Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.
News travels fast across the red desert bush of remote Djibouti. Even as US military reservists erect a field hospital around a cluster of tents and blockhouses near a desolate watering hole, dozens of tribespeople are waiting for treatment in orderly rows. They arrive with maladies of every sort: bad teeth, diarrhea, fevers, colds, arthritis. At the triage center, an elderly tribesman has had a thorn removed from his foot, a wound that had been infected for months. At the dental surgery station, Navy Lt. Bill Anderson, an orthodontist from Northfield, New Jersey, will over the next few hours extract a dozen rotting or impacted teeth using instruments that sparkle in the late-morning sun.
The reservists are attached to a Djibouti-based task force of some 1,800 soldiers, marines, sailors and Air Force personnel. Embedded with them is an aid specialist from the Agency for International Development, which provides guidance for the operation. She is reticent and refers questions to the agency’s country leader, Stephanie Funk. The next day, Funk acknowledges that USAID’s solitary representation on the triage mission is symptomatic of a new age in US foreign policy–one in which America, in peacetime as much as in war, is personified abroad more by soldiers than by civilians. “If we had the numbers and the money to do fieldwork, we would, but our budgets have been declining for years,” Funk said in her office on the US Embassy compound in Djibouti City. “The Pentagon has got both numbers and money. For every fifty of them, there’s only one of me.”
Quietly, gradually–and inevitably, given the weight of its colossal budget and imperial writ–the Pentagon has all but eclipsed the State Department at the center of US foreign policy-making. The process began with the dawn of America’s post-World War II global empire and deepened in the mid-1980s, with the expansion of worldwide combatant commands. It matured during the Clinton years, with the military’s migration into humanitarian aid and disaster relief work, and accelerated rapidly with George W. Bush’s declaration of endless conflict in the “global war on terror” and a near-doubling of military spending.
In addition to new weapons and war fighters, the Pentagon’s budget now underwrites a cluster of special funds from which it can train and equip foreign armies–often in the service of repressive regimes–as well as engage in aid development projects in pursuit of its own tactical ends. Although these programs must be conducted with State Department approval and are subject to Congressional review, legislative oversight and interagency coordination is spotty at best. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is pushing for full discretionary control over these funds–a move that would render meaningless the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which concentrated responsibility for civilian and military aid programs within the State Department.