The successful killing by the U.S. military of al-Qaida head Osama bin Laden makes the case for a transition from a 20th century model of defense to a new version, characterized by advocates as “soft” or “smart” power. Proponents argue that targeted use of force and more reliance on diplomacy achieves the same goals as military invasions, with better long-term outcomes.
Transitioning away from the capability of having 50,000 troops and ships and planes ready at a few days’ notice to engage in a conflict will face the usual uphill climb. Those companies that build military hardware, and the congressional representatives from the districts in which they operate, will resist and wail about the loss of jobs. But that opposition could be turned back by pointing out the deficit-reduction dividends that come when defense hardware spending is curtailed.
One debate bin Laden’s death has spurred in foreign policy circles is the relative funding for the State Department and the Department of Defense. The Obama administration 2012 budget called for $553 billion for the Defense Department and $47 billion for the State Department. Many people believe the U.S. bestows huge amounts of money on other nations, but in fact the U.S. is ranked 19th among the top 20 industrialized nations in foreign aid. Foreign aid amounts to a pittance of the overall federal budget.
But boosting the State Department’s role in foreign policy — and its budget — doesn’t have to mean foreign aid with no strings attached. In fact, it shouldn’t mean that. Money can be tied to benchmarks and concessions. An expert on Pakistan suggested a few years ago that the U.S. give that nation $50 million a year for schools and in the third year hold up the aid for information about bin Laden’s whereabouts. That might have worked.
But such soft power must be tied to “smart” power, the kind seen in the Navy SEAL raid on the bin Laden compound. Threats must be clearly identified and if special ops, predator drones or even missile strikes are warranted, they must be used.
Of course, this kind of surgical strike must include accountability and checks and balances. But when Congress agrees with the administration in its identification of a threat, it should be able to act.
Diplomacy, then, could be understood in a broader context. Helping educate and employ young Muslim men around the globe is the best defense against having them fly airplanes into buildings here. It’s not easy work, but is more effective and less costly than waging wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The death of bin Laden may someday be seen as a turning point in how the U.S. protects its interests in the world.