Obama’s New Strategy Needs Better Tools


Plenty o Work for All
Plenty of Work to Do

President-Elect Obama stated that he was going to pursue a new strategy to meet The nation’s foreign policy challenges head on:

Speaking to reporters, Mr. Obama said he would devote new energy to diplomacy and other nonmilitary aspects of U.S. global power. “The national-security challenges we face are just as grave and just as urgent as our economic crisis,” he said. “To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy; our intelligence and law enforcement; our economy and the power of our moral example.”  The comments reflect Mr. Obama’s stance that the Bush administration’s handling of conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from an overreliance on the military and a failure to devote enough resources to political reconciliation and economic development in those nations.

A senior Obama aide said the incoming administration will create teams of diplomats and other civilian officials who can be quickly deployed overseas after natural disasters or political upheavals to help fragile countries get back on their feet. [Emph Added]

Building the capacity of the U.S. Government to operate in the post Cold War world is long overdue.  Both of the past administrations identified the requirement to enhance the effectiveness of the elements of national power, and pursued it, with mixed results; certainly, both President Clinton as well as the current President have been stung by the limitations of some of the agencies in practice.

Last year, for instance, reports noted that State Department personnel refused to deploy to Iraq to meet critical mission requirements there:

[T]he White House is calling for more American civilians to head not only to those countries, but also to some of their most hostile regions — including Iraq’s volatile Anbar Province — to try to establish democratic institutions and help in reconstruction.    .    . Many U.S. employees have outright refused repeated requests that they go to Iraq, while others have demanded that they be assigned only to Baghdad and not be sent outside the more secure Green Zone, which includes the American Embassy and Iraqi government ministries.   .   . The issue flared this week when Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified at a Senate hearing that he shared the concerns of officers who complained about a request from Rice’s office that military personnel temporarily fill more than one-third of 350 new jobs in Iraq that the State Department is supposed to be responsible for.

When the Bush administration attempted to create, uh, teams of diplomats and other civilian officials who can quickly be deployed overseas to help fragile countries get back on their feet, there was a great deal of institutional resistance to answering the call. The military of course, filled the void for the time being, unwilling to leave a vacuum when other government agencies were unable, or worse, unwiling, to meet their requirements.


PRT Members Attend School Opening in Gardez, Afghanistan
PRT Members Attend School Re-Opening in Gardez, Afghanistan


Perhaps the Obama administration will succeed in re-framing the issue, and truly add the power element to soft power; however, when the next administration calls for Foreign Service officers, Agricultural Specialists, or Economic advisers to deploy to Afghanistan, or to Darfur, or elsewhere in harm’s way, will the bureaucracy’s culture have changed enough to respond effectively?

Above and beyond changing the culture at some of the staid government agencies, modifying the way that the U.S. Government actually organizes and responds to crises is long overdue as well, and even more critical. Virtually every major foreign policy endeavor of the past two decades is replete with problems arising from the inability of multiple U.S. government agencies to operate effectively together.  Shortcomings inherent within  the so-called interagency process squander precious resources, waste time, and, more often than not, jeopardize the achievement of major foreign policy objectives. 

Earlier this year, the Project on National Security Reform issued a report identifying many of the issues now plaguing the outmoded national security apparatus:

Too often, the president himself is forced to settle disputes between cabinet secretaries, taking up his valuable time and preventing him from engaging in the broader policymaking and leadership that should be his central focus, according to the study. One example of the problems federal agencies have working with each other is their difficulty in sharing information.  Agencies label some information as “classified” and some as “sensitive but unclassified” – keeping it out of the hands of other agencies. Some agencies have computer systems that don’t talk to those at other agencies. And some federal agencies don’t share enough information with state and local governments, which can be a problem in an area such as working to prevent terrorist attacks in the United States. In addition to infighting within the Executive Branch, national security is adversely affected by committees in Congress with overlapping jurisdictions that oversee different parts of the national security system, according to the PNSR report. “Protection of turf and power occurs in the committees of both houses of Congress,” the report says. “The process for multiple committee consideration of multi-agency matters is difficult, confused, and inconsistent between chambers.” The report also finds that the federal government needs to do more to develop the leadership abilities of civilian officials in the national security system. While leadership development is emphasized in the military, “civilian agencies involved in national security have traditionally valued specialization and expertise over leadership and management skills.”

It’s promising that President-Elect Obama and some of his key cabinet members have spoken about the need for National Security reform. However, talking about the problem is the easy part; until the administration and Congress take concrete actions to make the government more effective, many government agencies will fall short, and the military will fill in the void, As Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted in a recent article:

 Interagency efforts are crucial to progress in Afghanistan, Mullen said.  “We can build roads and schools and courts, and our provincial reconstruction teams are doing just that, but until we have represented in those teams more experts from the fields of commerce, agriculture, jurisprudence and education, those facilities will remain but empty shells,” he said.  Fewer than one in 20 PRTs throughout the country are supported by nonmilitary personnel, the chairman said. The military is just part of the answer, the admiral said. The military can provide security, but Afghanistan needs more than soldiers, it needs more commerce, more learning, and more justice, he told the lawmakers, noting that Afghanistan needs foreign investment, sound governance, alternative crops to poppy and the rule of law.

NOTE: The military, surprisingly enough, studies and writes about the need for interagency reform more than any other government entity (usually framed as a Goldwater-Nichols II type act), much more so than the State Department or other government agencies that frequently complain about Defense’s overbearing presence in any given endeavor.


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