Ounces of Prevention

I did an item this morning on David Sanger’s report that Barack Obama and his team are envisioning a substantial shift of resources in order to “create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the incoming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states”. If you’re interested in the subject, that sounds a lot like what the Center for American Progress proposed in a recent paper on “The Price of Prevention: Getting Ahead of Global Crises” which is part of a whole series of reports on the subject of “Sustainable Security.”

As just a brief illustration of part of what the prevention concept is about, here’s a chart from the report showing our fitful attention to Pakistan:

The point is that if we had at some point along the way committed to actually trying to help Pakistan become a prosperous, stable, state whose military plays an appropriate role in society we wouldn’t need to have the kind of post-crisis spikes we’ve seen. Rather than responding to crises as they develop, we can and should be trying to help people and states in a long-term way so as to prevent problems from arising.

Now one criticism I’ve heard of this approach that I have some sympathy for is that if we invest too much in building stabilization and reconstruction capabilities, that might actually wind up feeding the sense of hubris that sometimes leads American foreign policy astray. In other words, if we respond to Iraq by planning better for the next Iraq rather than resolving to avoid getting into a new Iraq, we’ll wind up in a new Iraq. I have mixed feelings about this criticism, but I don’t think it can be dismissed out of hand. And that’s why I would feel a lot better about accomplishing this sort of thing by shifting resources out of the existing Pentagon budget rather than with new funds. No matter what you do on the national security side, there are going to be worries about military-industrial complexes or the existence of supply inducing demand for interventions. But if you hold the total volume of resources constant, it’s still possible to make the judgment that at the margin we need less response and more prevention, less military stuff and more civilian stuff, less investment in weapons and more investment in people, etc. Of course going down that route is also more politically challenging. But the payoff for the country and the world would be very real.