Fanfare around United States Representative Ilhan Omar’s (from Minnesota’s Fifth District) introduction to the House Committee on Appropriations of House Resolution 5948, “the Global Peacebuilding Act of 2020,” in February this year, is illustrative of the fecklessness and irresponsibility of the Republican Party and, more importantly, how low the bar has been set in US politics with regard to addressing global problems. The bill proposes shifting funds from the budget of Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) controlled by the Defense Department to the State Department to pursue peacebuilding. However, tragically, this is half palliative theater, half misbegotten imperialism.
First, closer inspection of OCO funding for the past couple of years shows that this money is regularly designated by Congress to fund the State Department’s work in areas such as famine relief, refugee assistance, and aid to Africa and the Middle East, but President Trump has steered these monies into what are essentially military operations for Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Rather than a special bill to symbolically move monies around, there should be more focus on the bigger issue of the division of power between Congress and the Presidency over who determines how much money is spent on what. Since 2012, when OCO funds were first established, President Obama requested they be used by the State Department and USAID. By contrast, starting in 2016, Trump redirected these funds back into Defense Department coffers. Instead of pleading to shift some money back where it was intended, a bill condemning the defunding of the State Department and the dereliction of Congress and the President in allowing this is crucial.
Second, although progressives need to prompt a debate on spending priorities and any redirection of money out of the bloated US defense budget is a good idea in principle, the chances of this bill becoming law—along with the six others comprising Omar’s “Pathways to Peace” legislative package to fundamentally alter US foreign policy—are less than zero. To do so it would have to get through committee, win a majority in the House, win a majority in the Senate, and not be vetoed by the President. At a time when Democrats are looking for an edge to defeat the Trumpublicans and must parry charges that they are somehow soft on military spending, it’s not likely there will be much political will to pick this particular fight now. Exerting political capital on a minor repair of budgetary legislation is a missed opportunity to present how investing in non-coercive components of foreign policy are essential to US national interests.
Third, while “peacebuilding” has become fashionable, it is frequently a fiction. The problem is rooted in the idea that external actors are instrumental in bringing peace, but it is also usually fraught with a liberal agenda that contends democracy and capitalism are panaceas. However, even the UN and the African Union (AU) which have the most experience and most success in peacebuilding do not have a strong record. While the aim is “peace,” in reality this has meant transforming these societies in our own image and impose a Westphalian state. Most peacebuilding begins with building the capacity of the state—to collect taxes, to provide services, to ensure security. But this is exactly what weak governing authorities with authoritarian aims need to achieve their goal of control. It also makes this autocrat dependent on the external power. This type of peacebuilding creates repression and dependency. Peacebuilding should be about empowering those experiencing crisis to find their own solutions, otherwise it’s basically mending the fabric of empire.
In short, the drama and the optics of demanding more resources for “peacebuilding” may galvanize some of the Democrat base, but it does nothing to structurally address the crisis in American democracy, the battle for voters in the 2020 election, or the dangers of an arrogant culture that calls intervention “peace.”