Americans at their optimistic best tend to believe there is a solution to every problem, as evidenced by our abiding faith that we will ultimately beat the coronavirus pandemic. For those who work on foreign policy in the U.S. government, security sector assistance — programs, activities, and aid designed to support the development of institutions providing security in partner countries — is at least part of the solution to most of those problems. U.S. security aid has become a veritable Swiss Army Knife: It can build up foreign forces to fight terrorist groups, bolster a military’s capacity to withstand a Russian invasion, foster interoperability, promote adherence to the Law of Armed Conflict and respect for human rights, and foster pro-American attitudes. It is no exaggeration to say that security sector assistance has become part of the default U.S. response to any and all foreign policy challenges and opportunities.

But, in spite of the prominence of security aid in U.S. foreign policy, until very recently there has been little to no effort on the part of the executive branch or Congress to evaluate the total efficacy of these programs. For example, U.S. officials have not confirmed — or seemingly even tried to confirm — that U.S. military aid to Egypt has increased its ability to neutralize terrorists, or that U.S. training of Saudi soldiers has resulted in increased respect for human rights by the Saudi military, or that U.S. train-and-equip programs have enabled the Georgian military to effectively deter Russia. Simply put, in the absence of rigorous program evaluation, U.S. security sector assistance is a faith-based policy.

In fact, the evidence (albeit anecdotal) indicates that U.S. support to foreign security sectors has fallen well short of its mark. Despite the U.S. spending tens of billions of dollars on the Egyptian military over the last several decades, that force has struggled to subdue a relatively small Islamic State contingent in the Sinai, staged a coup against an elected president, and presided over raids against U.S.-based democracy organizations in Cairo. In Iraq, U.S. train-and-equip programs, which over 17 years have aimed to build independent Iraqi capacity to provide security, have produced decidedly mixed results. U.S.-trained Iraqi forces not only disintegrated in the face of the ISIS onslaught in 2014, but even as they have regrouped in the aftermath, they remain dependent on the United States for effective air support, logistics, and ISR. And there are increasing indications they may have committed gross violations of human rights against protestors seeking more responsive, accountable governance.

The U.S. government’s traditional disinterest in understanding the efficacy or side effects of security aid is all the more surprising given the vast amounts of money that has been spent on these programs and the rapid growth of the budget. Befitting one of the most frequently used tools of U.S. foreign policy, the amount of money the United States spends on security assistance is substantial. In Fiscal Year 2017 (the last year for which solid data is available), the U.S. government spent over $20 billion in American taxpayer money to support the development of foreign security sectors, largely through accounts controlled by the State Department and the Department of Defense (DOD). Notably, this figure is more than twice what it was in Fiscal Year 2002, reflecting the massive increase in such programs post-9/11, especially those controlled by DOD.

But there are positive signs that things are changing. In 2016, Congress finally took a step in the right direction by setting the expectation in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that the Department of Defense will evaluate its security cooperation programs. The requirement stipulated that DOD should establish a monitoring and evaluation framework that would include “partner capability requirements, potential programmatic risks, baseline information, and indicators of efficacy,” and “evaluation of the efficiency and effectiveness of such programs and activities.”

The following year, DOD put in place its Instruction on Monitoring and Evaluation, borrowing heavily from concepts pioneered by counterparts in development assistance. (Meanwhile, the State Department has its own set of internal criteria used by the contracting companies it hires to evaluate its military assistance programs). Whether motivated by the legislation, bureaucratic self-preservation, or a sea shift in policy attitudes, hundreds of millions of dollars in conventional security assistance programs administered by DOD are now subject to at least some form of monitoring and evaluation.

Need for Ambitious Structural Change

Even so, this important but incremental step will likely fall short of stimulating the fundamental re-evaluation of the role of security assistance in U.S. foreign policy that is so badly needed, unless policymakers are willing to consider more ambitious structural change. For one thing, the requirement does not necessarily apply to many of the most visible and impactful American security cooperation activities (as distinct from assistance), such as arms sales, intelligence sharing, and other forms of operational support. In any one country, a DOD train-and-equip program may be subject to rigorous monitoring and evaluation against certain technical and even political benchmarks, while “advising” largely escapes such scrutiny. That can include missions carried out by special operations forces in secret, military training conducted by State Department-funded contractors, and other forms of American “operational” support, all of which are justified on many of the same bases.

As a result, any framework of indicators and measurement that is applied too narrowly to one program will easily conceal negative effects created by others, so measuring one program, even effectively, won’t provide an assessment of the overall impact of all programs combined. In the end, many common assertions and fantastical claims about the policy benefits of security assistance and cooperation would remain mostly untested.

More importantly, even with the new legislation and the DOD policy, no explicit requirement exists for either State or DOD to measure the aggregate effects of security assistance on the internal politics and political economy of the partner country and its security institutions, or on American political influence, human rights performance, the institutional inculcation of American values, or influence over a partner’s decision-making in the future. Yet all of those are counted as the officially-stated policy benefits of security assistance.

In fact, while DoD is taking some steps to evaluate the human rights effects of its programs, the State Department, which commonly cites the improvement of human rights as an explicit objective of its International Military Education and Training (IMET) program, recoiled at efforts to measure the human rights benefits of the program. In a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in December, it noted that the requirement to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the human rights component of the training “creates both methodological and practical challenges that the Department cannot support.”  This gap makes existing laws (the “Leahy” laws) that at least prevent the U.S. from supporting known human rights violators even more important.

Likewise, the U.S. government as a whole makes no attempt to evaluate the possibility that its security aid has at least in some cases, produced unintended effects detrimental to U.S. interests. Perhaps, the best illustration of this problem is the phenomenon of reverse leverage, called “donor vulnerability” in a study by Melissa Dalton at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. That’s when a country that receives U.S. support is emboldened to challenge — rather than incentivized to assist — the United States.

With Egypt, for instance, the U.S. government is reluctant to suspend military aid for fear of alienating the Egyptian Armed Forces on the mistaken assumption that Egypt will return to a war footing vis-à-vis Israel absent American financial inducements. Such a posture sends the signal to Cairo that it can act out against U.S. interests with impunity. This situation is the very opposite of what proponents of security sector assistance suggest should happen; instead of the United States deploying security aid to influence recipient behavior, security aid is wielded by a recipient to shield it from the consequences of uncooperative behavior.

Compare With Hoops for Humanitarian and Development Programs

Cases like this are even more notable when compared with the spotlight that is constantly cast on humanitarian and development programs, despite the fact they receive only slightly more funding than their security counterparts, $25 billion to $20 billion. In an inversion of how the system should operate, it requires more empirical evidence to defend a budget request for helping to improve livelihoods abroad than what is required to justify the financing of weapons used to destroy them.

It is long past time for the U.S. government to get serious about evaluating the impact of the billions of dollars in security assistance it provides each year. As a starting point, Congress should require the executive branch to develop consistent and compatible forms of measurement, monitoring, and evaluation that work across the full spectrum of security assistance programs. Lawmakers also should demand a regular and comprehensive accounting of the cumulative effect and consequences of security assistance programs. At a minimum, Congress should scrutinize security assistance budget requests by requiring evidence and data to support any claims made about the benefits of security assistance prior to appropriating additional funds.

More importantly, the executive branch should take it upon itself to begin the process of fundamentally rethinking the role of security assistance in American foreign policy. This would include a fresh look at whether—and which of— the legacy security assistance packages that claim a disproportionate share of total security aid continued to advance the objectives for which they were created decades ago.

American diplomats should be compelled to look at options other than security assistance as an effective means of competing for political influence in other countries. A rethink of security assistance would also seek to reckon with the cumulative and unintended side effects of American support over time. Finally, it would entail a systematic evaluation of what types of security aid have been successful in promoting specific outcomes, and under what conditions.

By applying these guidelines, a new president who is committed to reform, accountability, and the responsible use of American taxpayers’ money can put security aid back into its proper perspective. Reexamining core assumptions about security assistance is all the more important as the national security establishment postures for an era of competition with other great powers.

Moving away from what essentially is a faith-based security assistance policy means recognizing such aid for what it is and what it is not. Security assistance is not a reliable proxy for other forms of American influence or a particularly strong signal of commitment to foreign partners or causes. It is neither a magic elixir, nor always a waste of limited resources.

Security aid is just one of many U.S. foreign policy tools, not an end in itself. And, like any tool, the United States should start using it only when it is an appropriate solution for addressing the problem at hand, not out of blind faith.

IMAGE: U.S. Army trainers instruct Iraqi Army recruits at a military base on April 12, 2015 in Taji, Iraq. U.S. forces were operating at 5 large bases throughout Iraq, training thousands of Iraqi Army combat troops, trying to rebuild a force they had originally trained before the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010. Members of the U.S. Army’s 5-73 CAV, 3BCT, 82nd Airborne Division are teaching members of the newly-formed 15th Division of the Iraqi Army, as the Iraqi government launches offensives to try to recover territory lost to ISIS last year. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)