Equally troubling, military and economic assistance are treated as quite different creatures. For economic assistance, the United States has increasingly insisted that aid recipients at least demonstrate some marginal commitment to democracy and open markets. Not so on the military side, where concerns about corruption, the rule of law, and human rights are treated as something we are too polite to ask about. Indeed, we probably would offer military training to everyone if it were not for the minor restrictions imposed by Senate Democrats like the Leahy Law, which prohibits U.S. military assistance to known thugs and war criminals that violate human rights with impunity. Yes, having military-to-military contacts through U.S. military training and aid is often useful and can build important relations and lasting trust. But it is equally true that the list of U.S.-trained officers that have led coups against their sitting governments is a lengthy one in countries ranging from Honduras to Haiti to the Gambia. Contrary to what Ham's remark suggested, a few months spent studying tactics and logistics in Kansas or Georgia rarely seems to slow down a power-hungry colonel when he is hell bent on toppling the elected government that just threatened to cut his budget.
Underwriting security assistance to countries with autocratic leadership or nations that are of little strategic significance doesn't make much sense. U.S. military aid and training should be concentrated in a far fewer countries rather than being sprinkled all around the globe like fairy dust in hopes that good relations result. Nations should be chosen to receive such military aid and training based on their commitment to reform -- both within the military and within the broader structures of democratic governance, free markets, and respect for human rights. Such aid should be a reward for high-performing countries, not a party favor dispensed at the door.
General Ham sounded genuinely surprised that American-trained officers were up to nefarious deeds. But the accusations of indcriminate killing should not come as much of a surprise. A U.S. trained captain led a coup against the government of Mali just last March -- the first incident that led Ham to think that we might need to take a second look at training.
Take the fun quiz: which of the nations below were slated to receive U.S. military assistance in 2012:
Sao Tome and Principe
Trinidad and Tobago
Well, all of them, of course.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect the full context of General Ham's remarks.