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McCaul and McRaven Discuss Food Insecurity and National Security

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

War and anarchy directly link to mass human hunger.

In 2017, the United Nations reported 37 countries confronted food insecurity or scarcity conditions that required external assistance - meaning food supplied by international agencies or donor nations like the U.S. Internal conflicts or regional warfare afflicted at least 30 of these countries.

The problematic connection between violent conflict and hunger led the University of Texas at Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs to organize a forum (held Sept. 17) addressing the national security aspects of food insecurity.

The event featured House Homeland Security Committee chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, and former Special Operations Command commander Admiral William McRaven. McCaul also serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. McRaven has impeccable national security bona fides and extensive experience in the world's hardest corners as a former Navy SEAL.

Houston Chronicle business writer and former East Africa bureau chief for The Associated Press Chris Tomlinson moderated the discussion. Tomlinson noted his African experience had taught him, "Where there is a food crisis, there is always a political opportunity." Tomlinson meant political angle, for he mentioned militia leaders paying fighters with food.

McCaul and McRaven agreed. From that point forward the often three-way conversation had a theme: Food security for any human population – from Pleistocene hunter-gatherer band to 21st-century superpower –requires physical security.

McCaul listed Syria, Nigeria and Africa's Sahel region as areas where anarchic violence breeds hunger. He mentioned Venezuela. Food insecurity conditions there are forcing hundreds of thousands to flee.

"From the standpoint of a military man," McRaven observed, "it's all connected. Terrain, water and food." (Later he would add that he had seen "food weaponized, and water" in Afghanistan and elsewhere.) He added that the "hotspots" (where terrorists lurk) are in "fragile, unstable" countries experiencing food insecurity. Nation states must address these conditions.

McCaul and McRaven pegged the State Department and nongovernmental organizations as the instruments for addressing a fragile nation's problems. To operate effectively, however, civilian organizations need security forces to protect them.

McCaul said dispensing aid is a difficult issue. In Venezuela, the U.S. must "make sure (aid) goes to the right place, not the corrupt government."

McRaven agreed Venezuela exemplifies "the problems of a country in chaos." He thought the U.S. should generally use humanitarian aid as "positive (diplomatic) leverage within a country."

Moderator Tomlinson mentioned a problem vexing U.S. government policy efforts. Presidential administrations change, so goals may change. Solving complex international "generational" problems affecting American security can become more difficult. Plan Colombia, Tomlinson said, had results, but it took "three administrations to stick to it."

The background: For two decades, violence had wracked Colombia. Plan Colombia was a late 1990s Clinton administration policy implemented to help the Colombian people – with their elected government the primary instrument – maintain security and reduce the violent threat to internal order presented by Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia's (FARC) narcotics-dealing Communist rebels. The Bush administration supported the plan. In 2003, the government began to defeat the FARC. The Obama administration continued Plan Colombia.

Today, Venezuelans flee to Colombia.

McCaul agreed America must have a long-term strategy. Plan Colombia was a good example of one that succeeded. McRaven said the U.S. poured "billions into Colombia," but unlike some other U.S. partners, the Colombian government showed progress on its own. "The Colombians went after the FARC and cleaned up their own mess. President (Alvaro) Uribe made difficult decisions" that few leaders would do.

I agree with the congressman and the admiral that Plan Colombia is a model for a long haul U.S. "inter-agency" operation. However, new administrations aren't the only problem. Recall 2007 when Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., a long-time critic of any aid to the Colombian government, used Plan Colombia to smear the Bush administration's foreign policy. FARC was reeling as Leahy froze $55 million in military aid and attacked Uribe, the Colombian leader McRaven characterizes as courageous. There's an argument that Leahy's grandstanding gave FARC a respite to rebuild its forces and continue the war.

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