Foreign Policy on Steroids

According to the New York Times: "Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates urged Congress on Tuesday to grant the Pentagon permanent authority to train and equip foreign militaries, a task previously administered by the State Department, and to raise the annual budget for the effort to $750 million, a 250 percent increase." Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, expressed concern over the migration of missions from the State Department to the Pentagon.

Ike's right. We should be wary of attempts to over-militarize American foreign policy. There are good reasons why we currently run foreign assistance programs out of the State Department. It's important to subordinate these missions -- particularly the "train and equip" military assistance programs -- to political considerations, and the best way to do that is to keep the diplomats in charge. If the Defense Department swallows more of the responsibility for American foreign policy, then American foreign policy will take on an increasingly military character. In the long run, that may be prove counterproductive.

As the old proverb goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems begin to look like nails. But in today's world, not all problems are nails -- some require a defter, less muscular, less kinetic approach than the Pentagon can provide.

(Sidebar: for an excellent discussion of how this dynamic has played out, and how the U.S. military has squeezed out other agencies in the execution of U.S. foreign policy, read Dana Priest's The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America's Military.)

By Phillip Carter |  April 16, 2008; 10:55 AM ET  | Category:  Foreign Policy
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Having worked intensively on U.S. security assistance programs in the Office of the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1979 to the end of 1989, I do not see how this program, given the conditions of coordination with the State Department that are laid out, represent any new militarization of the program. First of all, we in defense all worked hand-in-hand with State on any of these programs, hour-by-hour, day-by-day. (We never had an interagency problem, so-called, until this Administration.) Second, State always determined which countries would be dealt with and had the last word on the allocation and priorities for funding. Third, Defense executed the programs in detail -- did all the training, for instance -- and were reimbursed for the costs out of the Foreign Operations (150 account) budget. Now the proposal is simply to reimburse from the defense budget (050 account), with all the same provisos about State initiation. But Congress has the last word on all this. They were reluctant in the past to see defense, a domestic program, fund programs normally in the Foreign Operations (150) program. But Congress has already seen their way to clear $300 million for the purpose; now it is simply a matter of increased funding.

Posted by: hank | April 16, 2008 4:13 PM

I actually have read "The Mission," and what that book suggests to me now is that Rep. Skelton's concern has to do with the state of the barn door many years after the horse bolted.

Militarization of American foreign policy has been going on for a long time. Some of the reasons for it are good ones -- for example, there are a lot of countries in which the only viable national institutions are military services. It makes sense that these would want relations with the American military, which can offer them equipment, training and status relationships no other part of the US government can. Then, too, countries under terrorist threat are ill-equipped to cope without some help in the security areas, and here as well the American military is the logical source of such assistance.

But since Bill Clinton's first term the State Department has been growing weaker relative to the Defense Department. State's budget was constrained by a hostile Congress during the 1990s; Defense has had several strong Secretaries in recent years, beginning with William Perry in the early '90s, while the last really strong Secretary of State was James Baker in the first Bush administration; and the terrorist threat after 9/11 gave powerful impetus to the Pentagon's security mission. State, by contrast, never really resolved what its own mission ought to be after the Soviet Union collapsed.

I'm frankly agnostic as to Sec. Gates' reported request, viewing State's nominal jurisdiction over a training mission that has to be done by the military anyway as a secondary issue. Of greater importance is that the next President make a determined effort to strengthen the Department of State. That department will need more money, and it will need more people. It will also need a President unwilling to cut State and its Secretary out of the policymaking process -- and willing to back up the Secretary of State both overseas and in the Congress, something the last two Presidents regularly failed to do.

Posted by: Zathras | April 16, 2008 4:21 PM

Pure insanity. Crack-heads have more sense than these people.

Posted by: Charles Gittings | April 16, 2008 5:47 PM

Phil C,

If you seriously entertain the notion of a 20,000 LTC Nagl inspired "Advisers Corps" under US Army control, how can you complain about a line item budgetary change for State FID dollars?

I mean, isn't the institutionalization of a 20,000 man corps of uniformed security advisers perhaps more likely a militarization of a traditionally smaller mission than what we see here?

Oh, yeah. And Charles Gittings is a bonafide nut.

Posted by: Charles Gittings is a nut | April 16, 2008 11:11 PM

I reconcile it this way:

- An adviser corps is necessary for military assistance, both during "Phase 0" and during "Phase IV".

- However, such advisers (and the military advisory groups to which they report) must be subordinated to political leaders at the country level (and possibly below), in order to ensure that political considerations drive the train.

Posted by: Phillip Carter | April 17, 2008 12:45 AM

Maybe we should also subordinate "The 20,000" [aka advisory corps] to the State Department. ie, the uniformed personnel become detached to the State Department, under the command and control of the ambassador where they're deployed to.

I mean, "The 20,000" is just another form of security assistance like weapon sales, right?

Posted by: Jimmy | April 17, 2008 5:25 PM

I'm already on record at the old Intel Dump as opposing this large new "advisory corps," primarily because of the opportunities it would present for mischief to the DoD and stupid presidents. The way our foreign operations have unfolded in the 21st century is what's prompted my misgivings. I've been opposed specifically because of the preeminence DoD now enjoys in foreign affairs. I don't want the military in charge of foreign policy. And COIN warfare is foreign policy.

Before we fall in love with this advisory corps, I suggest we first revitalize the traditional "country team" concept, where the ambassador is the head dog in the area of operations. It was pretty apparent in watching the recent Petraeus/Crocker show that Crocker was the lesser light. And that's not how it should be. In Vietnam, where I spent too much time on an advisory effort that dwarfs this one in size, Westmoreland and then Abrams were of course important. But so were the ambassadors; they were heavy hitters in their own right, with serious political juice. Crocker is just another bureaucrat. Everything done in Vietnam--to include CIA, etc.--was funneled through the embassy. That's not how it appears to be in Iraq or Afghanistan, for that matter.

Get our Washington cabinet agencies back in line with what they're supposed to be doing and rationalize our overseas command and control relationships. Then start talking about all of the wonderful things Dod and a wizard advisory corps might be able to do. Why is Gates unilaterally talking to Congress about this idea? Where is the secretary of state?

Let's not make the mistake of thinking that Bush Administration practices are, or should be, the norm, in operations of the U.S. Government overseas. This is a one-off, bizarre administration, thankfully soon to pass into the dustbin of history. Now, in its twilight, is no time to even seriously consider any long-term ideas of this most amazing administration. Let's first get rid of them. I'd rather have rational people look at all of these things.

Posted by: Publius | April 17, 2008 6:32 PM

First: as always, Publius gets there fustest with the mostest. As elegant a summary of our present political and geopolitical situation as I've read leatey.

Second: my question would be, is there any reason to belive that State has the intellectual muscle to make this successful? Given our actions in the ME I don't get the sense that State has a clue to how to handle a situation there that doesn't involve a straightforward nation-state friend or enemy.

Look at Condi's cluelessness in handling the ongoing mess in Lebanon. Surely a State that had any notion of realities on the ground in Iraq - and given the size of the freaking embassy we're building for them if they don't, they should - would have advised against letting our al-Kerensky proxy get into a sectarian fight with the only non-Iranian aligned major Shiite faction in the country.

Elsewhere on this blog and back over at the old Dump we discussed how eight years of getting sand kicked in its face by the DoD has done State no good. Zathras makes a good point about the poor quality of Secretaries of State going back to the Clinton years, and Publius reinforces it with his skewering of the backwards relationship between our ambassador and the theatre commander in Iraq we've just witnessed. So, no, I don't think State is ready to handle this and I don't think it will be anytime soom.

Posted by: FDChief | April 18, 2008 8:10 AM

FDChief and Publius are spot on. My two cents worth is to call to mind that the principal activity of the US Secretary of State in late 2002 through early 2003 was trying to convince nations to initiate a war of choice. State, under this bizarre administration became an instrument of war, not diplomacy.

Posted by: Aviator47 | April 18, 2008 3:32 PM

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