A Transformation at State?

Saturday, January 21, 2006

AYEAR INTO her tenure, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has proposed important shifts in the country's diplomatic posture. She plans to move 100 State Department officers out of Washington and Europe and closer to the challenges of the 21st century -- how to forge partnerships with emerging powers such as India, how to contain fast-spreading global diseases, how to combat the nihilistic strains of political Islam. She promises to create a new unit of Arabic speakers to defend U.S. policies in Middle Eastern media, and she wants to move diplomats out of fortified compounds in the capitals and into important provincial cities. These sensible reforms ought to be doable, but Ms. Rice has also committed herself to two more daunting efforts. She has reiterated her ambitions for the new and beleaguered Reconstruction and Stabilization Office. And she has created a new post of director of foreign assistance with the rank of deputy secretary in the hope of bringing cohesion to fragmented aid programs.

The Reconstruction and Stabilization Office was created in 2004 to coordinate the civilian part of assistance to failed and failing states. The idea was that the collapse of order in poor countries can threaten U.S. interests, creating havens for drug dealers or terrorists or other threats. But this new boutique within the State Department quickly got lost in the vastness of its mandate. Rather than restricting itself to delivering a few practical tools -- for example, a database of linguists working for the federal government who have skills relevant to reconstruction -- it got sidetracked by ambitions to create an early-warning system for state failure and bogged down by differences with the Pentagon. In last year's budget negotiations, Congress refused to approve the $100 million that the administration requested for the office. Its director has left for a think tank.

To make a success of this venture, Ms. Rice needs to narrow its focus. There's no point drawing up lists of the 20 states most likely to "fail" imminently; private organizations such as the International Crisis Group already do this, and there's nothing the U.S. government can do with this sort of information beyond the diplomatic and foreign-assistance efforts that it should be undertaking anyway. But if reviving the Reconstruction and Stabilization Office is a challenge, it is nothing compared with the job that awaits the new director of foreign assistance, Randall L. Tobias.

Mr. Tobias arrives from the administration's global AIDS initiative, which he has run effectively. His approach was to take money that was relatively unencumbered with congressional strings and use embassy officials stationed in poor countries to figure out how to spend the money well. He is assuming responsibility for a foreign assistance program that could not be more different. Congress has imposed so many restrictions on the aid's use that officials can't deploy it flexibly, and this problem has been compounded by their sometimes-supine attitude to autocratic governments. Rather than routing aid through pro-democracy groups in countries such as Egypt or Russia, the Agency for International Development has often accepted such countries' insistence that money flow only through the government and its allies.

By appointing an aid czar with deputy secretary of state status, the administration has created an opportunity but not yet a result. Mr. Tobias needs to use his authority to persuade Congress to vote more flexible money and to give the aid professionals the courage to support democratic opponents of autocratic clients. And Ms. Rice will need to back him. She has described foreign assistance as central to what she calls "transformational diplomacy." It will take some tough battles to lend substance to those words.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company