The Military and Humanitarian Assistance

A few days ago, I noted that the tens of billions of dollars in military assistance the United States spends annually seems never to be included in discussion about humanitarian efforts. Several columnists this morning note how vital our military aid is.

Brendan Miniter observes,

Colin Powell and Jeb Bush are now on a diplomatic mission to the nations hit by the tsunami. But as residents from Thailand in Southeast Asia to Somalia on the horn of Africa pick through the debris, it will not be lost on them that not only are food, fresh water and other necessities streaming in from the free societies of the world, but also that a large portion of those necessities are arriving on American military transports.

This may seem unremarkable in America. After all, it is the U.S. military that has the “lift” capacity. But this tsunami is putting on display exactly what United Nations and European bureaucrats are loath to admit: that the U.S. and its military are forces for good in the world. From the wealth and freedom that allow Americans to generously give to those in need to the military infrastructure that enables much of that aid to be delivered, this natural disaster is an advertisement for the type of societies that best serve the people of the world.

The Saudi royal family may write a few checks. Even the Iranian mullahs may be cajoled into handing over a few rials. But broad relief requires tapping the creativity, insight and generosity of a wide cross-section of society. And it is only the free societies of the world that have both the wherewithal and the ability to pinpoint and quickly meet emerging needs. That’s something that goes a long way in undermining the message al Qaeda leaders have been preaching for a better part of a decade. America isn’t seeking world domination. Tsunami help is coming with no strings attached.

Ralph Peters notes a stark contrast with Saudi aid to their brother Muslims:

One great advantage the forces of civilization have in this struggle is that the Saudis, while glad to fund hate-dripping extremists, are stingy when it comes to relieving human suffering. Just as they have kept the Palestinians on the verge of poverty for decades, they’ve been slow off the mark in assisting their fellow Muslims struck by the tsunami. Even when the Saudis do make a half-hearted attempt at relief efforts, they fail miserably. The worst-run refugee camp I’ve ever entered was a Saudi-sponsored plague-pit in Azerbaijan. When the local Muslims resisted the harsh Wahabi codes of behavior, the Saudis abandoned them. All that remained were a few corrupt contracts, a broken computer and cholera.

Despite early U.N. trash-talk that U.S. aid is inadequate, we’re the force on the scene. Only we have the ability to reach out and help with such alacrity and power. It’s a shame we don’t know how to fight the public-relations battle.

Mark Steyn adds:

Aside from its “moral authority,” the justification for doing everything through the United Nations is that you need one central coordinating authority — that 1,000 ad hoc organizations and volunteers swarming Indonesia and Sri Lanka would just stumble over each other wastefully and inefficiently. Yet, even though Mr. Egeland’s office has a permanent bureaucracy dedicated solely to humanitarian relief work, a week after the disaster it didn’t seem to have actually done anything other than fly in some experts to assess the situation. Reporters on the ground have noted the lack of activity in Colombo and Sumatra. But the U.S. government already had ships and troops and water and medicine on the way.

That’s what you need: an operational infrastructure for long-distance emergencies — or, in a word, a military. If you don’t have a functioning military, it doesn’t matter how caring you profess to be. Take my own country, Canada. We have this thing called DART — the Disaster Assistance Response Team, a 200-man military unit created precisely for such situations. By all accounts, they’re very good, highly trained professionals. But Ottawa has no way to get them to the Indian Ocean. Indeed, it’s doubtful if it could get them to the remoter parts of Canada. The reality is you require a big modern well-equipped military, not just for invasions and dropping bombs on foreigners but for all the touchy-feely peacekeeping stuff, too.

Quite right.

Sometimes, even the invasions and bomb dropping are required in order to do good. While I opposed our interventions into Bosnia and Kosovo, it is undeniable that accomplishing our broader humanitarian goals in those regions required military action. Similarly, all those who are clamoring for the United States to “do something” about the genocide in Sudan seem oblivious to the fact that the “something” would involve the expenditure of significant ordnance.

Update: Airport Accident Puts a Dent in Aid Delivery to Indonesia (NYT)

The small airport here was closed for most of today after a Boeing 737 plane hit a herd of cows after landing, blocking the runway and temporarily hampering delivery of relief supplies. It was later dragged off the tarmac, opening the way for renewed flights.

Relief from the air today was left to helicopters, mainly based on United States Navy vessels anchored offshore. In 30 sorties on Monday, helicopters from the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln flew down the Indonesian coast to more than half a dozen towns, delivering more than 60,000 pounds of water, medical supplies and food.

FILED UNDER: Asia, Military Affairs,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.