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Send the State Department to War

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
November 14, 2007
New York Times

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The State Department has announced that it will force 50 foreign service officers to go to Iraq, whether they want to or not. This is the biggest use of “directed assignments” since the Vietnam War, and it represents a long-overdue response to complaints that diplomats aren’t pulling their weight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However welcome, this is only a baby step toward a larger objective: to reorient the department and the government as a whole for the global war on Islamic terrorism. Yes, this is a war, but it’s a very different war from conventional conflicts like World War II or the Civil War. It is, in essence, a global counterinsurgency, and few counterinsurgencies have ever been won by force alone.

While maintaining military power remains important, even more crucial goals are aiding moderate Muslims, countering enemy propaganda, promoting economic growth, flexing our political and diplomatic muscles to achieve vital objectives peacefully, gathering intelligence, promoting international cooperation, and building the rule of law in ungoverned lands.

The government developed expertise in many of these areas during the cold war, but those skills were lost as budgets were slashed and jobs eliminated during the “peace dividend” decade of the 1990s. Because civilian capacity has been so anemic, an undue burden has fallen on the military — something that soldiers understandably resent.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recognizes the problem and has tried to reorient the State Department. She has, among other steps, moved diplomats out of Western Europe and into the developing world, set up a “war room” where Arabic-speaking diplomats can address the Middle Eastern press, and fostered a clumsily named Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to plan for nation-building assignments.

Such efforts, however, are unlikely to succeed because they run counter to centuries of State Department tradition that emphasizes liaison work with established governments rather than creating governments from scratch or communicating with foreign citizens over the heads of their leaders.

Modern management theory holds that small, tightly focused organizations are likely to be more effective than large conglomerates that try to do a million different things. If we apply that insight to the State Department, it would make sense to undo some ruinous consolidations that occurred after the cold war, when the United States Agency for International Development was placed within the State Department’s sphere of influence and the United States Information Agency was folded into the department outright. No wonder our capacities in nation-building and strategic communications have withered — their practitioners are second-class citizens behind traditional foreign service officers.

The information and development agencies should be made independent again, and their resources expanded. The Agency for International Development, in particular, has seen a precipitous decline in personnel. In the 1960s, it had 1,900 officers in South Vietnam alone. Today it has only 1,200 to cover the entire world, forcing it to rely mainly on contractors. If we expand its ranks, it could become our lead nation-building agency, sort of a global FEMA, marshaling the kind of resources that have been lacking in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To buttress the growing corps of government reconstruction experts, we should have civilian reservists on call who could be summoned by the Agency for International Development in an emergency like military reservists. They could bring expertise in municipal administration, sewage treatment, banking, electricity generation, and countless other disciplines needed to rebuild a war-torn country. President Bush endorsed this notion in his last State of the Union address, but too little has been done to turn it into reality.

One of the most important shortages we have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan is in experienced police officers who can train local counterparts. Much of the job has fallen on the military police, whose troops are too few in number, and on civilian contractors, who are of uneven quality. We need to fill the vacuum by creating a federal constabulary force — a uniformed counterpart to the F.B.I. that, like the Italian carabinieri, could be deployed abroad.

Its efforts could be supplemented by municipal policemen if we pass a law allowing the federal government to call up local police officers without loss of pay or seniority and to compensate hometown police departments for their absence. Along with these police officers, we need a deployable corps of lawyers, judges and prison guards who could set up functioning legal and penal systems abroad.

Even with increased participation from civilian branches of government, the armed forces will still have a major role to play in what President Bush calls the “Long War.” But not necessarily a kinetic role. If we can train and advise foreign militaries, they can fight our battles for us. This model was demonstrated as long ago as the 1950s when Edward Lansdale and other advisers helped the Philippines put down a Marxist uprising, and has been repeated more recently in Somalia and the Phillipines.

Yet, important as it is, the United States military has not put enough emphasis on training and promoting experts in foreign military assistance. Such duty has traditionally been seen as a hindrance to promotion, which has made it tough to attract the best officers.

Lt. Col. John Nagl, a counterinsurgency expert, has suggested setting up an “adviser corps” of 20,000 soldiers. His idea would make advisory service not a career detour but a career in itself, equal, at least in theory, to infantry, armor and other traditional specialties. Some advisers, in turn, could be deployed as part of the “country team” at American embassies — something that happened routinely in the 1950s and ‘60s but has since fallen into disuse.

Along with pushing advisory expertise, the armed forces also need to promote linguistic and cultural knowledge. Such skills are to be found primarily in Foreign Area Officers, but that is another career field whose practitioners are traditionally expected to commit career suicide. The military needs to increase the ranks of Foreign Area Officers and to provide more rewards for their much-needed service. We will have a hard time prevailing in today’s war as long as fewer than one-half of 1 percent of all service members have any grasp of Arabic.

Even while expanding governmental capacity, we also need to improve coordination among various branches of government, and between the government and nongovernmental and international organizations. That type of unified action has been in short supply in Iraq and Afghanistan, leading to nonstop complaints about how broken the “interagency” process has become.

James R. Locher, a former Congressional aide who helped draft the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that brought greater coordination among the different branches of the military, is now leading a nonpartisan consortium of Washington policy and research groups that is trying to devise legislation to enhance the “unity of effort” among different branches of the government. Ideas under consideration include forcing civilian bureaucrats to serve a “joint tour” in a different agency and creating regional diplomatic coordinators who would marshal civilian agencies in the same way that the Pentagon’s Central Command and Pacific Command coordinate military units abroad. A partial prototype of this concept may be tested with the Defense Department’s new Africa Command, which is going to have a larger civilian component than the other combat commands.

Mr. Locher’s goal is to write a bill that would update the legendary National Security Act of 1947, which created the bureaucratic instruments (the C.I.A., Defense Department, National Security Council and the like) used to win the cold war. He hopes to have legislation ready in time for a new president in 2009. That’s an ambitious objective, but it’s one worth striving for if we’re going to adjust to the post-9/11 era of American foreign policy.

Some will no doubt object that to build up these capacities will encourage reckless “imperialism” or “militarism.” But improving our abilities in nation-building, strategic communications, security advising and related disciplines will actually lessen the chances that we will need to mount a major military intervention such as the one in Iraq. Our goal should be not just to deal with the aftermath of wars (Phase IV, in military parlance) but to solve problems before they grow into full-blown wars. In other words, to win Phase Zero.

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