Strengthening Civilian Capacity and DOD’s Expanded Assistance Portfolio

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By David Glaudemans – Secretary of Defense Robert Gates surprised his audience at KansasStateUniversity in November 2007 when he said that the US needs to strengthen the civilian national security agencies’ capabilities – namely, the State Department and USAID.The foreign affairs community embraced Secretary Gates and his call to strengthen State and USAID.Many in fact now see the Defense Department as State’s strongest ally in the civilian agencies’ bid for more resources.

Yet, the Defense Department (DOD) that Secretary Gates leads has taken steps that impinge on, and weaken the capacity of civilian agencies to lead and conduct foreign policy, particularly in the areas of security assistance and reconstruction and stabilization (R&S).

Traditionally, DOD has implemented State-planned and budgeted security assistance programs. Today DOD is expanding its existing assistance authorities and creating its own new programs planned and managed by the Secretary of Defense. With these new and expanded authorities, DOD has taken on a greater and more direct role in policy-making, direction and funding of security assistance programs and R&S activities.Furthermore, despite Secretary Gates’ call to strengthen civilian agencies, DOD is seeking global and permanent authority for many of these programs. So far, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has acquiesced in this expansion of the DOD role in security assistance and R&S.

In effect, the new programs at DOD expand DOD’s role in a policy area that traditionally belongs to the Secretary of State.The net result is that the civilian agencies are actually weakened; US foreign policy and development goals could conflict with military objectives; America’s overseas engagement is increasingly executed by the military; and the military is expanding into areas outside its core competence.

There are significant, long-term consequences of this trend.First, civilian agencies are weakened because DOD becomes the default agency for international security and foreign engagement. The expertise and goals of the civilian agencies in both diplomacy and development are marginalized when the military takes the lead on foreign assistance and foreign engagement. The civilian agencies are also weakened in the budget process with Congress.With DOD as the default agency, it is easy for Congress to justify reducing State and USAID’s budget, further constraining already underfunded agencies.

Second, DOD’s increased role directing and managing security assistance and R&S programs could pose conflict with overall US foreign policy.While the State Department remains the lead foreign policy agency of the US government in Washington, at the field level, the military increasingly operates with little input from civilian agencies.Integration and coordination with all US agencies dealing with foreign assistance and stabilization and reconstruction programs is essential for US foreign policy to succeed.The experiences of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo should be enough to indicate that field-level decisions and programs, with little to no civilian diplomatic input, have significant ramifications for US foreign policy and national security.

Third, US foreign engagement is increasingly militarized through these new and expanded DOD authorities.Americans may not see an inherent problem with soldiers taking the lead in stabilization and reconstruction, training, and governance, but in countries where those in uniform are viewed with suspicion, a military presence in such missions can be counterproductive. Here, too, without civilian diplomatic engagement, there is a potential for conflict with US foreign policy goals and long-term interests in the field.

Finally, by taking the lead in security assistance and R&S, DOD detracts from the military’s core mission.Soldiers are trained to fight in combat, yet they are now asked to perform functions traditionally suited to a Foreign Service Officer or a development specialist.This puts further strain on an already fragile military that is not trained to act as humanitarians or stabilizers.

Secretary Gates’ call to strengthen civilian agencies is well-intentioned and admirable; civilian agencies are still understaffed, underfunded and poorly organized for many of the national security challenges the US faces today.But the solution to this weakened civilian capacity is to adequately staff, fund and organize the civilian agencies for the challenges ahead instead of turning increasingly to the military to solve America’s foreign policy problems.

photo credit: Department of Defense 

David Glaudemans is a Research Associate with the Budgeting for Foreign Affairs and Defense project.

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