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Is the military invading the State Department?

Is the military invading the State Department?

By Christian Brose

Responding to Dov Zakheim (and Kori Schake), Nick Gvosdev over at The Washington Realist asks a great question:

I am genuinely interested to know whether there is serious consideration about creating a pipeline that would take retiring active duty military officers who have many of the nation-building skills needed by State–as well as the relevant management experience, and oftentimes language and cultural expertise–and be able to transition them into the Department of State? After years of promises, the civilian response corps that was supposed to be able to step up to the plate has what, a few dozen people assigned to it?

The answer is, yes, there was serious consideration of this idea, at least during the time I was there. Back in 2005-06, what Nick suggests was pushed and supported by the Policy Planning staff, among others, and seriously considered by Secretary Rice. The Foreign Service, however, hated it for obvious and unfortunate reasons. The thought that some military officer would move laterally into a mid-career diplomatic or civilian post in the State Department, jumping ahead of Foreign Service officers who had served their time stamping visas in Botswana or someplace, was a non-starter for the institutional Foreign Service. And needless to say, no military officer worth a damn would retire after a decade or so in uniform to stamp visas in Botswana with 24-year-olds fresh out of their A-100 class. Sadly, the idea never went anywhere.

I remember in the fall of 2006 asking one U.S. Army officer whether mid-career entry into the State Department appealed to him, and he answered emphatically, yes. He was a veteran of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as I recall. He had maybe a dozen years of experience — managing people, programs, resources, and working overseas. He loved to serve, but he could see the writing on the wall. He knew he wasn’t destined for brass on his shoulders, and the thought of moving to work as a civilian or Foreign Service Officer thrilled him. He would do it in a second if he could. I imagine this guy is much more the rule than the exception within our military today.

This is just one little glimpse into the much larger challenge that is reforming the State Department — and not to be forgotten, USAID, which as an institution has never really accepted that it is part of the foreign policy of the U.S. government (a more important part than ever), as opposed to a purely humanitarian organization. Despite my previous flip remarks, I am all in favor of the idea behind "smart power" — better aligning the tools of diplomacy, defense, and development. More resources are essential, but pouring more money into the State Department and USAID as they are currently constituted will not create better outcomes. Much of the good work done at State is done despite the fact that the institution all too often limits individual initiative and plays to the lowest common denominator.

In fact, getting more money for State and USAID will actually be the easy part. But real change requires institutionalizing the thinking behind "smart power" — which really requires creating an entirely new set of assumptions and expectations about what life today as a diplomat will be (hint: more dangerous, more lonely, and less glamorous). Another hint: this will be extremely unpopular with much of the Foreign Service. These new assumptions and expectations are alive in some of our diplomatic corps, especially the youngest members. But unless you fundamentally change the incentive structures of the institution they are heading into, it will break these promising young diplomats just as it has so many before them.

I hope Obama and Clinton are willing to tackle this larger challenge, and if they do, I will be pulling hard for them to succeed.