The face of America abroad

November 06, 2007|By Shawn Brimley and Vikram Singh

The complaints by diplomats at the State Department over the possibility of "directed assignments" to Baghdad provides a window into what should be a central debate regarding the future of American foreign policy: Who should be the face of America?

The State Department, like the military, is home to many of America's best and brightest. Foreign Service officers swear an oath to the Constitution and commit to a life of national service. Many volunteer to serve in war zones and other hardship posts.

Certainly, our diplomats should go where they are asked to, and if they do not believe in the mission, they should step aside.

In extreme circumstances, after years of war and numerous requests by Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, some directed assignments may be necessary.

But some concerns raised by diplomats are valid.

They note that many receive only two weeks of training for deployment to the chaos of Iraq and encounter poor security that can make it impossible to do their jobs. In these areas, their complaints ring true and reflect a broader crisis in the practice of American statecraft.

Most Americans are not aware that the State Department is a hollow shell of its Cold War-era self. Cuts throughout the 1990s hobbled our diplomats. These drawdowns mirrored cuts in defense, but they had a much more debilitating effect on the already small diplomatic corps. Vital tools of statecraft such as the U.S. Information Agency were eliminated, and the U.S. Agency for International Development was reduced to little more than a contracting organization. There are more members of U.S. military bands than Foreign Service officers.

Ms. Rice regularly notes that there are few military solutions to our major challenges overseas, including Iraq. Yet the administration has failed to demand meaningful increases in resources for diplomacy. Indeed, the Department of Defense seems most attuned to the crisis posed by our lack of "civilian capacity" deployable for service in weak or failing states. Defense has become the biggest advocate of beefing up State and USAID capabilities. Since 2006, the Defense Department has persuaded Congress to pass legislation that lets the military transfer up to $200 million to the State Department for urgent stabilization and reconstruction missions. This unusual transfer authority was born of Pentagon frustration with civilian resource constraints. After all, where civilians are not present, military men and women manage efforts for which they have little training, from negotiating with local tribes to setting up community centers.

Many older military and diplomatic veterans note with frustration that America has performed better in the past. In the later years of the Vietnam War, thousands of diplomats and military officers trained and worked together in joint civilian-led teams. In those days, turf battles over jurisdiction and money were sidelined, and civilians and military officers worked, fought and died together. These teams, generally credited with vastly increasing the efficiency of various aid and pacification programs, are widely held to be a rare success in the waning years of America's Vietnam disaster. The attempts made so far in Iraq and Afghanistan, most notably through "Provincial Reconstruction Teams," have failed to integrate capabilities as effectively.

Ultimately, this problem is about much more than Iraq; it strikes at the heart of how America chooses to connect with and understand the world. Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is right that the United States needs to be "persistently engaged" in the world. The struggles in Iraq and Afghanistan may end someday, but the types of challenges they pose - defeating violent militants, protecting innocent populations, facilitating difficult political processes, building and protecting essential services - will occur in the future. Lacking civilians with proper training and resources, American leaders will rely on the military, and the face America presents to the world will always be framed by a combat helmet and wraparound sunglasses.

American leaders know this is not the best way to do business, and our military does not want to be alone in the world taking on jobs better done by civilians. The American people expect that our diplomats and aid workers will go where they are needed and when they are asked. But unprotected, inadequately prepared civilians in a war zone are in no one's interest. Our elected officials must start giving our diplomatic corps the resources and training it needs to again be the face of America abroad.

Shawn Brimley (sbrimley@cnas.org) and Vikram Singh (vsingh@cnas.org) are fellows at the Center for a New American Security.

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