12/11/2012 03:01 pm ET Updated Feb 10, 2013

Heading Over the Human Rights Cliff

As members of Congress and the president haggle over budgets and tax rates, plenty of pundits have predicted a "hollowing out" of the United States' military or the demise of the fragile economic recovery if Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama drive the United States Thelma & Louise style over the "fiscal cliff."

Sadly, few have lamented the potential consequences of sequestration for the United States' ability and obligation to promote peace and human rights in the world. But in fact, if the meat cleaver falls in January, it is far more likely to hit vital organs in the already lean civilian foreign affairs budget -- also known as the "150 Account" -- than in the gargantuan Pentagon budget, bloated by a decade-long spending spree.

In his eloquent appeal to the U.S. Congress to retain "a sense of humanity" when it debates budget cuts and revenue, Michael Gerson recently pointed out, "Across-the-board cuts are an attempt to avoid political choices, but they do not avoid human consequences."

The consequences could include eviscerating 150 account programs that contribute as much or more to United States' national security as do ships, missiles or Marines. Deft diplomacy and carefully targeted foreign assistance, particularly in unstable areas or nations emerging from dictatorship, can prevent bloodshed, consolidate positive trends in economic and political development, and greatly reduce the likelihood that men and women in uniform will be sent into harm's way.

That is why senior officials at the Department of Defense have been among the more strident defenders of funding for diplomacy and foreign assistance in recent years. As Secretary Robert Gates argued in 2010, civilian foreign affairs are, "a critical component of an integrated and effective national security program."

The greatest threat to the security of the United States posed by the fiscal cliff is not that it will experience a shortage of drones. The real threat is that the government will short change spending on efforts that promote justice and human rights and prevent conflicts.

If the United States and its allies don't invest millions of dollars to promote human rights, good governance, civil society and justice, they will surely find ourselves spending billions of dollars combating global extremism and terrorism, or seeking to restore stability to regions of the world ravaged by insurrection and civil war.

So why is it so hard to protect the United States' modest foreign affairs spending from deep cuts? The politics are confounding.

When asked what percentage of the federal budget the United States is currently spending on foreign assistance, Americans typically estimate 20-25 percent.

When asked how much should be spent, the average respondent answers 10 percent. But the reality is that less than 1 percent of the federal budget goes to international assistance programs -- a proportion that represents a decrease from Cold War highs of 2-3 percent.

So while according to Gallup, 59 percent of Americans favor cutting foreign aid to help balance the budget, they simultaneously support increasing it ten-fold!

All budget cuts are not created equal. Congress and the president should listen to the better instincts of the American people as they get that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Investing in Peace and Justice in the Philippines

The need for a balanced approach -- with a strong emphasis on promoting rule of law, economic justice, and accountability to promote peace and security -- can be seen in the long-running Islamist insurgency on the island of Mindanao, the Philippines. The Muslim secessionist movement in the southern Philippines traces its roots to the centuries-old resistance of Muslims against Spanish colonization. In recent years, various armed insurgent groups -- some with well-organized political structures and agendas -- have waged a struggle with Manila over land, resources, and degrees of political autonomy. Criminal groups, such as the Abu Sayyaf Group, have also undermined security. And according to reliable reports by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations, members of the armed forces have also committed human rights abuses. The residents of Mindanao have been forced to endure a climate of fear and injustice, with frequent kidnappings, assassinations, bombings, extra-judicial killings, and other forms of armed violence. Racked by conflict, a province rich in natural resources remains the poorest in the nation.

The United States has supported peace and development efforts on Mindanao that are beginning to bear fruit. Just last month, President Benigno Aquino III signed a framework peace agreement with one of the last hold-out armed groups -- the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. This peace plan, if fully implemented and funded, could possibly bring peace to a deeply troubled land.

But the fiscal cliff imperils U.S. support. The foreign support the Philippines needs to demobilize the combatants, integrate them into civilian life, and promote peace, reconciliation and development, may not be there when they need it most.

That would be tragic, because history has shown that the United States has many national interests at stake in the Philippines -- human rights, economic, maritime -- that merit sustained attention and instability there has historically drawn U.S. military engagement.

On May 27, 2001, a missionary couple from Kansas, the Burnhams, were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf Group -- a particularly brutal criminal gang -- along with 18 other hostages from an upscale resort on the island of Palawan. The effort to rescue the Burnhams and other hostages involved a massive six-month operation that included 1,000 American troops working alongside the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Ultimately, American missionary Martin Burnham and four other hostages were killed during a rescue that also cost the lives of more than twenty Filipino soldiers.

After 9/11, what had begun as a response to the Burnham hostage crisis morphed into a sustained, battalion-sized (600 personnel) U.S. counter-terrorism/counter-insurgency force organized under the Joint Special Operations Task Force -- Philippines (JSOTF-P). Based at Camp Navarro in Zamboanga del Sur Province on Mindanao, this battalion-sized (roughly 600 personnel) force drawing on all four branches of the U.S. military has been working alongside the AFP for more than a decade. The United States armed forces have spent hundreds of millions of dollars and dispatched thousands of troops to help stabilize Mindanao over the past decade, and seventeen U.S. service members have died in the struggle. The United States has supported this military deployment with tens of millions of dollars in Foreign Military Funding for the Philippines Armed Forces, despite Manila's failure to undertake thorough investigations of alleged human rights violations by security forces.

When I last visited the task force in 2010, I was struck by the enormous disparity between the resources available to the Pentagon and those committed to the civilian side of the Mindanao peace process. It is much more expensive to send in a Navy Seal team to track down terrorists than to provide basic training for former combatants to help them become farmers, fishermen, merchants, and teachers. Military intervention is always more costly in blood and treasure than is making early investments in justice and development.

The people of the Philippines need help creating an environment that enables peace to flourish on Mindanao. But the Congress should not short-change the U.S. government's diplomacy and civilian foreign engagement because of budget cuts. If sequestration dries up the small buckets of resources in the civilian budget that were previously available to the U.S. government to try to promote peace, then United States forces are likely to be stuck in Mindanao for another decade, at ten times the cost of investing in human rights and dignity for the people of Mindanao. Any "savings" found from such budget cuts will prove short-lived indeed.

As retired Marine General Anthony Zinni wrote in defense of funding for the U.S. Institute of Peace -- one of many organizations that has help forge peace in the Philippines -- "The institute's entire budget would not pay for the Afghan war for three hours, is less than the cost of a fighter plane, and wouldn't sustain even 40 American troops in Afghanistan for a year."

So don't take my word for it. When in doubt, Congress can listen to the soldiers who are among the most compelling advocates for investing in peace and human rights.