What are dangers of playing 'cops of the world' role?

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The U.S. government has recently sent its armed forces and intelligence agencies to deal with some of the most complex foreign policy issues it faces.

In the Middle East, the Central Intelligence Agency has become the principal U.S. government agent for brokering a cease-fire between Israeli and Palestinian security forces. In Indonesia, where political and economic instability grows daily, the United States on June 15 re-established military ties in an effort to regain influence in Jakarta.

The United States is seeking to preclude conflicts by engaging numerous foreign nations through programs such as military training and education, security assistance and foreign military sales. The growing role of the military in international relations, however, may be limiting Washington's future policy options. In many countries, the use of military and security services, rather than diplomatic resources, may increase conflict rather than prevent it.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States began looking to the Defense Department to play a larger role in maintaining and building international relations with old and new partners. The Pentagon and related agencies have more funds than the State Department and are better suited at using covert methods to engage unstable foreign powers with limited public scrutiny. This new foreign policy role was codified in 1997, when for the first time a review of U.S. defense strategy assigned to the military the responsibility of "shaping" the international environment as a means to prevent future conflict.

The responsibility of shaping is fulfilled primarily by U.S. military regional commanders-in-chiefs, who plan operations in geographic areas spanning the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Latin America, and who oversee special operations, space operations and nuclear forces. Because the CINCs craft what are called Theater Engagement Plans, they have a "stronger opportunity" to influence how U.S. defense resources are spent, according to a 2000 study by the U.S. Army War College.

In a typical week, an estimated 7,000 U.S. special-forces personnel are operating in 60 to 70 countries as part of Pentagon-sponsored military-to-military activities, according to the U.S. Special Operations Command. According to unclassified Special Operations Command documents, the small number of U.S. troops participating "allows them to conduct their missions with a low profile," and puts military personnel in position to be the first to respond to crises.

But making the military pre-eminent in executing U.S. foreign policy in various unstable areas presents potential pitfalls. Many countries in which the U.S. military is now training foreign forces or engaging in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations, including Angola, Sudan, Indonesia and Yemen, have very little diplomatic contact with the U.S. government. Their most immediate contacts, U.S. military officers, may not be best suited for representing Washington or carrying out U.S. objectives.

For example, the decision to use the Yemeni port of Aden to refuel American warships was made not by the State Department but by the CINC of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for military operations throughout much of the Middle East. While part of an overall effort to engage Yemen, believed to be a breeding ground for international terrorists and thus lacking official diplomatic relations with the United States, the decision resulted in the bombing of the destroyer USS Cole during a refueling stop in Aden last year.

Many of the other foreign militaries the Pentagon is seeking to engage militarily also have checkered pasts when it comes to human rights, such as Indonesia. U.S. special forces conducted more than 40 training exercises in Indonesia from 1991 to 1999, when military ties were cut over the Indonesian crackdown on East Timor. Most of the exercises involved Indonesia's elite Kopassus troops, accused of being involved in kidnappings and the torture of anti-government activists in East Timor and elsewhere.

In Latin America, human rights activists have sharply criticized U.S. military cooperation with the army of Colombia and other regional forces. These opponents allege the United States is indirectly abetting human rights abuses. The Pentagon maintains these exercises are intended to train U.S. troops, not foreign personnel, but the skills U.S. troops hone, such as small-unit tactics, benefit foreign militaries as much or even more.

Meanwhile, some of the forces on the receiving end of U.S. military diplomacy are involved in major conflicts. In Africa, the U.S. military is conducting training in countries such as Chad, Eritrea, Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Zimbabwe, many of whose forces are either engaged in civil war or are participating in other armed conflicts.

If the U.S. military becomes the foremost representative of the world's superpower in conflict-ridden nations, the means of addressing future crises may default to military rather than diplomatic options. Unstable countries likely would use their U.S.-provided military skills or equipment to crack down on opposition forces or to go to war with neighbors. At the same time, U.S. military personnel -- rather than ambassadors or diplomatic negotiators -- may find themselves increasingly called upon to neutralize escalating tensions.

The consequence of such a trend would be to increase the likelihood of such conflicts even further while drawing the United States deeper into the affairs of unstable countries.

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