Military Gung-Ho for Humanitarian Missions

December 13, 1992|By DAVID C. MORRISON

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- "Ours will be the air force of first and last resort," Air Force Secretary Donald B. Rice boasted to Congress earlier this year. But, he added, American military action "does not necessarily have to be lethal. A helping hand or a clenched fist -- air power can, and has, delivered both."

As President Bush's startling offer to send U.S. troops to Somalia attests, the helping hand appears to be prevailing over the clenched fist as the U.S. defense establishment searches for new roles and missions in an era of dramatic geopolitical change.

If some Pentagon advocates have their way, the Somalian deployment could be but a way-station toward a "kinder and gentler" U.S. military even more active on the world stage than during the Cold War. Touting the armed forces' unparalleled ability to provide humanitarian aid and wielding buzzwords like "peacetime engagement," some U.S. military planners even insist that they can ensure "stability" around the world by fostering good works and economic development.

It is hard to argue that our military should not use its global reach to assist nations and peoples in dire distress. But the more expansive notions about future humanitarian missions now being floated raise questions about Washington's new tendency to turn to the military to solve all of society's woes. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Sam Nunn, for example, has pressed for greater Pentagon involvement in rescuing both the environment and inner-city schools.

"Across the country," the Army boasted in its annual "posture statement," "our Army continues to contribute substantially to . . . infrastructure and environmental and community service projects."

Overseas military relief and rescue missions are nothing new. Mr. Rice described more than 120 such Air Force operations since 1947. But these expeditions are increasingly central to how the Pentagon wants to be viewed these days.

* In May 1991, an amphibious assault task force steamed from the Persian Gulf to Bangladesh, where sailors and Marines aided the survivors of a devastating cyclone.

* Last winter, Air Force transports loaded with surplus rations and medical supplies from the Persian Gulf war touched down in former Soviet cities -- cities that were once more likely to suffer the mercies of the Strategic Air Command than those of the Military Airlift Command.

* U.S. troops are still flying supplies to Kurds in northern Iraq.

* Similarly, U.S. airlifters are transporting food and medical supplies into Bosnia, while a U.S. Navy frigate steams alongside other NATO vessels to enforce an economic blockade of Serbia.

"When we put a C-5 loaded with food into a country, I think it's in the finest American military tradition," says Robert K. Wolthuis, who directs the Defense Department's Humanitarian Assistance Program. "I think we are serving American interests well."

The Joint Chiefs of Staff also see a Realpolitik payoff. Humanitarian activities, they said in a report last year, can "protect and extend our political good will and access to foreign markets."

More dubious is "peacetime engagement." According to an August 1991 draft report by the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, this mission would involve "the coordinated application of political, economic, informational and military means to promote stability and counteract violence worldwide."

Alongside the Army Corps of Engineers, which would play a major role in facilitating infrastructure projects overseas, the biggest booster of peacetime engagement has been the military's special operations community, which includes such covert units as the Army Green Berets and the Navy SEALs.

Military-run humanitarian and "civic action" programs "address the grinding impact of poverty and disaster," James R. Locher III, the assistant defense secretary for special operations and low intensity conflict, asserted in a speech last year. "They help friendly governments provide for basic human needs and, thereby, promote the perception and reality of effective government on which stability rests."

In a paper commissioned and then rejected by the Army `D because it didn't care for his critical conclusions, political scientist Benjamin C. Schwarz scrutinized the concept for the RAND Corp., a government-funded think-tank in Santa Monica, Calif. "On the one hand, this is a very crass political move that certain [Pentagon] groups are taking to protect their own turf," he charged in an interview. "And even if it's not, it's very wrong-headed. The idea that what makes these places unstable is a lack of roads or bridges is extraordinarily naive."

Indeed, what fuels instability in many nations is a profoundly unequal distribution of income and opportunity. Even in a "New World Order," the Pentagon is not likely to become an agent of social revolution.

The evolution of traditional missions is generating some disquiet in military circles, too. The lead article in the Winter 1992-93 issue of Parameters, a quarterly journal published by the U.S. Army War College, posits an American military coup in the year 2012.

Air Force Lt. Col. Charles J. Dunlap, Jr., the author of the article, ascribes this future assumption of power by the military to the steadily mounting roster of missions -- narcotics interdiction and international humanitarian relief among them -- that the services were saddled with today.

"By the year 2000, the armed forces had penetrated many vital aspects of American society," he writes. "With so much responsibility for virtually everything government was expected to do, the military increasingly demanded a larger role in policy making."

David Morrison is national security correspondent for the National Journal. He wrote this article for Pacific News Service.

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