Embracing new role

The nation should support the U.S. military as it takes the lead in global disaster response

May 20, 2008|By Lawrence Korb and Max Bergmann

Quietly, and perhaps without fully realizing it, the U.S. military has begun embracing a new, wide-ranging international role that will compel it to intervene in many countries throughout the world. Yet this is a role that virtually every country would support and one that should be widely embraced here as well: the role of global first responder.

The Myanmar military government's shocking and disastrous refusal of international assistance in the wake of the recent devastating cyclone has masked one broader positive development - the surprising speed at which aid, especially on the part of the U.S., was offered. In contrast to the initially hesitant U.S. response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami (characterized as "stingy" by U.N. Undersecretary-General Jan England), this time, first lady Laura Bush set a decisive tone, saying that the U.S. was prepared to send massive assistance immediately. This willingness reflects not just a good-natured desire to help but also a realization that dealing with international disasters has become a national security priority.

In some ways, this is an odd development. Responding to natural disasters has never been a core mission of the U.S. military. It rarely drives procurement decisions or strategic thinking, and responses to disaster situations have tended to be ad hoc. Yet this is changing. As the Center for Naval Analysis concluded, "Climate change threatens to add new hostile and stressing factors." As large-scale disasters grow more common, so too will U.S. military involvement in these types of missions.

The eventual U.S. response to the Indian Ocean tsunami was a pivotal event. After the tsunami, 15,000 troops, a carrier task force and a Marine expeditionary force deployed to the region, with the U.S. Navy effectively setting up a "sea base" off the coast of Indonesia. This flotilla of ships enabled supplies to be transported to the coastline, where ports and roads were all but washed away. As the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, commented, "We literally built a city at sea for no other purpose than to serve the needs of other people." Only the U.S. military had the ability to conduct such an operation.

While Indonesia still is a long way from completely recovering, the American response made a tremendous difference. And our assistance did not go unnoticed. A Pew Survey found that 80 percent of the citizens of the world's largest Muslim-majority country had a more favorable opinion of the United States after our response.

What worked abroad was also employed at home: In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Navy set up a base at sea in which to assist New Orleans. That same year, in the wake of a major earthquake in Pakistan, U.S. assistance was quickly sent, and Pakistani television showed American helicopters ferrying aid to remote mountainous villages and American medics helping the injured.

And in November, the man in charge of the military's response to Hurricane Katrina, Adm. Timothy Keating, now the head of U.S. Pacific Command, sent a Marine Expeditionary Unit to assist Bangladesh in its recovery from a devastating cyclone. Admiral Keating noted that he worked with the Bangladeshi government before the storm had even hit. The Navy is so pleased with its performance in these missions that it introduced new recruiting commercials highlighting its role in disaster recovery.

Some may see the mantle of global first responder as a distraction from "hard" security concerns. But engaging in these operations promotes U.S. interests.

First, such missions act to maintain precious stability. After the 2004 tsunami, there was a real danger that chaos, even unrest, would spread beyond the disaster zones. Our response not only saved lives but also helped stabilize the area.

Second, it improves the image of the U.S. Responding to disasters demonstrates to the world the goodwill of the American people and can serve to improve our standing in world opinion, as it has in Indonesia. As Admiral Mullen explained, the tsunami intervention showed another side of "American power that wasn't perceived as frightening, monolithic or arrogant."

Third, such missions help cast our global military posture in a better light. Countries will be more accepting of a U.S. military presence in their neighborhood if they know that our military will be there to help if disaster strikes. Adopting this role also enables the U.S. to build closer relationships with countries, as in Bangladesh, where joint preparations helped avert an even worse disaster and improved our relations.

Finally, responding to natural disasters is the price of being the world's largest superpower. As the guarantor of global security, the U.S. is looked to not just for its ability to deter threats but also for its ability to help when countries are in need.

Responding to disasters should therefore not be seen as a burden on the U.S. military, but should be embraced as an opportunity.

Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. His e-mail is lkorb@americanprogress.org. Max A. Bergmann is the deputy policy director at the National Security Network. His e-mail is mbergmann@nsnetwork.org.

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