When Military Power is Not Enough

by Robert E. Hunter

At West Point last May, President Obama said that “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.” He continued “…US military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance.”

With the growing crisis over the spread of the Ebola virus, not just in West African countries but also now in the United States, the appropriate response to the president’s words should be a rousing “And how!”

The fact is that even after the end of the Cold War returned to us the security of the two broad oceans that we lost in December 1941, the application of resources to the US role in the world has not adjusted to that reality. Even the “wake up call” of 9/11 did not require the level of response that the US applied. We did not have to try remaking Afghanistan in a Western image after toppling the Taliban. We did not need to invade Iraq and try there, too, to remake a society when we had no capacity to do so—a lesson we should have learned in Vietnam. Even in accepting that the US would continue to have interests abroad and would continue to be looked to by so many countries as the “indispensable nation,” we didn’t have to focus that task, year upon year, on—very expensive—military instruments.

Since the end of the Cold War, a succession of administrations, along with every Congress since the opening of the Berlin Wall, has refused to conduct a serious review of US engagement in the outside world—what really matters to us?—and to accept that the military instrument is only one tool, and an increasingly smaller tool compared to what can be lumped together as “non-military instruments.” Even when we throw in to the mix of essential interests the promoting of American values, the military is rarely the biggest part of the answer. Sometimes, it has been necessary in “holding the ring,” as NATO did in Europe until the Soviet Union fell apart because of the rot in the system; but even then the US military was only the “shield,” not the “sword” of change.

Since the end of the Cold War, we have failed to follow Isaiah’s admonition: “they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.” Rather, at least in relative terms, we followed Joel—the latest word in the Old Testament on this subject: “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.”

There is no need to rehearse the trials and errors in US foreign and security policy in the post-Cold War world, at least in dealing with the causes of conflict and how to prevent them.

Just look at the numbers: we have spent three trillion dollars and more on Afghanistan and Iraq, but a mere pittance on helping other societies help themselves. We spend $7.3 billion on the Transportation Security Administration, and we take off our outer garments and our shoes every time we get on an airplane, but until this past weekend there was next to no effort put into containing the spread of one of the most hideous diseases that has come down the pike since the Black Death several centuries ago. Ask yourself: if you were to get on a plane, tomorrow, coming from some international departure point, which would you be more worried about: a terrorist bomb or a passenger infected with Ebola and entering the phase of being contagious?

For the fiscal year that has just started, the Pentagon has asked for $495.6 billion just in base budget authority while the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention get about $37 billion between them—and that is for everything. Using the categories of the Office of Management and Budget, military matters get, depending on the finer points of definition, between 13:1 and 17:1 as much as all non-military US government engagement in the outside world put together.

During the Clinton administration, the late Senator Jesse Helms engineered the demise of the United States Information Agency—a major element of showing people who we are rather than just telling them what a particular administration wants them to hear; and he nearly crippled the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Even now, USAID (2015 budget request: $1.4 billion) has to rely to a major extent on contractors and, while we heard recently that it is fielding 2,800 hospital beds in West Africa to meet the Ebola outbreak, it should have been able to field 10,000 or even 100,000.

The US military does an outstanding job in helping people in need in disaster zones, and is now beginning to help in places affected by Ebola, but why should the Pentagon have to take the lead, rather than other agencies far better equipped in terms of people and technique? Simple answer: one has the bucks and the congressional interest-group backing, the other goes begging.

President Obama has done better than his recent predecessors in talking up what the United States needs to do to show the world the values that we are made of, as well as analyzing many of the causes of what ails the less developed and more conflicted parts of the world. But his budget people, along with the “military industrial complex” (now 53 years since being called out by President Dwight Eisenhower) and Congress haven’t got the message. This is the message about what directly threatens the United States and what the American people really need their government to do in order to feel—and to be—more secure.

As the United States ramps up to fight yet another war in the Middle East, it is not ready to deal with so many other matters of direct importance to the American people (Ebola, etc.) or that could help keep new wars from being necessary. (By the way, at the moment 59 US embassies abroad do not have an ambassador because of Senate deadlock on confirmations). The White House, which is supposed to take the lead, has been largely silent about asking Congress for the resources needed to do the diplomacy, the aid, the involvement of non-military government agencies, the support of non-governmental organizations, and the mobilization of other countries to act with us (where, in fact, we are near the bottom of the heap among members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development in terms of GDP share spent on foreign assistance: a mere .19 percent). Even in countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, where we have had a heavy footprint, there has been grossly inadequate engagement of most of the US government’s non-military agencies that could be delivering a lot more in areas that include health, education, counter-narcotics, rule of law, and other human resources.

As Americans—and as members of the human species—our hats should be off to organizations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Carter Center, and Doctors Without Borders for what they are doing in the realm of global health, including in West Africa. But where is the president’s leadership and Congress’ followership in terms of a critical shift of resources? The “nail” that has to be hit right now is Ebola, but our leaders have so far been unwilling to build the right hammer. They are instead building more military hammers that are even less relevant to American security.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. USA should return to its role of beacon of hope which endeared her so much in the era of Cold war. I remember as a small kid in communist Central European country many many people around me were really mourning murdered US president J.F. Kennedy. Americans should realize that they have gotten strayed into no exit road with corrupted leaders since the fall of Soviet Union. Instead of feeling free to improve the world with less arms and more plows their pride made them worse.

  2. I have to ask about those 4,000 military personnel assigned to the heart of the Ebola countries. Just what’s going to happen to them if they are exposed? Bring them home to the U.S. to spread this killer? Why isn’t the burden being put on the private sector instead? Talk about having priorities back-ass-ward, this thing gets out of control, there wont be any military left to carry on the whims of the warmongers, in & out of the Military/Industrial/Political complex in the U.S.A.

  3. The US squandered trillions of dollars in the wake of “9/11” attacks and thereby did more injury to the American people than was caused by those attacks.

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