Shadow Government

Don’t blame the State Department for its own starvation

By Kori Schake Gary Schaub has an op-ed in today’s New York Times on the disparity between State and Defense. Here’s the heart of it: Not surprisingly, the State Department has trouble pulling its weight — and the Defense Department fills the void…. General Petraeus oversees Central Command — America’s military presence in the Middle ...

By Kori Schake

Gary Schaub has an op-ed in today’s New York Times on the disparity between State and Defense. Here’s the heart of it:

Not surprisingly, the State Department has trouble pulling its weight — and the Defense Department fills the void….

General Petraeus oversees Central Command — America’s military presence in the Middle East — and has assembled a task force to develop a strategy for the area that stretches from Egypt to Pakistan. This task force will not develop a traditional military strategy with a focus on offensive and defensive operations. Centcom will aim to help nations in the region govern effectively, build their economies and provide security to their people. It will also try to communicate America’s foreign policy intentions clearly.

Regional commanders oversee policy in their regions because no one else can. They have staffs of thousands, forces numbering in the tens of thousands and vast financial resources. These generals tower over civilians who share responsibility for securing American interests abroad: ambassadors, regional desk officers and assistant secretaries of state.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recognizes the imbalance and has called for increasing the State Department’s budget. But this is a long-term proposition. As he rebuilds his team in a new administration, Mr. Gates should see to it that every command has civilian officials to work alongside their military counterparts.

Building civilian posts into military headquarters will aggravate rather than solve the problem of the discrepancy between our military and diplomatic capacity. No civilian is ever going to be promoted to CENTCOM commander, and that tells you all you need to know about why Schaub’s proposed solution is inadequate. Civilians will provide diplomatic input to the military decisions, and that’s a good thing, but it shouldn’t be confused for developing an integrated politico-economic-military strategy or having the respective departments take responsibility for their slices and apportion resources to its execution.

CENTCOM’s strategy for U.S. relations with countries in its military area of responsibility deserves no more credence than a historian with expertise on Pakistan would deserve in crafting a military strategy. I mean no disrespect to General Petraeus and his team, just that it’s not their area of expertise, and it’s unfair of the U.S. government to thrust them into the work of setting priorities that are fundamentally political or diplomatic in nature.

What is needed is a wholesale rethinking of how we organize, train, and equip our diplomats and how we connect them to the President’s priorities. Does anyone really think we have enough diplomats for the people-intensive tasks of winning the war of ideas? How about advancing democracy? Strengthening civil society? Showing people in societies threatened by globalization the power of America’s creed of opportunity and self-reliance? There are more than 200 cities in the world with populations over a million people that have no U.S. diplomatic representation at all.

Beyond the baseline numbers, we don’t train our diplomats in anything except languages. In the course of a military career, a top officer spends about seven years being educated for the expanded responsibilities their subsequent jobs entail –- that’s in addition to the training for their current job that is part and parcel of their routine work. A comparably senior diplomat will have had less than a year. That our diplomats are as admirably capable as they are is a tribute to their individual excellence.

The State Department didn’t teach them to swim; they threw them in the water and promoted the ones who didn’t drown. Requiring virtuoso individuals to make the system work in an average way is a sub-optimal (and often disastrous) way to structure an institution. Bureaucracies are supposed to support and enable better performance, not inhibit it.
 
I’ve worked in both Defense and State, and the difference money makes on the culture just screams out at you. The State Department feels itself lucky to send people to the National War College –- they’ve been living on small budgets for such a long time they can’t even envision a world in which our country has a National Diplomatic University that teaches statecraft and our military pleads for admission to gain that essential education. State’s culture is one of doing the best you can with inadequate resources.

While Congress is frequently vilified for stinginess toward the State Department, they mostly meddle in foreign assistance accounts, not the baseline budget. The White House almost always gets the money requested in the President’s budget. The President should ask for money, and lots of it, to bring our non-military national security departments up to the standard our military performs at.

We need diplomats who are the peers of their military counterparts, not their subordinates.

Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

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