Benn Steil

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Should the United States Be the Military Lender of Last Resort?

by Benn Steil and Dinah Walker
January 30, 2013

mali

In 2011, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned that “there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. . . . to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.” France in Mali is now a case in point; the Obama administration is providing only grudging assistance to an under-resourced French intervention.  As the small upper right figure in today’s Geo-Graphic shows, France has very little of the vehicular equipment necessary to prosecute the Mali operation—less than 5% of what the U.S. has in stock.

French military spending, as shown in the large left-hand figure, has since 2001 exhibited a marked constancy—one which is inconsistent with the country’s newfound passion for military engagement.  (Libya in March 2011 was another example of the French, as well as British, military biting off more than it could chew.)  It also highlights the need for the Obama administration to address Gates’s prescient concern and to develop a clearer policy foundation for America’s global military “lender of last resort” role.  At the very least, this should prod U.S. allies to match their military expenditures more closely with their ambitions, and to avoid miscalculating the level of tacit U.S. support that can be brought to bear at a moment’s notice.

Chart Book: Trends in U.S. Military Spending
New York Times: Blunt U.S. Warning Reveals Deep Strains in NATO
IISS: The Military Balance 2012
SIPRI: Military Expenditure Database

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  • Posted by Scott Hand

    The numbers do not tell the full story. The US spent time and money training Malian and other West African military forces – in retrospect, the US military was a bit naive in Mali.

    When the Islamist forces took over city after city in Mali, and the Mali military retreated or deserted, all the US did was talk and say that a West African military forrce was needed and that it might be ready later in 2013. It was the French who faced up to the realities of the situation acted and stopped the Islamists from taking Bamako.

    Then the US grudgingly began providing some assistance to France ( and they wanted to invoice France for it!) putting forth all sorts of reasons – the military coup in Mali, the Istamists in Mali not a threat to the US etc. etc..

    All very reasonable but what would the US have done if the French had not acted and the Islamists had taken Bamako?

    Our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan should not hobble us in providing measured assistance in places like Mali. Yes there are risks but perhaps the greater risk is in not acting. Mali is a very good example and we owe a thanks to the French this time.

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