Argument

Obama’s Big, New Counterterrorism Plan Is a Hot Mess

Obama’s Big, New Counterterrorism Plan Is a Hot Mess

President Barack Obama defended his foreign policy this week, speaking to the graduating cadets at West Point. For the most part, it was a re-articulation of things he has said before. We can’t go to war every time there is a problem around the world, and we can’t retreat from the world. But we are still the "indispensible" and "exceptional" nation, with global responsibilities.

The president asserted that "our military has no peer" and "the odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War." Despite the acknowledgement that the nation has never been more secure, the president went straight for the tried-and-true theme that "terrorism" is the gravest danger facing the nation.

In fact, the only new, substantive proposal he put forward in the entire speech was to create a "Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund" (CPF) of up to $5 billion to strengthen U.S. partners in what can only be seen as a plan to revive George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism, a label the Obama administration disavowed when it first came into office. And oddly, the proposal appears to contradict the president’s own previous policy views on security assistance programs, in general.

According to my conversations with the executive branch and the Hill, this new fund was sprung on an uninformed nation and an un-consulted Congress without a lot of warning. In fact, it seems neither the Defense Department (DoD) nor the State Department knew much about the idea until very late in the game; the White House and its budget office seem to be doing the work. 

But even more to the point, there are two big problems with this new 600-pound counterterrorism gorilla. First, the CPF is stepping all over previously created authorities and accelerates a decade-long trend toward the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. It asks the military to solve this global security dilemma regardless of existing authorities and programs — or the military’s own competence outside its combat lane.

Apparently, the White House paid scant attention to the past when it came to this new "plan." There are already four existing programs, created over the past decade, for global counterterrorism assistance: Section 1206, Section 1208, Global Lift and Sustain, and the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF). And then there’s the large security assistance program called Foreign Military Financing, which the State Department has overseen (and the Pentagon has implemented) for decades.

Section 1206 was created 10 years ago to provide counterterrorism assistance on a global basis, by supporting equipment, training, and services for security forces in other countries. It is funded through the defense budget, but the projects are developed by the "country team" in the embassies and approved by the ambassador and, ultimately by Defense and State together. In fact, it seems to be working well, leading the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) this year to legislate it as a permanent statutory authority, with up to $500 million in resources. 

Section 1208 was created at the same time to allow the Special Operations forces to spend up to $50 million a year (upped to $60 million in the SASC bill) on counterterrorism support globally. (That said, the Pentagon’s Special Operations command, according to my conversations, would want even more.)

Global Lift and Sustain emerged in the same time frame as a global authority, capped at $100 million a year, to support using U.S. lift and logistical capabilities to get less-well funded partners come to the counterterrorism party, largely in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF) was created in 2011 to provide up to $200 million in support to the security sectors of other countries. Projects are to be jointly developed by State and the Pentagon, thus easing the tension between the two departments about who had the lead in security assistance. That tension grew out of expanding DoD involvement in training and equipping security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See this report by the Stimson Center, where my co-author and I discuss this jungle of programs.)

The relationship of the proposed CPF to the rest of this organizational muddle and to the president’s existing security assistance policy is entirely unclear. In fact, it seems like that question was not even considered as the CPF proposal was put together. Moreover, there are absolutely no details available in this $5 billion proposal. The "Fact Sheet" on the proposal — one paragraph long — makes it clear that this is a DoD effort (it would be part of the Pentagon’s budget request for war costs) called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget. (At the last minute and after State objections, the White House fact sheet added that some of the funds could be spent on security and stabilization assistance "together with the State Department.")

Nor are there any details on what the $5 billion will be spent on. Is it anything different from the roughly $1 billion that DoD already spends providing counterterrorism and security sector assistance? Who gets to decide on the projects or pick the partners? Will the CPF seek new legislative authority or simply pour a lot of new money into existing pockets (which would require asking Congress to raise all those funding ceilings noted above or allow transfers from DoD funds for operations into the activities those other funds already support)? I wish I had some answers.

In other words, the CPF proposal smacks of a top-down, half-baked initiative that is unrelated to existing programs. Moreover, it runs directly counter to the president’s own policy directive on security assistance (PPD-23) issued only a year ago.

At the risk of unloading a long quote, that directive made it clear that U.S. security assistance programs should: "[F]oster United States Government policy coherence and interagency collaboration. Transparency and coordination across the United States Government are needed to integrate security sector assistance into broader strategies, synchronize agency efforts, reduce redundancies, minimize assistance-delivery timelines, ensure considerations of the full range of policy and operational equities, improve data collection, measure effectiveness, enhance and sustain the United States Government’s security sector assistance knowledge and skills, and identify gaps." 

That’s a mouthful of Washingtonese. And clearly the administration’s new proposal pays no heed to this pile of words. The White House is scrambling now to do the prep work and the interagency coordination they should have done before the proposal was made.

Presidential speechmaking needs seem to have trumped policy in the case of the CPF. n> The single paragraph in the fact sheet makes it clear that this new fund would dramatically accelerate the trend toward the military becoming a global counterterrorism avenging angel and the hub for security assistance funding, a responsibility that once belonged to the State Department and was slowly making its way back to Foggy Bottom.

But there’s an even more serious issue at stake here: the revival of Bush’s Global War on Terror. Terror, after all, is a tactic — not an "ism." It appears for different reasons in different countries. One size does not fit all. Not every terror-using organization, awful as the tactic is, constitutes a threat, directly or indirectly to the United States. But now the administration seems to be stepping out on a global fight. In other words, the White House is dangerously overreaching here, and using the wrong department to execute its overreach.

There are at least three reasons why this poorly conceived blunt instrument is a bad idea. First, it is not clear the U.S. military does this job very well. Seven decades of U.S. security assistance, most of it provided by DoD and the military, have never been subjected to systematic evaluation. So we have no idea, over time, whether any of these programs have accomplished the goals originally set out, whatever they were (and mostly they have not been set out at all). If the performance over the past three years of Iraqi forces and the likely performance of Afghan security forces is any guide, don’t expect stability, transparency, effectiveness, and a lack of corruption to spring forth from the barren soil of the CPF’s new partners. The track record is not great; now the administration wants to quintuple down on the existing counterterrorism security assistance investment.

Second, announcing a global mission supported by $5 billion in resources could very easily lead to the opposite of what is intended. Instead of strengthening U.S. partners, such programs could drag Washington into the internal affairs of an ever-expanding series of relationships with troubling governments abroad, whose weaknesses and failures could entail further, and deeper, U.S. involvement. This trend is already emerging in the rapid growth of U.S. involvement in the internal security situations of more than 20 African countries.

Third, counterterror, security-sector assistance programs run a strong risk of empowering forces in recipient countries that, in turn, become problems for underpowered civilian governments. History suggests that, all too often, well-armed, somewhat trained security forces in countries with unstable or weak governance become the government themselves, with negative consequences for stability and the health of the population. Just take the case of Mali, where a U.S.-trained captain, Amadou Sanogo, carried out a coup in 2012, leading to the disintegration of the Malian military, a nearly successful Islamic extremist revolt, and the need for foreign intervention.  

The sudden appearance of a new security assistance program that seems to shift U.S. policy and program attention even more toward support for foreign security forces increases the risk of this outcome. In the long run, this is not in the national security interests of the United States. And I can’t imagine the Pentagon will be entirely thrilled with the responsibility for executing it either.