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Gates’ Counteroffer to Rebalance Civilian-Military Aspects of National Security

As reported on Monday, the Pentagon didn’t embrace Stuart Bowen’s proposal to create a new agency — the U.S. Office of Contingency Operations — to help plan and coordinate civilian-military operations in conflict and post-conflict zones and failed states. But that’s not to say that Robert Gates, the secretary of defense, thinks that defense, diplomacy and development are currently well balanced or that U.S. foreign policy doesn’t lean too heavily on the military. He made that clear enough in a speech tonight to the Nixon Center.

Gates started out by outlining a new — or, viewed historically, restored — long-term core mission for the U.S. security apparatus: improving the capabilities of foreign partner militaries and security services. The general idea is that the more and the earlier the U.S. strengthens the ability of its partners to keep the peace, the lower the need for the U.S. military to be deployed to failing states in the future.

That’s something of a consensus position among Washington foreign policy circles — especially after the training missions in Afghanistan and Iraq — but Gates criticized the Pentagon and the military services for not organizing themselves sufficiently for the scope of the task. “We are unlikely to repeat a mission on the scale of Iraq or Afghanistan anytime soon – that is, forced regime change followed by nation-building under fire,” Gates said. “But, as the department’s Quadrennial Defense Review recently concluded, we are still likely to face scenarios calling on a similar tool-kit of capabilities, albeit on a smaller scale.”

Beyond that mission, Gates outlined a long-term vision for how the Pentagon and the State Department can collaboratively rebalance U.S. capabilities for foreign missions. It revolves around sharing money between the two agencies, which is a very big deal: the Defense Department budget, over half a trillion dollars annually, is literally an order of magnitude greater than the State Department’s. This deserves to be quoted at length:

Last year, I sent Secretary Clinton one proposal I see as a starting point of discussion for the way ahead. It would involve pooled funds set up for security capacity building, stabilization, and conflict prevention. Both the State and Defense Departments would contribute to these funds, and no project could move forward without the approval of both agencies. What I found compelling about this approach is that it would actually incentivize collaboration between different agencies of our government, unlike the existing structure and processes left over from the Cold War, which often conspire to hinder true whole-of-government approaches.

Regardless of what approach we take to reform and modernize America’s partner capacity apparatus – whether it is something like the proposal I just mentioned or some other arrangement – it should be informed by the following principles.

First, it must provide agility and flexibility. Under normal budgeting and programming cycles, a budget is put together in one year, considered and passed by the congress in the second, and then executed in the third. For predictable, ongoing requirements this is appropriate and manageable. But, as recent history suggests, it is not well suited to the emerging and unforeseen threats – or opportunities – coming most often from failed and fragile states.

Second, there must be effective oversight mechanisms that allow for the Congress to conduct its constitutional responsibilities to ensure that, with more discretion and flexibility given to the executive branch, these funds are spent properly. Tools that foster cooperation across the executive branch could also enhance cooperation across jurisdictional boundaries among Congressional committees – thereby actually strengthening Congressional oversight in the national security arena.

Third, our security assistance efforts writ large must be steady and long-term, in part to provide some measure of predictability and planning for our government, but more significantly, for our relationships abroad. Convincing other countries and leaders to be a partner of the United States, often at political and physical risk, ultimately depends on proving that our own government is capable of being a reliable partner over time. To be blunt, that means we cannot cut off assistance and relationships every time a country does something we dislike or disagree with.

Fourth, whatever we do should reinforce the State Department’s lead role in crafting and conducting U.S. foreign policy, to include foreign assistance, of which building security capacity is a key part. Proper coordination and concurrence procedures will ensure that urgent military capacity building requirements do not undermine America’s overarching foreign policy priorities.

Finally, everything we do must be suffused with strong doses of modesty and realism. When all is said and done, there are limits to what even the United States can do to influence the direction of countries and cultures radically different than our own. And even the most enlightened and modernized interagency apparatus is still a bureaucracy, prone to the same parochial and self-serving tendencies as the system it replaced.

There’s a lot of detail that needs to be established here. But it’s the first offering from an Obama administration official to outline an institutional approach to a unified foreign policy looking beyond the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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