The American Leviathan | The Nation


The American Leviathan

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About the Author

Stephen Glain
Stephen Glain is a freelance journalist and author based in Paris. The paperback edition of his second book, State vs....

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Research support for this article was provided by the Puffin Foundation Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute.

News travels fast across the red desert bush of remote Djibouti. Even as US military reservists erect a field hospital around a cluster of tents and blockhouses near a desolate watering hole, dozens of tribespeople are waiting for treatment in orderly rows. They arrive with maladies of every sort: bad teeth, diarrhea, fevers, colds, arthritis. At the triage center, an elderly tribesman has had a thorn removed from his foot, a wound that had been infected for months. At the dental surgery station, Navy Lt. Bill Anderson, an orthodontist from Northfield, New Jersey, will over the next few hours extract a dozen rotting or impacted teeth using instruments that sparkle in the late-morning sun.

The reservists are attached to a Djibouti-based task force of some 1,800 soldiers, marines, sailors and Air Force personnel. Embedded with them is an aid specialist from the Agency for International Development, which provides guidance for the operation. She is reticent and refers questions to the agency's country leader, Stephanie Funk. The next day, Funk acknowledges that USAID's solitary representation on the triage mission is symptomatic of a new age in US foreign policy--one in which America, in peacetime as much as in war, is personified abroad more by soldiers than by civilians. "If we had the numbers and the money to do fieldwork, we would, but our budgets have been declining for years," Funk said in her office on the US Embassy compound in Djibouti City. "The Pentagon has got both numbers and money. For every fifty of them, there's only one of me."

Quietly, gradually--and inevitably, given the weight of its colossal budget and imperial writ--the Pentagon has all but eclipsed the State Department at the center of US foreign policy-making. The process began with the dawn of America's post-World War II global empire and deepened in the mid-1980s, with the expansion of worldwide combatant commands. It matured during the Clinton years, with the military's migration into humanitarian aid and disaster relief work, and accelerated rapidly with George W. Bush's declaration of endless conflict in the "global war on terror" and a near-doubling of military spending.

In addition to new weapons and war fighters, the Pentagon's budget now underwrites a cluster of special funds from which it can train and equip foreign armies--often in the service of repressive regimes--as well as engage in aid development projects in pursuit of its own tactical ends. Although these programs must be conducted with State Department approval and are subject to Congressional review, legislative oversight and interagency coordination is spotty at best. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is pushing for full discretionary control over these funds--a move that would render meaningless the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act, which concentrated responsibility for civilian and military aid programs within the State Department.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has lamented the resource gap between civilian and military agencies, most pointedly in a July 2008 speech, when he warned of the "creeping militarization" of foreign policy. He has wryly pointed out how, given the Defense Department's $664 billion budget compared with the State Department's $52 billion annual outlay, Washington employs more military band members than it does foreign service officers. No one at the Pentagon, however, is calling for the restoration of State Department primacy over foreign affairs and a proper budget to finance it. Rather, Defense officials speak of a civilian-military "partnership" in which, some fear, an underfunded State Department would be reduced to a mere subcontractor for Pentagon initiatives.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has suggested she will re-establish the State Department as the fountainhead of foreign policy. But she has said little about the Pentagon's expanded funding authority, and her embrace of what she calls "the three Ds" of her mission--defense, diplomacy and development--implies DoD's preoccupations are in concert with her own. Nor has she suggested she might allow greater autonomy for USAID, where officials grumble about how their work is as routinely politicized by the State Department as it is by the Pentagon. Indeed, Clinton has yet to name a new permanent director.

Though Clinton has presided over a marked increase in USAID's budget, diplomats and politicians say an overhaul is way overdue. "Without a more robust aid agency," Richard Lugar, the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in the August 9 Washington Post, "President Obama's pledge to double foreign assistance would be like adding a third story to a house that had a crumbling foundation." Lugar, along with Senator John Kerry, is promoting a bill that would give USAID the lead role in coordinating foreign assistance.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, is flexing its own policy-making muscle. As Bush's wars grew in scope, so too did the military's aid budget and its focus on nonlethal activities--what DoD once referred to as "military operations other than war." Now known by the conveniently vague and expansive handle of "stability operations," and funded by a war chest passed into law three years ago, these missions are often deeply at odds with the goals of diplomats and civilian aid workers. Perversely, the Pentagon is militarizing foreign policy even as it "civilianizes" the character of its activities abroad.

Civilians figure at least as heavily as generals and admirals in the pantheon of American militarism. It was George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld--with the collusion of Condoleezza Rice--who expanded and entrenched the Pentagon's franchise over foreign policy. Rumsfeld's contempt for civilian authority was demonstrated most clearly, and with devastating results, in the run-up to the war in Iraq. Aside from bulldozing the constitutional prerogatives of Secretary of State Colin Powell, he vigorously, if stealthily, subverted the nation's civilian leaders abroad. Before the US invasion, for example, he dispatched a three-man team to gather intelligence in several Middle Eastern states without informing the ambassadors of their activities, according to a source with intimate knowledge of the episode. The secret deployment has been widely interpreted as a direct violation of the executive Letter of Instruction to Chiefs of Mission, first signed by President Kennedy, which gave the US ambassador in his host country "full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all Department of Defense personnel on official duty."

Rumsfeld also blocked NGOs from any substantial role in postwar Iraq, soft-stalling their efforts to obtain licenses to enter pre-invasion Iraq and stonewalling their requests for information on procedures once Saddam Hussein's regime had been destroyed. "The plans were classified," Sandra Mitchell, then a vice president for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), said in an interview at the time. "We would get answers like, 'We're working on it. Don't worry. We'll be handling this.'"

The results were calamitous, and since then the Defense Department has aggressively sought the support and expertise of civilian aid groups--so much so that InterAction, a coalition of American NGOs, was compelled to issue a code of conduct to its members to lessen the chances for blowback, which often comes from working with the military. "To the extent that we become identified with the US military, we become compromised," says George Rupp, president and CEO of the IRC. "We're trying to keep it from changing the way we do business, but things may be changing whether we like it or not."

Despite the Foreign Assistance Act's stipulation of State Department authority, the Pentagon accounts for nearly a quarter of America's budget for overseas direct assistance--up from near zero a decade ago--while USAID's share has declined to 40 percent from 65 percent during the same period. Moreover, as the Pentagon's funding capacity has expanded, so has its foray into humanitarian aid and social development. Directive 3000.5, a November 2005 Pentagon mission statement, defines stability operations as "a core U.S. military mission" to be conducted "across the spectrum from peace to conflict, to establish or maintain order in States and regions." It tasks US forces to develop, among other things, "a viable market economy, rule of law, democratic institutions, and a robust civil society," including "various types of security forces, correctional facilities, and judicial systems."

Any mission conducted "from peace to conflict...in States and regions" is by definition everlasting and all-encompassing, and Directive 3000.5 chills the foreign aid and diplomatic community. The document concedes that humanitarian and development work is often best performed by civilian experts, and it encourages their input. But it also makes clear that "US military forces shall be prepared to perform all tasks necessary to establish or maintain order when civilians cannot do so."

The Pentagon says it needs its own aid budget because assistance programs run by the State Department are overly bureaucratic. It argues that aid developed and administered directly by the Defense Department, such as the Pentagon's recent appeal for $400 million in emergency funding to train and equip the Pakistani army, will be more responsive and yield faster results. Critics respond that such a narrow focus on military concerns will crowd out other foreign policy priorities like the promotion of human rights, education and healthcare. "If DoD is concerned that civilian-led processes are too slow, then let's talk about how we fix those processes," says Gregory Elias Adams of Oxfam America. "Let's have a conversation about how the interagency process is broken and needs to be fixed. If civilian agencies do not have capacity to contribute to the mission, it will be military imperatives that carry the day."

In the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs, former ambassador J. Anthony Holmes noted how in June 2008 the State Department had only 10 percent more diplomats and support staff than it had a quarter-century ago, when there were twenty-four fewer countries in the world and US interests were concentrated in Europe and Northeast Asia. Unlike the military, which bases a fifth of its 1.6 million active-duty servicepeople overseas, the diplomatic corps posts nearly three-quarters of its people abroad. As a result, Holmes argues, the State Department lacks "surge capacity," the ability to train and retrain personnel or rotate them to hot spots without having to leave their posts empty in the interim.

Absent a far more aggressive restructuring of civilian aid and diplomatic agencies, their dependence on the military will only intensify. In April the White House backed away from a pledge to staff hundreds of posts in Afghanistan with civilians for lack of funding and said it would instead turn to the Pentagon. Meanwhile, efforts to set up an expeditionary corps of some 2,500 civilians under State Department leadership have snagged on interagency snits, Congressional lethargy and funding constraints.

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