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Monday, July 21, 2008

The Birth of the Civilian Response Corps

The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq showcased the might and competence of the American military, but they exposed severe deficits in America's capacity for stabilization, reconstruction, development, and civilian management of postconflict environments. The US does not have civilian institutions comparable to its military force. Dr. David Kilcullen, an Australian military officer and counterinsurgency advisor to General Petraeus, addressed this in a May 2007 article titled New Paradigms for 21st Century Conflict. According to Kilcullen, "the U.S. defense budget accounts for approximately half of total global defense spending, while the U.S. armed forces employ about 1.68 million uniformed members. By comparison, the State Department employs about 6,000 foreign service officers, while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has about 2,000. In other words, the Department of Defense is about 210 times larger than USAID and State combined—there are substantially more people employed as musicians in Defense bands than in the entire foreign service."

Various proposals exist to revitalize America's civilian institutions. Many have called for the creation of a peacebuilding force that would parallel the US military, but specialize in the kind of postwar management and reconstruction that Iraq and Afghanistan have desperately needed.

On July 16th, the US State Department kicked off a plan to do just that--but the meager size of the program only highlights the lack of political momentum behind strengthening America's civilian foreign policy institutions. According to a State department fact sheet, the Civilian response Corps will consist of 250 full-time employees and 2,000 "standby" members who can "deploy rapidly to countries in crisis or emerging from conflict, in order to provide reconstruction and stabilization assistance." President Bush has requested $248.6 million in the FY2009 budget to support the program. These are paltry numbers compared to the scale of the need. The Fact Sheet contains the crucial words "if fully funded", which suggests that the future of even this small operation is in question.

I welcome the creation of a Civilian Response Corps, but only as a stepping stone towards a larger program with the capacity to help manage real-world conflicts. The last thing the United States needs is another neglected, underfunded organization tasked with the impossible. If the US is serious about revitalizing its civilian institutions, it must make real investments in their future.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Next American Foreign Policy

Arguably, the greatest weakness of the Bush administration in the war on Terror was the lack of a coherent grand strategy. Despite waging two wars and spending billions on homeland security, the administration never found the right model to understand terrorism, much less respond to it. The mistakes of the administration are well-known and do not need to be repeated here, except to say that the administration relied on unilateral military force to solve a problem that was not fundamentally military in nature. Over the last seven years, while the administration stood by a hollow and dysfunctional framework of a "Global War on Terror", more and more seasoned military officers were calling for a very different display of power: repairing relationships with allies, investing in infrastructure and economic development in Afghanistan and Iraq, engaging diplomatically with neighboring countries, and strengthening the countries non-military instruments of power. This new kind of thinking was brilliantly codified in the Army's new counterinsurgency doctrine, which has helped transform the Iraq war and may yet lead that country to a healthy future, but the lessons did not go any higher. The US never adopted a grand strategy that integrated its instruments of power to rip terrorism out from the roots and build a better collective future.

That may be about to change.

Barack Obama's speech yesterday on American foreign policy was excellent. He proposes five pillars for a new grand strategy: "ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century." The strategy would essentially reallocate American resources--both military and non-military--to meet the most urgent foreign policy goals in the most effective ways. These include shifting our military might towards Afghanistan and Iraq, engaging with Iran, bolstering international security cooperation, and making positive investments to help Pakistan develop.

The speech was good in its own right, but several other news stories caught my eye. Barack Obama isn't the only person talking this way.

Yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made an unconventional speech at a meeting of NGO and business leaders. With Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice in attendance, Gates warned of increasing militarization of American foreign policy, and said that country's civilian institutions had been underfunded since the Cold War. This is not the first time that Secretary Gates has risen above Washington's turf wars. During a landmark speech in November at Kansas State University, he argued the same thing. When the Secretary of Defense argues that the country desperately needs stronger non-military institutions, it's time to listen.

In another story, President Bush has authorized the highest-level diplomatic engagement between the US and Iran since the 1979 Iranian revolution. The State Department's third-highest official will meet with Iran's nuclear negotiator, Sadeed Jalili, in Geneva. Despite all the tough talk and rhetoric on Iran, the administration's willingness to engage diplomatically shows how vital the need actually is. Iran's nuclear ambition is not a problem that can be solved with military force. Attempts to try (which John Bolton recommended in an op-ed yesterday) will be a disaster.

In a third story, the Army released its newest list of promotees to the rank of 1-star General. The selection board was presided over by none other than General Petraeus, and includes senior officers who helped develop and implement counterinsurgency doctrine in Iraq. These are brilliant officers who understand the complexity and subtlety of fighting terrorism and insurgency, and of building peace. Their promotion is a sign of the direction the US Armed Forces are moving.

Whether Barack Obama is elected president or not, the winds of change are in the air. American foreign policy is about to change--hopefully for the better.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Profile of Soft Power

The New York Times ran an editorial today by Nicholas D. Kristof that caught my eye: It Takes a School, Not Missiles. The article profiles Greg Mortenson, the author who wrote Three Cups of Tea and is now famous for building 74 schools in remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. The article offers a brief and insightful look at the ways the United States should be exercising "soft" power in its campaign against terrorism.

Kristof makes one striking comparison that deserves mention here: the cost of one Tomahawk cruise missile ($500,000+) would pay for the construction of 20 schools by aid agencies. As policymakers consider how to save Afghanistan and Pakistan from unraveling, this kind of calculus is worth paying attention to. According to Kristof, the Pentagon--"which has a much better appreciation for the limits of military power than the Bush administration as a whole"--is taking these ideas extremely seriously.