At War But Not War-Ready

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By Hans Binnendijk
Saturday, November 3, 2007

The revolt this week by Foreign Service officers faced with involuntary deployment to Baghdad may be an understandable response to shifting ground rules, but it highlights a deeper problem: America's civilian agencies are unprepared to contribute adequately to 21st-century global security challenges. Defense Department resources, missions and institutions have multiplied as counterpart civilian agencies stagnate or disappear.

While Washington has focused on Rumsfeld vs. Powell or Gates vs. Rice, this underlying imbalance has grown. It is not born of a Defense Department power grab but of an inability by civilian agencies to adjust to new missions. The Defense Department is at war while the State Department still suffers from the post-Cold War notion of a peace dividend. One is on steroids, the other on life support.

Consider the record: The annual Defense Department budget has grown nearly $350 billion in the past decade while Congress cuts the president's international affairs budget request each year. The defense authorization bill is enacted annually while the congressional foreign affairs committees cannot get their authorization bills considered on the floor. Legislation such as the Lugar-Biden bill, designed to strengthen civilian capacity in stabilization operations, has been blocked. The military's authorities and missions have expanded while much-needed new civilian authorities are denied by neglect.

Civilian agencies are disappearing. The U.S. Information Agency and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency have folded, while the U.S. Agency for International Development operates with less than a third of the staff it had during the Cold War. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's initiative to transform diplomacy lacks fiscal and personnel resources.

The State Department's initial answer to the problem of civilian unreadiness, a coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, is underfunded and relies heavily on contract workers and personnel detailed from other agencies. The entire Foreign Service comprises about the same number of people needed to operate one aircraft carrier battle group. State's operational culture focuses more on policy development than implementation. USAID's overseas personnel have become contract managers, and efforts to create a civilian reserve corps are also stalled in Congress.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department has created an undersecretary for intelligence and strengthened its policy shop. The Goldwater-Nichols legislation of the mid-1980s produced a much stronger military joint staff and empowered regional combatant commanders overseas so that they wield as much influence as many U.S. ambassadors. The military's ground forces are increasing by 92,000 soldiers and Marines during the next three years.

Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have reinforced this trend. While civilian agencies struggle to free up people for deployment, the military cannot wait. Troops are rightly adapting to jobs normally assigned to civilians. Tens of thousands of Army personnel formerly staffing artillery and air defense sites are being retrained for civil affairs, police work and psychological operations.

The uniformed military prefers capable civilian partners to do these jobs but has been forced to fill gaps left by civilians. It has created flexible emergency relief funding that sometimes rivals traditional USAID programs. Defense now wants authority for worldwide "train and equip" military assistance programs that traditionally are authorized through the State Department. A military focus on "strategic communication" and the deployment to U.S. embassies of military information support teams seeks to supplement flagging public diplomacy efforts.

Foreign language proficiency is encouraged for Marine officers. Cultural anthropologists are hired directly by the Pentagon and deployed as "human terrain teams." About half of the Africa command established last month will eventually be made up of civilians hired by Defense and reporting to a four-star general.

Civilian agencies must step up to the challenge. Complex operations overseas would be more successful with full civilian participation in planning and implementation. The State Department's voice in policymaking will be further diminished if this trend is not reversed.

Resetting the balance between civilian and military responsibilities will take time. Some recommend legislation that would fundamentally redesign the national security and interagency structures. That goal may be too grand, but steps must be taken in that direction.

First, we must recognize the problem. The State Department and other civilian agencies are instruments of U.S. national security policy but are unprepared. They need to be authorized and fully resourced to do their jobs. The USIA should be re-created, while USAID needs expansion and restructuring. Civilian agencies need operational cultures more compatible with the changing security environment.

The Bush administration cannot accomplish such fundamental changes in its remaining time. But it can start to address this imbalance, and the next administration must place this issue high on its agenda.

Hans Binnendijk is the Theodore Roosevelt Professor at the National Defense University. He has served at the departments of Defense and State, on the National Security Council, and with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The views expressed here are his own.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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