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A Quiet Transformation

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By David Ignatius
Wednesday, May 18, 2005

As the United States was struggling with the postwar reconstruction of Iraq, the historian Niall Ferguson published a book arguing that America needed the modern equivalent of the old British Colonial Office to build political stability in far-flung places. The U.S. military was good at breaking things, he suggested in "Colossus," but not so good at putting them back together.

Nobody in the Bush administration would endorse the neo-imperial language of Ferguson's argument. But behind the scenes, the administration is debating a range of major policy changes that would move in that direction -- transforming the military services, the State Department and other agencies in ways that would help the United States do better what it botched so badly in Iraq. Don't call it the "Colonial Office," but in many ways, that's a model for the kind of far-flung stabilization force that officials are discussing.

The driver for these changes, as with so much else in Washington, is the administration's equivalent of the Energizer Bunny, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The debate is mostly taking place out of view among a small group of defense and foreign policy experts. But it involves issues that are crucial for the future of the country. So here's a primer, based on unclassified reports that are mostly available on the Internet.

The most creative analysis is a study that Rumsfeld requested last year from the elite Defense Science Board. Released in December and titled "Transition to and from Hostilities," the study is a blueprint for changes across the government that would give the United States the nation-building capability it has too often lacked in Iraq.

The Pentagon study starts with the premise that Afghanistan and Iraq are not isolated problems. Since the end of the Cold War, the study notes, the United States has embarked on stabilization and reconstruction operations every 18 to 24 months. And these are hardly quick-hit deployments; in fact, they typically last five to eight years. The problem is that America has conducted these slow reconstruction efforts with military forces that are trained and equipped for rapid, devastating assault. That mismatch is at the heart of U.S. problems in Iraq.

The first recommendation by the Defense Science Board was that the military apply its genius for logistics and management to peacemaking as well as war-fighting. The study urged a new contingency planning process to identify countries where U.S. intervention might be necessary -- and to make sure U.S. forces have the necessary language skills, area knowledge and civil affairs expertise. Again, these were precisely the reconstruction tools U.S. forces lacked as they raced to Baghdad in March 2003. The study noted pointedly that in 2004 the Defense Department had 6,723 French speakers, 6,931 German speakers, 4,194 Russian speakers -- and only 2,864 Arabic speakers.

In a recommendation that surely gave heartburn to Army generals who hold tight to their traditional war-fighting mission, the study stressed: "Stabilization and reconstruction missions must become a core competency of both the Departments of Defense and State. The military services need to reshape and rebalance their forces to provide a stabilization and reconstruction capability."

The Defense Science Board study tracks arguments made by the most influential defense intellectual writing these days, Thomas P.M. Barnett. He argued last year in "The Pentagon's New Map" that the U.S. military should be divided into two forces that reflect its differing missions: a "Leviathan" force, centered around the Air Force and Navy, that could apply overwhelming power quickly anywhere in the world; and what he called a "System Administrator" force, based in the Army and Marines, that could win the decisive battle to stabilize and rebuild nations in the aftermath of conflict.

These radical post-Iraq ideas are beginning to take root. At the State Department, there's a new Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization under director Carlos Pascual. It has just 40 people at this stage, but it's beginning to coordinate activities of the Pentagon, the State Department, the CIA and the Agency for International Development, so that the chaotic mismanagement of the initial Iraq reconstruction effort isn't repeated. Meanwhile, Republican Sen. Richard Lugar and Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden have joined to sponsor a bill that would put many of the recommendations of the Defense Science Board study into law.

Ferguson wondered in "Colossus" whether the United States had the aptitude, patience or financial resources to operate what would amount to a 21st-century imperial system. That remains the crucial question. It would be a mistake for America to transform its military services for a mission the public doesn't understand or support. Rumsfeld is asking the right questions about what America should learn from its setbacks in Iraq, but the country as a whole must join in the debate.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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