Shortchanging our security

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Let’s look at the recent track record of the smallest, but some of the most effective institutions under threat.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States Institute for Peace has been a critical partner with our military in mediation efforts preventing the loss of civilian and military lives. General David Petraeus has spoken of their “striking success” in areas such as Iraq’s infamous “Triangle of Death” saving lives and money, all the more remarkable for its low cost – one noted intervention in Mahmoudiya cost American taxpayers $25,000.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, programs funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (another of the likely targets of funding cuts), whose budget is infinitesimal by military standards, provided critical training and organizing capacity to many of the leaders of the ongoing Arab Spring.  U.S. agencies didn’t start these movements, they did however convey our democratic values and enhance the ability of the emerging leadership to lead peaceful efforts for political transition.

These efforts are a relative bargain today, especially in comparison to what some estimates tally as nearly $720 million per day spent on our direct and related efforts, from medical treatment for wounded veterans, to replacing the cost of destroyed equipment for our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  They also stand in sharp contrast to the $60 billion wasted in Afghanistan and Iraq that Congress’s independent Commission on Wartime Contracting estimated in a report issued this past August.

The cost effectiveness argument of US foreign aid, less than 1% of the budget, is only strengthened by a body of research that has calculated the costs of conflict.   In even small countries in conflict, such as Rwanda and Haiti, the post-conflict price tag for international efforts exceed $5 billion each.

A 2008 expert panel led by former Secretary of State Madeline Albright, a Democrat, and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a Republican, designed a blueprint that for an estimated 250 million dollars a year our government could prevent and respond more effectively to mass atrocities that have destabilized places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. (The price tag for the US and our international allies in trying to fix Bosnia alone was $15 billion.)

What Cohen and Albright’s plan showed was that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  If there is a chance we can avoid future military interventions costing great loss of life, and billions, if not trillions of US taxpayer dollars, we should do so.

The rush to cut anything that moves in Congress means that we know the value of nothing.  It is not simply a question of cost (USIP’s current budget is only $39 million), it is a question of what we as Americans get for our taxpayer dollars.   Investments in conflict prevention, peace and security, in our world today may not guarantee stability overseas or our safety at home, but they are the most cost-effective insurance policy we have.

The three co-authors are the president and CEO of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, executive director of the Peace Appeal Foundation, and executive director of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice at the University of San Diego.

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