Sunday, October 31, 2010

How We (Shouldn't) Spend Our Money

A couple of news stories this week should make everyone question how the United States doles out aid to military partners.

First, a series of audits revealed that the US can't account for literally millions of dollars it throws down that bottomless pit in Afghanistan. In order to avoid the corrupt Afghani officials that we fear would merely pocket employees' salaries, the US often makes many of the payments itself. But somehow, we haven't kept track of it. Danger Room goes into greater analysis of the matter.

Essentially, while the US was paying Afghanis through myriad agencies, there was never any central bookkeeping or other accountability measures. Thus, millions of dollars in disbursements are now unaccounted for and were likely gobbled up by corrupt officials. The focus of the audits were on the period from 2005-2008, but it appears the issue has continued this year. For some idea of what is at stake, the Afghanistan Ministry of Finance's estimates of US payouts to Afghani 6,600 is about $45 million, and this is widely seen as lowballing it.

The failure of the government to keep track of its money is extremely worrisome. First it demonstrates an obvious bureaucratic failure. At the same time, it suggests we don't really know what our goals are in Afghanistan nor how to arrive at them. We have so little faith in the Karzai government due to endemic corruption that we then attempt--and fail--to circumvent it entirely. At best this must come off as hypocritical to Afghanis and at worst, our own cash is creating the corruption problem. We cannot point an accusatory finger at Iran for giving Afghani officials cash when it is a common, and failed, policy of our own.

The second event demonstrating our inability to be resolute with our money came as the Administration tried to quietly grant waivers to four countries named in the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act. The goal of the legislation is to cut off support of regimes that make use of child soldiers. The four countries--Chad, Yemen, Sudan, and the DR Congo--are seen by the Administration as vital to US security interests; primarily in the War on Terror. As such, a year's reprieve has been given for these states to achieve compliance with the law. Of the four, only Chad has taken clear steps towards demobilization of child soldiers.

The Administration's backpedaling on the matter is disheartening. Foreign Policy got in on a conference call in which the White House tried to patch things up with peeved Members of Congress and NGO representatives. The explanation was rather weak: the countries didn't have enough time, it's a new Administration, and they should be given another year. Never mind that the bill was passed under George W. Bush and there have already been a full two years for the countries to demobilize. It is not as though the terms of the legislation were at all vague or that the countries didn't know the threatened loss of aid was coming. The event represents that the US, or at least the White House, is willing to sell out its liberal international agenda in order to pursue a realist purpose of threat reduction, even if it means permitting the continuation of the evil of child soldiers. What hope is there that this position will actually change next year?

I am concerned by the fact that these stories weren't very well-represented by the media going into the weekend. By the time of the child soldiers conference call on Friday, the thwarted terrorist attacks mentioned in the previous post had already occurred, so any meaningful discussion of these issues were effectively tabled. I understand the concern of most Americans at the moment is the economy first and foremost, but the inability of our government to responsibly use its money in pursuing foreign policy goals--whether through bad bookkeeping or filling the coffers of those committing crimes such as the utilization of child soldiers--is likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of government corruption and incompetence. Events such as these should have a real effect on any intelligent discussion of the defense budget or the deficit. Whether in terms of national security issues or any other matter of government fiscal responsibility, our policymakers need to take a good, long look at how the government spends' taxpayers money as we, or perhaps before we should, consider serious austerity measures or tax cuts. I think it is probably not surprising to anyone that this sort of responsible discussion does not appear to be happening in Washington.

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