When Does Defense Aid Work?

The debate over an appropriate American response to Iraq’s resurgent violence and the threat of radical rebels has highlighted the challenges and risks of even limited U.S. assistance.

As I argue in a post at The National Interest, Iraq is emblematic of a larger challenge in U.S. foreign policy. President Obama’s West Point address last month emphasized the role of “partner nations” who may leverage US assistance to counter security threats within their own borders and regions. But the president’s speech and subsequent debate about it have largely failed to provide criteria for selecting these partners.

Both the threats (insurgency, instability, radical rebels) and the possible solutions (military advisers and training, direct intervention, pushing for better governance) have cropped up in discussion of numerous other events: Boko Haram’s kidnappings in Nigeria, Al-Shabaab’s siege of Westgate Mall in Kenya, unrest in northern Mali, continuing instability in Libya, and so on.

All of these policy suggestions constitute calls for foreign internal defense (FID) assistance. FID, or “Helping others defend themselves,” sounds like an attractive option while facing a fiscal and domestic political reality that limits prospects for direct intervention. However, the Iraq debate highlights a crucial question: how do we tell the difference between states we can “partner” into effective and self-sufficient stability, versus those that risk pulling the US into local quagmires or exacerbating security problems?

Policymakers, media, and the American public are asking these questions about Iraq, in part because we have a lot of information about Iraq’s internal dynamics. But we should ask these questions about other potential partners too.

Join us to discuss the challenges and opportunities of Foreign Internal Defense aid next month at our Cato Policy Forum on the topic. Register here.