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Silence isn’t Golden: State needs to weigh in on security assistance August 2, 2010

Posted by Rebecca Williams in Analysis.
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Sections of the recently released QDR independent review panel report sound an awful lot like what you might hear from the pinstriped crowd at Foggy Bottom:

  • A “comprehensive approach” is needed to address the today’s challenges;
  • “USG efforts should also include those of our allies and partners, NGOS, and provide voluntary organizations, international organizations”;
  • “Broader reforms to expand the scope and flexibility of our security assistance programs are essential.”

The stark difference, however, is that the panel concludes that the Pentagon, not the civilian agencies, should be taking the lead in security assistance. Entirely lost in the mix is the reality that these are neither the Pentagon’s prerogatives nor decisions.

The military’s fundamental role is in support of civilian-defined objectives.  The military most certainly should provide advice, input, and skill into foreign assistance decisions and execution.  It should not, however, get to decide based on military missions alone where, for what purposes, and under what guidelines, it should be provided. As cautioned in Spring 2009 by Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an imbalance in the civil-military relationship results in the militarization of US foreign policy, resulting in “doing things that we had not planned on doing, had not trained to do.”

The Pentagon’s QDR and the independent review panel report both assert that DOD should play a central and increased role in US security assistance.  In general, this type of aid provides foreign militaries with US training and equipment that bolsters the capacity of their forces to address security concerns, so that the US will not have to deploy its own military.

DOD has always had an important role in US security and related foreign assistance.  For decades the Department has provided immediate transport, logistics, and aid in response to humanitarian disasters and is the primary implementer of traditional security assistance.

Within the last ten years, however, DOD has taken on a much greater role in planning, budgeting, and implementation of security and foreign assistance programs, a trend accelerated in particular by Iraq, Afghanistan, and global counterterrorism operations.  These additional tasks are on top of traditional military missions, including, among others, defending US sovereignty, major combat operations, durance and assurance.

To be fair -and as the independent panel points out- the Department of State currently lacks much of the capacity and capability to take on the additional security assistance programs currently tasked to DOD.  Resources are an issue for civilian agencies even in times of economic stability, and while the International Affairs (Function 150) Account has grown, civilian foreign policy agencies continue to face serious personnel shortfalls.  The resource imbalance and the strong DoD interest in partner development creates an outsized role for DoD in the policy decision process and in overseeing and managing these programs.

While the Pentagon increasingly views the business of providing foreign militaries with equipment and training as a core mission, the State Department has yet to weigh in decisively on the issue.  More than 7 months have passed since Defense Secretary Gates sent Secretary Clinton a memo suggesting pooled resources for future security assistance programs, suggesting codifying the imbalance in the future.  State has yet to officially respond.  The QDR and the independent panel make huge assumptions about DOD’s future role in security assistance, and the independent panel went so far as to endorse all three of Gates’ pooled-funds.

Security assistance may not be the most popular issue at Foggy Bottom (even though it has been a mainstay of US foreign engagement for decades) but by not aggressively claiming State’s responsibilities and authorities in this area, State is neglecting its role to ensure that all security assistance is carried out in according with US foreign policy goals and interests.

Continued silence on the civilian side risks a decision by default rather than by design.

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