Unbalanced Security: The Divide between State and Defense

On February 7, 2007 Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice informed the House Foreign Relations Committee that she had requested 129 military employees to fill State Department positions in support of the President’s new Iraq plan. Officials at the Pentagon, including Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, bristled at the request—insisting that they had personnel shortages of their own. This vignette may appear to be just another incident of bureaucratic turf battles, yet it has dramatic and far-reaching implications, both for national security and for the U.S. Government. Beneath this tussle lies a first order national security policy dilemma: What should our government’s division of labor be for the post Cold War security environment? And, how should manpower and funding resources be distributed to prepare for this environment?

Sixteen years after the Cold War’s end, the United States still lacks a comprehensive governmental process that takes into account the dramatic changes in the global security environment—a failure to act that inhibits America’s ability to deal with today’s challenges and will frustrate our ability to take advantage of tomorrow’s opportunities.

State and Defense: Mars and Venus?

On the surface, the Departments of Defense and State could not be more different. One author even compared them to living on Mars and Venus, respectively. While State is event driven, attached to big-picture concepts and subtle progress, Defense has a linear, deliberate and hierarchical planning culture. It hates surprises. Moreover, its guiding principles center on operational effectiveness on the ground. Philosophically determined to take on all challenges, the military never says “no”, it simply buckles down and adapts. These characteristics—on top of a tremendous disparity in resources favoring Defense—has caused policy makers both in the Executive Branch and in Congress to assign more and more national security responsibility to the Pentagon. The black and white simplicity of Defense versus the shades of gray at State made it easy for Congress to take the path of least resistance at the end of the Cold War—and not fundamentally change our national security policymaking process. Indeed, it makes it easy for them to continue to forge ahead on that path today.

A common chorus among advocates for a national security overhaul (including parts of the military itself) is that resource priorities as they exist are creating an unhealthy imbalance between our national instruments of power, namely diplomacy, information, military, and economic. In other words, national security is a burden that should be shared across the entire government, and not accrue overwhelmingly to the Pentagon. Inadequate integration between the Departments of State and Defense is an example of the imbalance.

Defense has taken on abundant civilian roles since the early 1990’s. Many attribute this lop-sided policy apparatus to the lack of a post Cold War grand strategy—or overarching vision. To be sure, the problems between the two organizations have different causes, some ideological and some institutional. Whatever the combination, the missing collaboration has rendered security policymaking dysfunctional, and must be addressed before the Defense Department becomes the default repository for national security across the board.

Ideology has played a famously influential role in recent policy decision-making. Favoring the use of force over diplomacy is a hallmark of the Bush administration and its supporters. Turf fights between the personalities at Defense and State are also well known. Yet the current crop of elected leaders do not bear sole responsibility for the general over-reliance on the military to implement the bulk of our international policies. Indeed, it is difficult to name our dilemma. Trends of militarism in both government and society have been ably addressed by Andrew Bacevich, among others. He points out that the American infatuation with all things military includes unrealistic idealization by the public and the mismatch of resources in policymaking. Is it militarization? Many in the military push back hard at this characterization, resenting what they see as a comparison between tin pot dictatorships and the law-respecting U.S. military. It is more accurate to point out that the prominence of the military in U.S. security policy is a result of the decline of the other agencies rather than the military asserting itself into other domains.

Militarism, militarization and over-reliance on the military are different things. While ideology is an important backdrop to the current imbalance, the institutional hurdles between the agencies have been decades in the making. No matter the label, they will impair our national security for decades hence unless elected leaders focus seriously on institutional problem solving as the Iraq War winds down.

The Cold War Hangover

The backstory of today’s interagency impasse provides important context. Our policymaking dilemma is not an accident. It is an outcome. And Congress has been frustratingly absent where leadership is concerned. Languishing in a Cold War hangover for more than a decade, Congress entered the age of the terrorist threat with a mal-adapted and obsolete premise—interpreting power as military dominance instead of the ability to influence change. In large part, its failings have stemmed from the fact that it is an antique institution unhappily forced into the modern demands of globalization—where security concerns are distributed across a spectrum of threats from individuals to states. This new assessment should have been obvious in the early 1990’s, after the American experience in Somalia. But Congress did not act to fundamentally change. Not long after the U.S. withdrew from Somalia, the National Defense Panel outlined a strategy of “shaping stability”. Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry co-authored a book on Preventive Defense and the Naval War College initiated a study on Formative Engagement. During the 1990’s, such reports piled up, each depicting the U.S. at a crossroads where both state security and individual or “human” security were vital complements and not tradeoffs. The military, conservatives and liberals alike recognized the need for a re-assessment of responsibility.

Yet Congress did not capably handle the complicated nature of our military’s early post Cold War missions. To the contrary, one response to this onslaught of new information was to marginalize input that did not fit. For Congress, this meant maintaining a maladroit committee system that was at inept with complex cross-jurisdictional issues like terrorism, bolstering fragile governments, or preventing state failure. The punishing partisan character of Congress after the 1995 conservative takeover made matters worse. Congress lost much of its institutional memory in 1995. Expert staffs were laid off, the informal bipartisan caucus system was dismantled and much of the power of recognition was consolidated to Speaker Newt Gingrich and his philosophical allies. Joint hearings between Armed Services and International Relations ceased due to political conflict.

According to a former staffer on the House Armed Service Committee, until that time, the Democratic leadership had considered the urban warfare needs of soldiers involved in peace operations (body armor and armored Humvees, for example). This interest waned under Republican rule, however. Congress remained focused on the past. In 1998, many Members banded together to declare a readiness crisis in the Army. Very few of them, however, asked the question “Ready for what?” Meanwhile, the Army fought the Soviet Union in wargames until late in the decade.

Throughout the 90’s important new security issues simply fell between the cracks of our legislative structure. At the same time, the military took part in several other non-traditional missions, from Haiti to Honduras to the Balkans. Part military action and part nation building, these “Military Missions Other Than War” or MOOTW—did not exactly fit into the jurisdictions of either the Foreign Relations or the Armed Services committees. Generals testified to the importance of innovative and progressive military programs that bolstered international cooperation and human resources. Yet these recommendations tended to become footnotes tacked onto the same old Cold War mindset dominated by massive and expensive weapons platforms.

Imbalanced Security

Putting aside pro or anti-war beliefs and hyped-intelligence, our present policy debacle in Iraq is a tough and tragic lesson that we should have known enough to prevent. Our dilemma there is a case study in what psychologists call “cognitive closure” or the failure to hear information that doesn’t fit pre-determined desired outcomes. In the case of Iraq, it is the failure of a highly touted, highly technological vision known as “military transformation”. Once in office, transformation became the pole-star of the Bush Defense Department, a guidepost to help the American military move from the industrial to the information age. Infatuated by technology, political appointees in the Bush administration passed over contemporary military needs like peacekeeping training and time-tested equipment in favor of precision missiles and promises of improved situational awareness through “net centric warfare.” The ironies of this policy are now apparent. We don’t have enough linguists to translate the intelligence that our high-tech system is collecting and the new Commanding General in Iraq was chosen because of his cultural awareness and expertise with non-lethal tactics.

Commercial interests compounded the problems of this predilection. No matter how inadequately it performed operationally, “military transformation” fit nicely with the defense industry’s desire to keep levels of spending high with few questions asked. That it took the Defense Department nearly four years into the Iraq War to reissue a Counterinsurgency manual (the bulk of CI is relationship building and economic development work) is a testament to the tenacity of our elected leaders’ belief in salvation through the ultimate technological fix.

The impoverishment of the agencies that should be part of a balanced national security policy is evident each February, when Congress begins to dish out the money available for spending—these are unobligated dollars known as discretionary funds. Among the agencies that receive support, the Defense Department crushes the competition for resources. Unlike State, the Defense Department is a manpower rich organization with a built-in domestic lobby. More Defense lawyers exist than Foreign Service Officers and permanent development workers combined. Years of personnel attrition have left many of our federal agencies bereft or outsourced—nowhere is this more obvious than in the organizations that should be partners on national security policy. Defense has the overwhelming slice of money and personnel.

The defense budget is also not subject to the same level of congressional scrutiny and threat of cutbacks that other agencies must endure. This is partly because of Members’ mutually beneficial relationship with defense contractors—who lard every congressional district in the land with goodies. To be sure, taxpayers continue to subsidize billions of dollars worth of out-dated weapons programs developed specifically for the Cold War. But it is also because today’s toxic political discourse designates critics of the defense budget as “weak” on defense and hence easily marginalized. Because there is no rational debate about national security, both the guns and the butter end up in the military’s domain. The path of least resistance is an easy choice when the alternative is political attack and distorting, inaccurate labels. It is therefore not surprising when funding offsets are traded on the backs of other agencies. The monetary imbalance became so dire in 2006 that the Defense Department anted up $200 million for State’s post conflict reconstruction activities. The State Department didn’t spend the money. Whether it was lack of personnel, interest or capacity, its inaction has further exacerbated the frustration among the military services which are then forced to assume ever more national security responsibilities.

Making it Up Along the Way

With little guidance from the elected civilians who control the purse strings, the military adapted to the ad-hoc nature of its post Cold War missions largely on its own. For the past 15 years, the DoD has lived in a policy space somewhere between war and peace. The military even evolved its own lingo to describe the complicated, ground-level and very human terrain where it worked. Post-Cold War activities had many titles besides MOOTW: complex contingency, irregular war, conflict termination, low-intensity conflict, counter-insurgency. Like Spanglish, international partnerships added to the mix. Peacekeeping, Peace building and Peace Enforcement come from the United Nations Charter. Stability and support each has its own division of labor. Stability may still require use of force while Support addresses humanitarian needs. Meanwhile, more and more responsibility for civilian tasks accrued to the Defense Department.

The burgeoning acronyms finally settled around SASO—Stability and Support Operations, but the years of lexicon evolution have left a permanent mark in doctrine and planning: CIMIC refers to civil-military cooperation, JCMOTF is a joint civil-military operations task force, JIACG is the joint interagency coordination group, CJTF is a combined joint task force. The one in the Horn of Africa is widely regarded as a defense showcase of terrorism prevention. PRT or provisional reconstruction team—is perhaps the best known, albeit controversial, example of innovation. A combination of civilians and military personnel, PRTs were developed for Afghanistan. They are filled with specialists, from agriculture to relief workers to civil engineers. These are the positions that Secretary Rice requested military personnel for in her February 7, 2007 testimony.

In November, 2005, the Pentagon issued National Security Directive 3000.05. It is difficult to overstate the significance of this document, which makes civil-society support as important as combat in military missions. It’s probably safe to say that the military has rarely, if ever, advocated so strenuously on behalf of the State Department and other agencies within one of its own planning documents.

Seeking A Way Forward

Federal agency personnel, even at the highest level, are limited in what they may do to push a policy agenda. Civilian leadership has been the key missing ingredient in healing the dysfunction between our Departments of State and Defense. The anger directed against the Bush administration along with its own inability to admit mistakes has stymied the sort of problem-solving conversation that will be vital to learn the lessons of both Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately, our future will likely include activities that look like the “wars” we are involved in today. Many have argued that the lessons learned in Iraq have underscored the need to create a fully coordinated capacity for reconstruction and stabilization in U.S. civilian agencies. In order to undertake this sort of complex collaboration, the U.S. government needs parallel structures for military and civilian personnel, which means Congress must dramatically ramp up funding for civilian capacity either at State or at a new entity. Others argue against this policy direction, and ask why the U.S. should institutionalize an “empire building” apparatus. Yet that argument, isolationist at its core, implicitly suggests that we should also not organize ourselves to respond to genocidal regimes or to participate in multi-nation defense efforts or disaster response. At the end of the day, if we don’t create a deployable international civil service, these tasks will either go to the overburdened military or be privatized to commercial entities that have no institutional memory and whose first priority is not public service.

There are bureaucratic reasons as well. It is important to pursue institutional capacity within civilian agencies because the same civilian organizations that provide crisis response and post-war reconstruction can also make preventive policy operational. Moreover, for the health of our government, our military and even U.S. society itself, we must create capacity so that civilians lead in these activities. It is not a healthy balance when the organization that assumes responsibility, time and again, from Katrina response to civil society support—is the military. Any officer will attest that the armed services should be a support organization for the majority of U.S. national security activities—not the lead player.

Many stars must align for our national security planning process to repair itself. But first and foremost the Executive Branch must push an agenda on Capitol Hill that seeks to balance our national security requirements between civilian and military organizations. The Bush Administration has produced some solid statements on national security since 2000, though the Iraq war has squandered the opportunity to implement them. The Clinton Administration put forward a series of Presidential Decision Directives numbered 25, 56, and 71, which outlined a roadmap for sharing post Cold War missions. Yet neither administration spent enough political capital to see their ideas come to life. At the end of the day, the White House can round up full funding for civilian agencies with one or two phone calls to the Hill. The model for this type of pressure is Richard Holbrooke, who, as UN Ambassador, pounded the halls of an obstinate Congress until the U.S. paid its dues to the international body.

The efforts to reform our government’s national security planning are well documented. Moreover, the accumulated wisdom of public servants still resides within the bureaucracy of the U.S. government. Both Defense and State are making incremental progress in solving the challenges presented by today’s complex orders. Yet these scattered impulses will remain ultimately ineffective without concerted follow up by elected leaders. Even the new Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeatedly referred to our overburdened military in his confirmation hearings. Our nation sits at a crossroads. Today, both human security and state security must be seen as mutually beneficial, not as tradeoffs.

Advocacy organizations, academics and even the military itself have made the case that we must realign our understanding of national security in the post 9/11 world and allocate resources accordingly. Until our elected leaders decide to act, however, all the rhetoric about prevention, peacebuilding and civil society support are just good ideas with lip-service on top.

Lorelei Kelly Directs the Real Security Initiative at The White House Project and blogs at www.democracyarsenal.org.