Exclusive: “A Misguided Military Protest” by Bing West

In our ongoing effort to provide you with views different from what you may find in the popular media, Lawfire is pleased to host Bing West’s observations about the just-released letter signed by 120 retired generals and admirals that the Washington Post characterizes as “opposing Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts.”

West is no ordinary commentator. A former Force-Recon Marine and Vietnam veteran, he served as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan Administration.  He is a prolific author; indeed, as West’s website points out: 

He wrote the counterinsurgency classic classic, The Village, that has been on the Commandant’s Reading List for 40 years.  His books have won the Marine Corps Heritage Prize, the Colby Award for Military History, the VFW Media Award and the General Goodpaster Soldier-scholar Award….Bing is a member of St. Crispin’s Order of the Infantry and the Council on Foreign Relations. 

What makes his views so important?  They are informed by that fact that he’s been on “hundreds of patrols and operations throughout Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.”  I have several of his very readable post-9/11 books, and they give a gritty, unblinking view of war as only someone who has ‘been there, done it’ can convey.

Here’s what Bing has to say: 

A Misguided Military Protest

The letter by 120 retired flag officers in defense of foreign aid comes more from the heart than from the head. This letter was hasty and ill-advised. It contains three grievous flaws.

First, it is an intrusion into politics. By quoting SecDef Mattis as agreeing with them, the generals have placed him in a very uncomfortable position with his commander-in-chief.

Second, it places foreign aid on the same level as our military strength, or even higher. These former generals never signed a similar letter during the previous eight years when the Defense budget was eroding. They saved their indignation to champion foreign aid. That is a strange priority.

Third, their premise that foreign aid prevents conflict is sophomoric and risible. “The drivers of extremism are lack of opportunity, insecurity, injustice, and hopelessness,” the generals wrote. “Significant reforms have been undertaken since 9/11 in human trafficking, the rights of women and girls, trade and energy in Africa, wildlife trafficking, water, food security, and transparency and accountability.”

So on the one hand, the world is getting worse; on the other hand, we have made “significant reforms since 9/11” (as though that date caused the reforms.) Did these reforms make life better in Syria? Was injustice the motivation for Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons? Is Putin driven by a sense of insecurity? Is it hopelessness that caused China to militarize the South China Sea?

This letter is the classic example of the refusal of power elites to reflect or to allow their cherished doctrines can contain flaws. Even the World Bank acknowledges that more than 25% of foreign aid is lost to corruption. We spent hundreds of billions in Iraq and Afghanistan – to what end?  Surely there is room for analysis of what works and what has failed.  Spending money blindly in accord with bromides is not the mark of sound leaders and managers.

But instead, the generals insist, “resources for the International Affairs Budget keep pace with the growing global threats and opportunities we face. Now is not the time to retreat.” Logically, given our perilous fiscal shape, they are arguing that since our defense and our international aid are the two sides of our security coin, the proposed Defense budget increase should be reduced in order to increase foreign aid by an exactly similar percentage. That is called being hanged by one’s own petard.

I find much agreement with Bing on this one, and will share with my views in a future post.  Remember our Lawfire mantra: you be the judge!

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