Headlines around the world have reported on the growing crisis over food shortages and the spiraling costs of everyday staples that are putting hunger on the plates of people who have never experienced it. Rice shortages in the Philippines and this past weekend’s food riots in Haiti are just two stories in what is quickly becoming a very dangerous situation – in the short term and most certainly the long term. In the short term, governments that can not provide the basic staples of life will find themselves on the brink of ruin and outright collapse (Haiti, Philippines, etc.). People in these countries who may have never raised their voices in protest over anything will quickly and easily join the masses in the street when it comes to providing food for their families. If left unaddressed and ignored, these citizens-turned-protestors have every potential to raise arms against the government and it will play out out much like it did this past weekend in Haiti.

Governments collapse for any number of reasons, but when faced with degrading human conditions and survival is at risk, the long term implications of inattention, ignorance, corruption, and bureaucracy can breed the very elements we are fighting in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It is far too easy for Bin Laden and others like him to point to the West when rallying the hungry, the disenchanted and the enraged to their cause. While filling their minds and hearts with hatred, they also often times provide for their survival by filling their families’ stomachs, enabling a new generation of terrorists ready, willing and able to attack and destroy us without hesitancy.

The most frustrating thing about this scenario is our ability and means to stop it from happening in the first place as clearly demonstrated by two examples. The first is Afghanistan and the rise of the Taliban. While filled to the brim with US weapons throughout the 1980’s to fight the Soviets, American food and medical aid was miniscule to say the least. After the departure of the Soviets from Afghanistan, Western inattention to the shattered country allowed the Taliban to fill the vacuum left behind and become the breeding ground for the executioners of 9/11.

The second example is in the Palestinian Territories where Hamas stunned the world by becoming the duly elected government of the people in 2006. Long known as a ruthless and indiscriminate terrorist group, Hamas rose to power by addressing the basic needs of disenchanted Palestinians. While the Palestinian Authority was legitimately seen as corrupt and ineffective, Hamas filled the vacuum to provide food, medical care and purpose where none had previously existed. The payoff for Hamas’ investment came at the ballot box when they gained the majority of seats in January 2006 in the legislative council of the Palestinian Authority.

Fortunately, some have gotten the message that we cannot turn a blind eye to the current food crisis without creating a repeat of the Taliban or Hamas situation. The recent actions of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund to open their wallets instead of issuing more rhetoric is evidence of their understanding, as are the actions by the White House and USAID on Monday to release even more funds and emergency food aid to help in areas where the situation is deteriorating even more rapidly.

The hard part for any effort like this is keeping it up. Our commitment on these fronts must be steadfast and not just a momentary response to images captured by television cameras and reporters. Hunger does not just go away by offloading bags of grain from the back of a C-130 on a rustic tarmac in a third world country. It requires investment and strategy. Part of that strategy is already in action by USAID’s Millennium Development Program.

It has also evidenced by the billions of dollars in investments that have been made in Africa over the past decade but there is one surprising place that I would encourage others to look for strategic thinking on this front – the Secretary of Defense. This past November, Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered a speech at Kansas State University that unfortunately did not get the attention it deserved. In the annual Alf Landon Lecture, Sec. Gates talked about the use of ‘soft power’ to mitigate against the both current and future threats. It goes without saying that we expect the Defense Secretary to advocate for more spending for troops, equipment and advanced weapons system. This Secretary offers the other approach – if you want to secure the future of our nation and stability around the world, core investments in economic development, basic services, civic engagement, diplomacy and more have to be made in areas that desperately need it. Indifference breeds the cancers of hate, genocide, intolerance and terrorism that require military forces to intervene with painful results for all.

The tragedy of hunger is nothing new, but we have a real opportunity to deploy others ‘forces’ to prosecute the War on Terror and prevent its spread to other locations. Coupled with our investments in guns and equipment for the ‘warfighter,’ we need investments in the war-preventer. Following the devastating Tsunamis that struck Asia at the end of 2004, the US along with most of world responded by providing billions of dollars in food and relief supplies to the affected areas. Those actions, and other examples like them, do more to advance our security interests than anything else we can possibly do.

For every bag of grain we send to a place in need, it is likely one fewer place American military forces will have to one day serve in combat. Some may call that a ‘pacifist’ agenda – I would argue that it is as much a ‘security’ agenda as having a platoon of the US Marine Corps at the ready for insertion to ‘rectify’ a situation that needs to be immediately ‘fixed.’ Based on experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Middle East, Haiti and every other bubbling hotspot of unrest, we need to prevent disintegration in vulnerable countries, to stop the hell and horrors they can one day unleash on other shores and on our own. That’s a worthy investment and it can be served in a bowl of food.

Rich Cooper blogs primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More