U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on September 18, 2019. [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]
The hidden costs of US security cooperation

President Biden recently promised to halt all U.S. support for offensive operations in Yemen, including relevant arms sales. This is good news. The war in Yemen has dragged on since 2015, and thousands of civilians have died from indiscriminate bombings.

The United States bears responsibility and has tarnished its image by providing support and arms for those operations, primarily to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Much more needs to be done to ensure a peaceful resolution to the war in Yemen. But at least for now, with respect to the direction of U.S. policy in Yemen, we can breathe a very tentative sigh of relief.

But not for long. Because what has happened in Yemen is merely one symptom of something far deeper — the way the United States and other countries carry out security cooperation and assistance throughout the world. The case of Yemen is dire and tragic, and rightly has been the focus of much human rights attention. But there are many more people in places impacted by U.S. security cooperation and arms sales without the benefit of much media attention.

The modern approach to defense in the United States places a premium on security cooperation to shore up security around the world. It does this by cooperating with and assisting foreign security forces under the assumption that building the capacity of other security forces — military and police — allows those countries to take more responsibility for their own defense and reduces U.S. costs and involvement. It has grown as U.S. involvement has grown around the world. Given the Defense Department’s outsized budget, providing militarized assistance is often an easier way to address global crises than using diplomatic or economic instruments. The U.S. military and weapons are often not the best tools for addressing crises, but they’ve proven to be large, present, and tempting ones.

In theory, it’s not necessarily a bad idea. The U.S. military does not want or need to be present everywhere. The problem comes in its execution and in a lack of strategic oversight that can result in and perpetuate humanitarian catastrophes — in Yemen and beyond. It can also be at odds with the very long-term policies it’s meant to support, and sometimes makes little strategic sense at all. For example, the U.S. government provided $630 million to support humanitarian assistance to Yemen in fiscal year 2020, while also selling the same arms that continued to decimate the country.

The United States is engaged in security cooperation with 147 countries around the world, in the form of joint military exercises, arms sales, training assistance, and other programs. In the best of cases, U.S. security assistance might take the form of human rights trainings, although even those often fail to have their intended effect.

I had the opportunity to manage and oversee many such trainings for the State Department, where foreign security forces learned about concepts such as proper use of force, crowd control, human rights, gender, and evidence-based interrogations that help move forces away from coercive interrogation. Sometimes, they worked. Such security assistance can build ties, protect human rights, and build professionalism. But it does not constitute the vast majority of U.S. expenditures on security assistance and cooperation, the primary goal of which is to strengthen security forces with the training, weapons, and equipment they need to use force. And worse, very few of these programs receive the oversight and attention needed to ensure their compliance with human rights and international humanitarian law.

A few members of Congress have been strong voices in calling for more accountability for arms sales. Senators Chris Murphy, Mike Lee, and Bernie Sanders have been calling for an end to U.S. involvement in Yemen’s civil war. That same group, together with Senators Rand Paul and Chris Coons, have sought to prohibit the export of certain weaponized drones. In November, a group of senators introduced joint resolutions of disapproval focused on proposed arms sales to the UAE.

On the House side, Representatives Ilhan Omar and Ted Lieu have demonstrated particular leadership in pushing back against U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE that perpetuate the war in Yemen. But even their efforts have largely focused on the arms sales that dominate the headlines, while U.S. security assistance and security cooperation with problematic security forces continue. While their focus on arms sales is laudable, Congress should go further to assess America’s global security cooperation programs.

Unfortunately, the American public is largely disengaged on these issues, and without more public concern, it is only too easy for Congress to avoid this critical oversight function, without which these programs continue unchecked. It’s astonishing that the huge portion of the defense budget devoted to security assistance, to the tune of $16.56 billion, goes largely underreported. (By comparison, the proposed fiscal year 2021 budget for the entire Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs was $44.12 billion.) This contributes to a lack of serious whole-of-government strategy. If one part of the government is focused on long-term diplomatic goals in conflict zones, and the other is focused on selling arms to achieve short-term tactical military gains, where is the strategy? And who’s going to ensure it’s being followed?

This is in part why the Security Assistance Monitor, a program of the Center for International Policy, created the first and only database to house all publicly available, official data on U.S. security assistance, arms sales, and foreign military training in one place. The fact that this had to be done by a nonprofit organization, and not the U.S. government, speaks volumes.

Besides insufficient oversight and transparency, there’s also the issue of human rights and moral responsibility, which we in the foreign policy community often avoid, preferring terms such as effectiveness and efficiency and monitoring and evaluation of defense priorities. But it’s important to speak about human rights, as well as the other unintended consequences of security cooperation and assistance. Because by not carrying out operations directly, it’s easier to shift responsibility and to lose sight of how the weapons the U.S. provides are being used, where they end up, and their impact upon populations. And while the U.S. government is supposed to monitor the end use of the weapons it provides to other nations, its practice of doing so is far from comprehensive, or even adequate.

In other words, there are real risks to outsourcing war and weapons. Doing so gives the impression of keeping America’s hands clean, when really, the hand that delivers the gun, or the precision-guided bomb, knowing what will be done with it, is as culpable for the deaths of civilians as the one who fires the shot, or drops the bomb.

President Biden has promised to restore American engagement internationally, to earn back America’s leadership position, to catalyze global action on shared challenges. His leadership on taking steps to end the war in Yemen should be applauded.

But meanwhile, the United States continues to provide Egypt with $1.3 billion in Foreign Military Funding, while Egypt’s repressive security forces forcibly disappear, arrest, and torture detainees, including children. Meanwhile, the United States has provided the Philippines with military and counterterrorism assistance, while thousands of drug suspects have died in the “drug war.” The United States has also provided security sector assistance to the Nigerian military and police, while peaceful Nigerian protesters face violent crackdowns. And nearly 20 years after 9/11, the United States cooperates in the use of lethal force with countries around the world, at great financial and human cost. Beyond that lies the toll of this landscape of security cooperation, whose consequences are yet unmeasured.