from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

J: The New Super Office

January 10, 2012

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With attention on the Republican primaries and international crises in Syria, Iran, and the eurozone, few have time to pay attention to bureaucratic politics.

But while our eyes were trained elsewhere, the Obama administration shook up the U.S. Department of State—and the result will have some important consequences for the way the United States implements the foreign policy handed down by whoever is commander in chief.

A leitmotif of Obama foreign policy has been the need to cultivate “smart power,” which is essentially that foreign policy goals can be better achieved by civilian efforts rather than the U.S. military. Last week, the administration launched a new “super office” in the State Department—the Undersecretariat for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights—which is charged with “elevating and integrating civilian security in U.S. foreign policy.”

The success of this latest reorganization will depend on whether Undersecretary of State Maria Otero—and Secretary Clinton herself—force collaboration among the disparate branches of this bureaucratic empire—and build effective partnerships with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

The new super office—christened “J” for Just Society in State’s bureaucratic parlance—is a behemoth, with some 1,500 employees at home and abroad in its five bureaus and three offices. As you can see from the org chart, it includes three existing bureaus­­—Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL); International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL); Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM)—and two new ones—Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) and Counterterrorism (CT). Rounding out the J empire is the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP); an Office of Global Criminal Justice, and a new Office on Global Youth Issues (GYI) run, as it happens, by Ronan Farrow, a 22-year old country music recording artist and the son of Mia Farrow.

The new super office replaces the underpowered Undersecretariat for Democracy and Global Affairs. Created as “Global Affairs” in the Clinton administration, “G” was historically marginalized within the State bureaucracy, where powerful regional bureaus tend to run roughshod over cross-cutting, functional concerns. It did not help that G was always a hodgepodge of disparate bureaus and offices that worked on topics from ocean fisheries to counternarcotics. Like the pudding Churchill famously sent back, G “lacked a theme”.

Otero’s new undersecretariat now has a theme, and an intriguing one in a department historically focused on traditional diplomacy: It’s “civilian security,” or the protection of individuals around the world from violence, injustice, and oppression—whether at the hands of their rulers, their countrymen, or foreign governments. In embracing this agenda, the Obama administration has placed the oft-maligned concept of human security at the core of U.S. foreign policy. Self-styled “realists” may scoff, but there are pragmatic reasons for this conceptual shift. International security and regional stability increasingly depend on whether civilians enjoy peace, dignity, and fundamental freedoms. When they do not, as last year’s Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) pointed out, the proven results are escalating violence, mass atrocities, violent extremism, and humanitarian disasters.

A focus on civilian security has obvious ramifications for how the United States engages fragile states, war-torn nations, post-conflict transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan, and democratic openings in the Arab world. It implies greater focus on aid interventions that improve the safety and dignity of individuals, including investments in disaster preparedness, the rule of law, security sector reform, and counterterrorism capacity- building, among others. The new super-office has some significant assets to advance these goals. It controls a huge share of State’s programmatic resources. But delivering on civilian security will require a willingness to break down institutional silos among the several “J” bureaus themselves, with State’s regional fiefdoms, and with USAID—which has both the mandate and funds to work in many of the same spaces.

Let’s take a closer look at J’s five bureaus—and some specific challenges they face.

  • Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO): CSO is the latest effort by State to provide the Department of Defense with the adequate civilian support it needs in war zones, and to prevent and stabilize conflicts that erupt across the world. After the disastrous experience of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq, then Secretary of State Colin Powell directed the creation of a new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS), but the office never received the necessary resources or authorities from Congress and therefore lacked credibility. (Full disclosure: I played a modest role in the effort to establish CRS). The reorganization, placing it under a newly empowered undersecretary, should improve its fortunes. Given the dwindling U.S. appetite for foreign adventures, however, the new office is more likely to focus on conflict prevention than nation-building in the years ahead.
  • International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL): State’s bureau to combat “drugs and thugs” has always been an anomaly at State—a well-funded but short-staffed office that often seems in over its head, given its massive mandate. In part, this reflects the unrealistic “war on drugs”. (Few people realize it, but the bureau maintains its very own “air wing”, dedicated in part to aerial eradication of coca fields in Colombia!). INL relies heavily on outside contractors, of uneven quality, to conduct its work. Predictably, the results have been mixed, as various reports—including those  issued by the Special Inspector General for Iraqi Reconstruction and a joint State-DoD audit of police training in Afghanistan—have pointed out. At the height of the Iraq insurgency, primary responsibility for the massive U.S. police training program was in the hands of DoD. It generated large numbers of armed “warm bodies” but didn’t fully inculcate standards of police professionalism and accountability. INL, which recently assumed lead U.S. responsibility for Iraqi police assistance, has  embraced a model of “community policing”, a key ingredient in civilian security.
  • Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL): State’s in-house champion for human freedom, DRL tends to get little respect. Some foreign service officers even refer to DRL as “State’s NGO.” Indeed, its place in the pecking order was reinforced in 2009 when there was concern the DRL front office would be ejected from Main State to a nearby building. Although this did not actually occur, the message was clear as proximity often equals power in this town. Otero—and Secretary Clinton—will have to go to bat for DRL against geopolitically-minded regional bureaus if civilian security is to make any progress.
  • Counterterrorism (CT): The “new” CT bureau has been around for a while, as a large, free-standing office that previously reported directly to the secretary of state. Elevating that office to a bureau, as recommended in the QDDR, should increase CT’s heft within State and help it lead the U.S. efforts to combat terrorism around the globe. The CT bureau has established a Strategic Plans and Policy Unit, which should bring coherence to the spiderweb of bilateral and multilateral capacity-building and coordination efforts the United States has launched with multiple foreign partners. It will also give CT the heft it needs to lead the Global Counterterrorism Forum, which the United States launched last September to improve multilateral cooperation against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.
  • Population, Refugees and Migration (PRM): After INL, the J bureau with the largest programmatic funds is PRM, State’s focal point for addressing humanitarian catastrophes and offering life-saving assistance and protection to refugees. PRM’s success in fulfilling its mandate will require close collaboration not only with the UN and NGOs, but also with USAID, with which it shares an uneasy division of labor. By quirk of U.S. law, PRM is responsible for refugees—that is, populations that cross international borders in crisis—whereas USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has the lead on internally-displaced persons (IDPs). This bifurcation has been a recipe for recurrent confusion and sniping over who actually has the lead during crises, and it is exacerbated by DoD’s own, growing role in delivering humanitarian assistance. Clarifying agency roles and responsibilities should be one of Secretary Clinton’s institutional priorities.
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