U.S. global military presence is too often marketed as a desire to bring democracy.

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Whenever violence erupts in certain parts of the world — not all parts, it must be said — the conversation here at home instantly turns to the question of just what can the United States do about it? There's an element of national narcissism here, a desire to put ourselves at the center of everything that happens, but some people, at least, are motivated by a genuine interest in helping others in need.

Sadly, however, the options on the table inevitably range from "provide arms and training to one side of the conflict" to "send in our own military." Find the good guys and give them some guns, or, alternatively, send in our own good guys with guns.

Mere mortals such as myself can't always comprehend the Great Game that members of our "foreign policy community" imagine that they are playing. There are reasons why turmoil in some countries attract our — government, military think tank, media — attention, and turmoil in others goes largely unnoticed. I don't think these reasons are always communicated very well, or honestly.

But whatever it is that draws the attention of foreign policy elites, it's the horror of human suffering, and fear of the potential for more, that draws the attention of many of the rest of us. We genuinely do want to help. When images of the destruction created by various manifestations of civil wars are broadcast on TV news, it isn't surprising that many people are motivated by the desire to just do something. Anything.

The problem is that the options for intervening to help people, even for intervening in violent conflicts, should not be limited to explicitly military options. If the options are to do nothing or to do something, people will often choose to do something, even if that something is likely to escalate the violence.

Military interventions, even very small ones, are incredibly expensive. Recent experience suggests that our interventions do not always achieve supposed humanitarian (or even often unstated strategic national interest) goals. Aren't there other ways to help people?

My new rule of thumb is that if those who advocate spending money on military interventionism for alleged humanitarian purposes aren't willing to devote similar resources to, say, accommodating the needs of refugees from conflicts, then I'm going to be more than a little bit skeptical of their humanitarian motives. There are cheaper, and more direct, ways to help people. We can take in more refugees than we do.

Public opinion polling regularly shows that people supposedly vastly overstate the amount of federal money this country spends on the category of "foreign aid." Those in the know chuckle, or shake their heads in frustration, that people think we spend around 28% of the federal budget on aid to other countries when the real number is around 1%.

Insiders shouldn't shake their heads. People, understandably, see a big portion of our defense spending as "foreign aid." This is how our global military presence is often marketed. We are the world's policemen, and our military interventions are humanitarian ones. The war in Iraq was originally sold as necessary to stop Saddam Hussein's potential use of ultimately nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. But even before the invasion began, the rationale switched from that to the promotion of freedom and democracy. It was a humanitarian invasion. Our military expenditures are foreign aid.

We can debate how much we want to spend to help the rest of the world, but we should also debate the best way to go about doing that. The desire to help, coupled with the belief that maybe we can, should not lead inevitably to the embrace of military options.

Duncan Black writes the blog Eschatonunder the pseudonym of Atrios and is a fellow at Media Matters for America.

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