The American Leviathan
The Obama administration has acknowledged the problem. In its budget for 2010, it calls for 1,300 new foreign service officers, and it is planning a near doubling of the State Department's foreign aid budget from 2008 levels--a step in the right direction, say aid workers and diplomats, but not nearly enough to meet the department's commitments. "I have never seen a better opportunity to rebalance the tool kit," says Gordon Adams, a Clinton administration national security expert and now a professor at the American University's School of International Service. "But there remains a serious discontinuity between the structure of Defense and the structure at State. One of the many questions [Secretary of State] Clinton will have to answer is how to deal with the military on a regional basis overseas."
It is overseas, after all, where US foreign policy is implemented, and it is there that the State Department's authority is so plainly obscured by the Pentagon's shadow. As part of a broader effort to reform the Defense Department's chain of command, the world was divided into operational zones in 1986. The centrality of these regional commands and the men who lead them--the best-known is Gen. David Petraeus, head of Central Command, or Centcom, which is responsible for US security efforts from the Persian Gulf to Central Asia--has increased as the Pentagon endows them with ever larger missions and budgets. In particular, the combatant commander has the authority to fund military cooperation agreements with governments in his area of responsibility, a mandate that was once concentrated within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. That prerogative alone gives the commanders enormous prestige with host governments at a time when their civilian counterparts, from ambassadors on down, have been pauperized by spending cuts that date back to Senator Jesse Helms's war on foreign aid in the 1990s.
In general, ambassadors and combatant commanders find common ground on many issues. But tensions, particularly in time of war, are inevitable. In 2003 then-Centcom commander Gen. John Abizaid wanted to build a $99 million counterterrorism facility in Jordan at the request of Jordanian King Abdullah II. The project was opposed as a needless extravagance by Edward Gnehm, US Ambassador to Jordan at the time. So Abizaid went around Gnehm by funding the training facility from his own budget, according to a source with intimate knowledge of the matter. (An e-mailed request to Abizaid's office for comment was not returned.) The New York Times reported on March 8, 2006, that for about two years the Pentagon had been dispatching Military Liaison Elements--special operations teams tasked with gathering intelligence on suspected terrorists and ways to destroy them--to various countries without the US ambassadors' knowledge. In Niger two years ago, the US chief of mission cut back the number of entry visas for US military personnel because of the country's political fragility and because the embassy lacked the resources to accommodate them, according to a report by the Government Accountability Office.
If Command Strategy 2016 is anything to go by, however, the Pentagon has no intention of waiting around. Issued in March 2007, it describes Southern Command, or Southcom, which has responsibility for Latin America and the Caribbean, as a Joint Interagency Security Command that would "provide enabling capabilities to focus and integrate interagency-wide efforts to address the full range of regional capabilities." As Adm. James Stavridis, then-leader of Southcom, elaborated at the time, "We want to be like a big Velcro cube that these other agencies can hook to so we can collectively do what needs to be done in this region."
Needless to say, many of those "other agencies" are reluctant to go along for the ride, particularly given the US military's checkered history in Latin America, where the Pentagon first began working independently with foreign governments. In 1988 lawmakers passed a bill ordering the military to arrest the flow of narcotics into the United States from Mexico, intensifying the failed "war on drugs" and lending thrust to the Pentagon's neo-imperialist lunge into Latin America. "Southern Command should not be the coordinating agency, because then they become the face of US assistance in foreign regions," says George Withers, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America. "The agency that coordinates controls the agenda."
When he was chair of the Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Lugar dispatched aides around the world to quantify the effects of DoD's expanded presence overseas and its growing dominance of US security policy. The result was two reports--committee "prints," in Capitol Hill parlance--that provide an alarming account of how much of foreign policy has been ingested by the military. "As a result of inadequate funding for civilian programs," concludes the first of the two prints, released in December 2006, "US defense agencies are increasingly being granted authority and funding to fill perceived gaps. Such bleeding of civilian responsibilities overseas from civilian to military agencies risks weakening the Secretary of State's primacy in setting the agenda for US relations."
The report disparages the 12-to-1 spending ratio between the Pentagon and the State Department, which it says "risks the further encroachment of the military, by default, into areas where civilian leadership is more appropriate because it does not create resistance overseas and is more experienced." Left unchecked, it warns, the increase in the number of military personnel and Pentagon activities abroad could lead to "blurred lines of authority between the State Department and the Defense Department [and] interagency turf wars that undermine the effectiveness of the overall US effort against terrorism."
The report contains many examples of the need for civilian authority "to temper Defense Department enthusiasm." It cites an unnamed African country--"unstable, desperately poor, and run by a repressive government"--that appealed to the US military for help in fighting an insurgency. The Pentagon agreed and soon afterward hailed the nation as a "model country for security assistance." Civilian embassy officials, however, expressed concern at the proliferation of US military personnel there. "It would be a major setback," the print notes, "if the United States were to be implicated in support of operations shoring up the repressive regime, regardless of the stated intent of such training."
The wellspring for such operations is Section 1206 of the 2006 National Defense Authorization Act, which allocated the Pentagon $200 million to spend on lethal and nonlethal equipment, supplies and training to foreign militaries. Section 1206 remains a limited authority, though last year legislators extended its budgeting cycle to three years, added maritime security to its list of activities and topped up its allocation to $350 million. A key condition Congress laid down for 1206 approval--that the Pentagon submit its programs list to the State Department for "concurrence" or "dual-key" approval--remains. Despite this, 1206 funds have been invested in countries with highly autocratic governments.
The US government has a long history of bankrolling dictators in pursuit of strategic ends. But there is a difference between declaring such support as official policy--as is the case with Egypt, for example--and the Pentagon's dole, which Congress allots with only a perfunctory understanding of how the money will be spent. In August 2008 Senator Russell Feingold responded to the Pentagon's request for additional 1206 funding with a report that $6 million from the program had been given to the government of Chad, which according to the State Department is "engaging in extra-judicial killing, arbitrary detention and torture." Other recipients of 1206 funding are Algeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon and Tunisia, all of which have abysmal human rights records.
Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Condoleezza Rice. At the time, Senator Patrick Leahy wrote Rice several letters imploring her not to cede unprecedented power to the Pentagon. According to Paul Clayman, an attorney who has worked for the State Department as well as the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and others who were closely involved in the debate, the staff on Lugar's committee were staggered by Rice's passivity.
In April 2008 Rice and Gates testified jointly before the House Armed Services Committee. In addition to their mutual desire for augmentation of the Pentagon's Section 1206 channel, Rice also endorsed a new Pentagon-controlled allocation under Section 1207 of the defense bill that could fund State Department projects contingent on the defense secretary's approval. At one point, Rice was asked by Congressman Vic Snyder whether she still believed ambassadors should be the most senior representatives of US missions overseas. Naturally, Rice answered in the affirmative. What was striking was the fact that the question had to be asked in the first place.
Congress is now pushing back--sort of. In its version of the Pentagon's most recent supplemental budget, lawmakers stipulated that authority over the Pakistan counterinsurgency fund should reside with the State Department at the end of fiscal 2010. The House version of the bill called for State to assume immediate control of the fund, but the Senate prevailed in delaying the transfer, noting the department's "lack of capacity."
On the other hand, the House also appears to be leaning toward DoD in the 1206 debate. In a June report on the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2010, the House Armed Services Committee soft-pedaled its earlier position that 1206 programs should be transferred to State. Instead, it committed itself to the existing "dual key" framework and averred that "whatever the final, permanent form these authorities take, the Secretary of Defense must play a primary role in generating requirements." The report also asserts that "the Department of State still lacks the capacity to execute these authorities."
The Pentagon shows little inclination to relinquish its authority. An internal DoD memo issued last November characterized civilian agencies as too weak to help in counterinsurgency operations and declared that the Pentagon should be ready to lead such missions absent a "whole-of-government" approach. The document, leaked in January, warned that it would take civilian agencies at least a decade to develop the capacity to work effectively alongside the military. In February an unnamed "senior Pentagon official" told Inside the Pentagon, a weekly newsletter, that the military needed "a great deal of budgetary flexibility" in order to "proactively get ahead of problems before they become disasters." In May, Michael Vickers, soon to become assistant secretary of defense for special operations, told Congress it should increase spending "several fold" for funding under Section 1208, a budget mandate exclusive to the Pentagon in support of "foreign forces, irregular forces, [and] groups or individuals" engaged in combating terrorism. The oversight mechanism for 1208 programs is considerably less rigorous than those associated with 1206.
Civilian Washington, in other words, has reaped its own whirlwind. It was not a military cabal but a civilian cadre--Clinton in the 1990s, followed by Bush and his neoconservative courtiers--who expanded the reach and lethality of the military, despite the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the executioner of foreign policy, so much of which is now imposed from the business end of a Predator drone, why shouldn't the Pentagon serve also as its judge and jury? The answer, of course, is that America is a republic, a nation not of men but of laws, and the laws say foreign policy must be charted by civilians. Complacent politicians have neglected this trust, however, and the military now defines US interests abroad as much as it defends them. That is the bill for a leviathan. It is the wages of empire.