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Opinion It’s time to get the Pentagon out of the business of administering U.S. foreign aid

David Knapp of the U.S. Navy Seabees trains soldiers of the Afghan National Army in March 2014 in Kabul. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He served as a senior adviser in the State Department from 2011 to 2017. Alexandra Schmitt is a senior policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.

“Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy,” President Biden announced last month in remarks that were heartening — and long overdue. But rebuilding the State Department will require more than just elevating career officials and building up a bigger and more diverse diplomatic corps. Shifting the center of power to the State Department requires putting diplomats back in charge of U.S. foreign policy and empowering them with new resources. To achieve this requires ending a byproduct of the post-9/11 era: the Pentagon’s foreign aid program.

By law, foreign aid, which includes assistance to foreign militaries, is the responsibility of the State Department. This is for the simple reason that providing arms to another country is fundamentally an act of foreign policy. The State Department’s foreign military financing program has provided roughly $6 billion aid annually to foreign military partners, such as Israel and Egypt, for a half-century.

But in thepast two decades, the Defense Department has developed its own security assistance program. This happened by accident, not design. A few small niche programs related to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq gradually metastasized into larger and broader programs. The trend accelerated during the Obama years. The government saw security assistance as a tool to help U.S. partners cope with instability and terrorism in the Middle East and Africa, Russian aggression in Europe, and China’s bullying of its Asian neighbors.

As the administration sought to fund these efforts, it found that the State Department couldn’t get more money from Congress to create these programs. The 2011 Budget Control Act, which President Barack Obama brokered with congressional Republicans, put hard limits on government spending.

But while the State Department’s budget was capped, the Defense Department’s contingency budget was not. That meant that the easiest way to fund new security assistance endeavors was through the Pentagon. And the Obama administration found it easier to get a Republican Congress to grant the Pentagon the authorities necessary to provide assistance than it was to get money for the State Department. Once this spigot opened, the Pentagon’s top brass — led by combatant commanders eager to get funding for their regions — descended on Congress. The Pentagon was granted billions in funding, and at least 56 of these new programs required no coordination with the State Department.

The result today is that the United States has two distinct security assistance systems — one at the State Department and one at the Defense Department — doing the same thing. That has created a bureaucratic mess involving countless planning and operational conflicts — one that also makes it impossible for Congress to conduct effective oversight, since the two departments answer to different committees. Recognizing the problem, some policymakers in Congress and the Pentagon have recently implemented a few useful reforms — but they go only so far.

Today, when combatant commanders show up in the countries they’re assigned to, they frequently have security assistance funding at their disposal. But State Department officials of similar rank often lack comparably flexible funding and yet have to deliver tough messages on other U.S. foreign policy priorities, from human rights to economic reform, democratization or even climate policy. This power imbalance is not lost on foreign partners, and they act accordingly, often tuning out the State Department while cultivating their relations with the Defense Department.

The current bifurcated system is not just wasteful — it’s also potentially dangerous. Policymakers originally expanded Defense Department assistance in response to the post-9/11 focus on counterterrorism, when security assistance was often seen as a technical tool to smooth collaboration with foreign militaries. But in a new era of global great power competition, the provision of arms to another country sends a loud foreign policy signal, one that can easily lead to miscalculation. Those assistance decisions need to be well coordinated and calibrated by diplomats, not generals.

Fortunately, fixing this bureaucratic morass is straightforward: Just give the money to the State Department. Our new report argues that transferring the roughly $7 billion dollars in annual Defense Department security assistance funds that train and equip military partners to the State Department would restore the foreign aid system to its original conception as outlined in the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. The law put the secretary of state in charge of supervising all foreign assistance, including “military assistance” — exactly the programs that the Defense Department is now running on its own.

Putting the State Department back in charge of security assistance will give it renewed clout and minimize needless waste and bureaucratic confusion. Most importantly, it will reaffirm our commitment to a foreign policy based on democratic values and support for human rights.

Such reforms may have to overcome the resistance of a generation of security professionals whose career experience has been characterized by an ever-withering State Department and an ever-strengthening Pentagon. But it is past time to rebuild and empower the State Department. To do that, State, not the Pentagon, has to oversee our foreign aid.

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