So much for leading through civilian power

So much for leading through civilian power

According to the New York Times, the administration is reconsidering its commitment to maintain in Iraq the largest civilian mission the U.S. has ever attempted. Drawing down the U.S. mission in Iraq is the right choice. But while the Time‘s article attempts to cast the policy shift as the result of declining U.S. influence in Iraq, it is really more a story of incapacity by the State Department to scope, plan, and carry out diplomatic missions of the breadth and difficulty posed by circumstances in Iraq. Those circumstances are largely of the Obama administration’s making, as they set arbitrary timelines for our military drawdown that exacerbated tensions within Iraq while ignoring Prime Minister’s al Maliki’s creeping authoritarianism.

The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review championed the mission in glowing terms: "In Iraq, we are in the midst of the largest military-to-civilian transition since the Marshall Plan. Our civilian presence is prepared to take the lead, secure the military’s gains, and build the institutions necessary for long-term stability." None of those objectives has been achieved. It was an odd choice by the State Department to make Iraq the flagship of "smart power," given that the White House has consistently conveyed that President Obama just wants Iraq off the agenda. The president never invested in getting from Congress the resources necessary — even if the State Department had the capacity to carry out its ambitious plans.

Nevertheless, the State Department’s plan for maintaining two thousand diplomats — protected and supported by 15,000 other civilian personnel — was a terribly cost-ineffective program fraught with potential for disaster. Outside review of the department’s plan by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the Commission on Wartime Contracting, and every other outside source highlighted the crucial dependence on mobility that was both vulnerable and reliant on civilian contractors (the majority of them non-American) with the authority to use deadly force. Why the government of Iraq would grant immunity from prosecution to civilian contractors when it denied immunity to better trained military personnel was only one among many questionable planning assumptions.

The discouraging truth is that despite the State Department’s bold assertions in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review that it will lead through civilian power, its handling of the transition to civilian leadership of our mission in Iraq demonstrates how very far we have yet to go to build a diplomatic corps with the ability to think their way through what is needed in a complex environment like Iraq, design a program of engagement and activity, staff and finance its operations to achieve its objectives. What the State Department fails at is not the high politics of preserving American influence with Iraq’s leaders, but the quotidian programmatics that build that influence in the first place.

Our country needs a State Department that is genuinely the peer of our military forces: as intellectually agile, as adaptable, as committed to carrying out the decisions of our elected political leadership. We do not now have such a diplomatic corps, and it badly impedes our ability to shape the international order in ways conducive to American interests. It will take a much greater investiture of political and managerial attention to build that State Department, but it is very much in our interests to continue reforming the State Department so that it could plan and carry out a civilian mission of complexity like that which is now needed in Iraq.