What the President Meant to Say…
The two big things missing from Obama’s speech are the keys to working with foreign partners on massive global problems.
On a gray and drizzly day at West Point, President Barack Obama laid out an incomplete message for the ears of the graduates of the Class of 2014 as they took their place in the Armed Forces of the United States.
He correctly pointed out the continuing strong capability of the United States as a global power: our economy, an unmatched military, innovation skills, robust demographics, and bedrock values. We are not a declining nation, said Obama, nor should we act like one.
The president also provided a strong plan to drive forward against violent extremists through international partnerships. This will include a $5 billion counterterrorism fund, focused training and mentoring programs for embattled nations, continuing drone strikes, connecting with international institutions, and using alliances like NATO to protect America. Fair enough.
But he left out two vital components of how we can best create security: the power of interagency cooperation, and — above all — private-public partnerships. As we approach deeply challenging situations in Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, Iran, East Asia, and Yemen, among others, we need not only the international approach laid out by the president, but the immense power that coordinated interagency and private-public efforts can provide, as well.
A few examples:
Afghanistan, where we are withdrawing U.S. and coalition soldiers (too soon, and unfortunately on an announced timeline), will require huge residual efforts by various government agencies: State in diplomacy; USAID in developing the economy and educational systems; DEA to address the narcotics problem; DOJ to work on governance and corruption; DOA on crop substitution to move farmers away from growing poppies; and the CIA to understand what is happening on the ground. But this kind of collective governmental work, aligned carefully and fully, is lacking.
Similarly, in the end, it will be private-sector efforts that salvage the situation in Afghanistan. The key to Afghan success will be continued growth to provide jobs for the young, whether in construction, telecommunications, agriculture, or mining of the $1 trillion in minerals — cobalt, copper, nickel, gold, and lithium. Building government partnerships with private-sector companies who can provide the jobs and technology will be key. The first order of business for the new Afghan president, right after signing the Bilateral Security Agreement, should be issuing a strategic economic plan — something that will require interagency advice and private sector help.
Syria (where we should be providing more real support to the opposition), could benefit as well from better interagency cooperation, notably between CIA, NSA, and the Pentagon. Likewise, the massive humanitarian and reconstruction work that will follow this brutal civil war will require private-sector engagement to rebuild an economy from scratch when the conflict eventually subsides, hopefully after the defeat of Bashar al-Assad.
In Ukraine (where we need to help build up the Ukrainian military to create real deterrence), there is huge interagency potential demand. Our U.S. interagency organizations need to work not only with international partners like the European Union, but also across the spectrum of activity: rebuilding the economy, rooting out endemic corruption, and providing help and guidance in the hard work of governance. Similarly, the private-sector potential in Ukraine is significant: local firms partnering with U.S. government agencies can help create innovation cells, new technology startups, and educational programs to retrain the workforce.
Similarly, the problem of piracy — which is still rife on the coasts of Africa and in the Straits of Malacca, among other places — will not be solved at sea, but ashore. In places like Somalia and Indonesia, interagency work on the part of the U.S. government, working with local partners on education, agriculture, justice, and other alternative-creating efforts will convince young men to turn down a spot in a pirate’s skiff. But this effort cannot succeed without working with the private sector (especially global shipping companies) who routinely ply these waters, understand the pirate routes, and adjust their own activities in cooperation with U.S. and international authorities.
West Point is sacred ground to the military, and the president described an international approach that will put more of the burden of military activity on allies and partners. I am glad the president laid out such an international vision. But let’s take it even further, fully connecting interagency partners and use the massive engine of private-public cooperation to complete this vision of American leadership in the world.