keep us secure. Putting more resources into international development, if done correctly, would not add anything to our deficit. In fact, it would save us billions of dollars over the long run in wars that would not have to be fought. It would also save our most precious of resources: American lives.
For the United States to continue to be a global leader, we need not only to be strong leader but also a force for good. International development keeps us secure by winning hearts and minds today and preventing conflicts in the future.
This approach has worked in the past. After World War II and the Korean War, we used international development to win the peace. Today, we count Germany, Japan and South Korea as some of our strongest allies. On the other side of the coin, we virtually ignored Afghanistan after the Soviet Union pulled out in the 1980s. The lack of support created the perfect atmosphere for al-Qaida to establish a base of operations from which to launch its attacks worldwide.
Deep cuts to the Defense Department will hurt. But to make drastic cuts to our international development efforts would be just as reckless — and extremely short-sighted. Philosopher Sun Tzu wrote, "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting." In the days and months ahead, Congress needs to remember this and strengthen — not weaken — our development capabilities.
Jeff Danovich, a Carroll County resident and Iraq War veteran, is a member of the Truman National Security Project, a leadership institute that recruits, trains and positions young Americans for service in national security and foreign policy. His email is email@example.com.