The competence trap
By Thomas Mahnken John Barry, one of the nation’s most insightful defense reporters, has posted a piece for Newsweek arguing that the Pentagon should be put in charge of the Haiti relief effort. As he notes, the only institution capable of meeting the demands of the Haiti crisis is not the United Nations, but the ...
By Thomas Mahnken
By Thomas Mahnken
John Barry, one of the nation’s most insightful defense reporters, has posted a piece for Newsweek arguing that the Pentagon should be put in charge of the Haiti relief effort. As he notes, the only institution capable of meeting the demands of the Haiti crisis is not the United Nations, but the U.S. military.
As in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the U.S. armed forces have once again become the responder of first resort. In this case, the U.S. Navy is front and center: the USS Carl Vinson‘s heavy-lift helicopter and the USS Bataan and USS Ft McHenry‘s air cushioned landing craft are bringing needed supplies to the people of Haiti.
There are three lessons here. First, for all the talk of whole-of-government solutions, the U.S. military remains the most competent national security institution we have. In recent years, the men and women of the U.S. armed forces have time and time again responded admirably when called upon to conduct missions far beyond those for which they were trained.
Second, the very competence of the military has become a sort of trap. Time and time again, the military has taken up the slack when other national security institutions do not perform as well as they can or should. Tasks better performed by the State Department or U.S. Agency for International Development, state or local governments, or non-governmental organizations too often wind up being performed by soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines.
Third, when the American taxpayer bought today’s Navy, he got a lot more than he thought he was getting. He not only got a force capable of defending American interests on the high seas, but also one possessing the flexibility to respond rapidly to contingencies across the spectrum of conflict. Let’s hope that the Obama administration’s Quadrennial Defense Review, to be released next month, reflects this reality.
The Obama administration has two choices. First, it can continue to hope that, with more funding and some presidential leadership, the other parts of the national security community will finally rise to the occasion. Both Secretary of Defense Gates and Secretary of State Clinton (both at Foggy Bottom and before that in the Senate) have been articulate advocates for whole-of-government approaches. I very much hope they succeed.
If not, the logical alternative is to do what John Barry says and give missions like Haiti to the Pentagon. Such an approach would, however, be undesirable; it would further dilute U.S. military capabilities while also delegitimizing those institutions that should be bringing their unique talents to bear on crisis situations.
More from Foreign Policy
Saudi-Iranian Détente Is a Wake-Up Call for America
The peace plan is a big deal—and it’s no accident that China brokered it.
The U.S.-Israel Relationship No Longer Makes Sense
If Israel and its supporters want the country to continue receiving U.S. largesse, they will need to come up with a new narrative.
Putin Is Trapped in the Sunk-Cost Fallacy of War
Moscow is grasping for meaning in a meaningless invasion.
How China’s Saudi-Iran Deal Can Serve U.S. Interests
And why there’s less to Beijing’s diplomatic breakthrough than meets the eye.