Foreign Policy Beyond the Pentagon

By Walter Pincus
Monday, February 9, 2009

Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believes that the United States' foreign policy has become "too militarized."

But Mullen said in a speech last week that it could take 10 years or more before government departments other than Defense, such as State, Commerce, Treasury and Agriculture, are prepared to send employees overseas to assume roles now being played by the military in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots. Echoing a theme stressed by his boss, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Mullen told an audience at Princeton University last Thursday: "You've heard us, some of us and certainly me, talk about our foreign policy being too militarized. I believe that. And it's got to change."

One reason, he said, is that such tasks have "stretched" the military, and as such, "we're doing things that we had not planned on doing, had not trained to do."

In Iraq and Afghanistan, the military is carrying out traditional State Department functions, such as funding local school-reconstruction projects, as well as information programs, such as running Web sites and producing radio and television broadcasts.

Another example, he said, is that National Guard soldiers from Texas, Missouri and Iowa with experience in farming are being sent to Afghanistan to work on agriculture projects "because that's the economic base for future economic health in Afghanistan."

He praised those doing this, saying: "They're very adaptive, very creative, very innovative. And they do it unbelievably well. But we need to back off of that over time."

Although the problem is recognized, Mullen said, "We're a good decade away before we've created . . . the capacity and the career paths [for] young people who will come into the Agriculture Department and say, 'Part of my life is, I expect to go to Afghanistan for a year out of every four or five.' . . .That is not what they thought their career path would include at this point."

By comparison, he noted, active-duty Army personnel are now being asked to serve 12-month tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by a year back home, followed by another combat rotation overseas. Many, he said, have served three or four tours of combat.

That has got to change, he declared, and then he made a strong pitch for the Princeton students to think about the future and their roles. Mullen said that the strength of the country is that "when we're in trouble" Americans are inclined to "rise up and serve and make a difference."

"Here in our own country, you can serve," he said. "Or you can serve globally."

He stressed that military service is not the only avenue. "But it's going to be a world that you inherit and you live in," he said, "and I seek your assistance to serve in it, to help us all make it better."

Asked whether he supports a return to the draft, he said he does not, asserting that the quality of the U.S. military today is high, and adding that "its tremendous value [is] in the fact that it is an all-volunteer force."

While reviewing the trouble spots around the world, Mullen noted that Afghanistan and Pakistan are "center stage for potential and growing instability in a vital part of the world." But more generally, he highlighted problems in the Middle East and the recurring crises there.

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