The Pentagon as a Development Agency? Q&A with Stewart Patrick

January 15, 2010

Stewart PatrickIs the U.S. military’s growing involvement in activities formerly reserved for civilian-led agencies such as the State Department and USAID good for the U.S.? How about for developing countries? CGD research fellow Stewart Patrick investigated these and other questions as the lead co-author of Integrating 21st Century Security and Development Assistance (PDF, 784 KB), a new report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Task Force on Non-Traditional Security Assistance. Patrick sees cause for concern—but also encouraging signs of an emerging consensus on a fresh whole-of-government approach to U.S. foreign policy that integrates all three of the so-called three Ds: Defense, Diplomacy and Development.

Q: According to the New York Times, a forthcoming U.S. Army manual will elevate stabilizing war-torn nations as a mission for the U.S. military, putting it on par with war fighting. The Times quotes the new manual as saying: "Winning battles and engagements is important but alone is not sufficient. Shaping the civil situation is just as important to success." Is this part of a larger trend?

A: Yes. The new manual reflects a sea change in the role of the U.S. military, the mission of which is to fight and win the nation's wars. But Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us that you only win the war if you win the peace. Success in both counter-insurgency and "stability" operations requires fostering home-grown institutions that can provide security, governance and social services. For the Pentagon this represents a huge cultural shift from the 1990s, when the uniformed military disdained "military operations other than war" (or "MOOTWA"). And it's a big adjustment for the Bush administration, which came to office disdainful of "nation-building" -- an attitude encapsulated by Condoleezza Rice's remark in a 2000 Foreign Affairs article that "we don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten." The military's expanding nation-building role has made it a significant provider not only of security but also of aid for governance and development assistance. These trends show up in U.S. foreign aid figures:between 2002 and 2005, the share of all U.S. official development assistance (ODA) channeled through the Pentagon nearly quadrupled, rising from just under 6 percent to nearly 22 percent -- or approximately $5.5 billion.

Q: What's driving this trend?

A: As our report outlines, there are three main factors. The first is the Bush administration's strategic focus on the "global war on terror," which treats fragile and war-torn states as the main battlegrounds of the 21st century. As the military's 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review explains, the United States needs agile aid instruments to help build the capacities of fragile states that are recovering from conflict and to contain "ungoverned areas" that can be exploited by terrorists and other non-state groups. The second is the vacuum left by civilian U.S. agencies. Despite Condi Rice's commitment to "transformational diplomacy," both the State Department and USAID have fallen short in their efforts to deploy adequate personnel and other resources to the field, particularly in insecure environments. A good example is the difficulty of both agencies to staff "provincial reconstruction teams" (PRTs) in Afghanistan and Iraq. This shortcoming reflects the third driving force: chronic underinvestment by the United States in the non-military instruments of state-building. As my colleague Kaysie Brown and I pointed out in a recent CGD working paper, the dramatic expansion of the Department of Defense's aid role reflects a serious mismatch between the Secretary of State's responsibilities to control U.S. foreign assistance and the actual resources budgeted to the civilian side of the U.S. government to fulfill this role.

Q: What are the implications for U.S. development assistance of the growing Pentagon involvement in "nation building"? Is this good or should it be seen as a cause for concern?

A: It really depends on the context. In violent environments like Iraq and Afghanistan -- where friendly governments confront active, determined insurgencies and civilian actors have difficulty operating safely -- a big military role in nation-building is both inevitable and welcome. In such "non-permissive" contexts, military civil affairs teams will be called upon not only to provide public security but also to help restore the rule of law, re-establish local governance, revive commercial activity, and restore basic services. What is potentially more problematic for U.S. development and foreign policy is the Pentagon's growing aid role in more peaceful environments. Since 9/11, the Department of Defense (DoD) has expanded its role in the developing world, taking on tasks that might more appropriately be undertaken by the State Department, USAID, or other civilian actors. These activities include new authorities to train and equip foreign security forces for counterterrorism missions; the establishment of a new Combatant Command for Africa (AFRICOM); and the Bush administration's Building Global Partnership (BGP) Act, which would further expand DoD's assistance authority. Unless handled carefully, these trends could skew U.S. engagement with fragile developing countries in a military direction, undermining broader efforts to build effective, accountable, and sustainable local institutions.

Q: There's been a lot of talk recently about the need for U.S. "Smart Power," that is, relying less on military and more on civilian instruments. Is there any hope of building U.S. civilian capabilities?

A: The prospects are better today than at any time since 9/11. There is serious momentum, both outside and inside the U.S. government, to re-balance the three-legged stool of U.S. national security, so that the wobbly diplomatic and development legs can keep up with the defense leg. The need to invest in these civilian instruments was a central theme of the recent Center for Strategic and International Studies Commission on Smart Power and HELP Commission reports, and it's the main recommendation of our own Task Force Report. These voices have been echoed within the Bush administration. In his eloquent Landon Lecture at Kansas State University in November 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates delivered a clarion call for greater federal investment in U.S. civilian agencies, to help make a difference in fragile and war-torn states. Equally important, the administration has finally put its money where its mouth is. In its budget request released last week, the White House asked Congress for more than a thousand foreign service officers in State and USAID, as well as for $250 million to fund a new Civilian Stabilization Initiative to create a civilian expeditionary capability to support stabilization and reconstruction operations. This would include hundreds of staff in State and USAID and a 2,000-person Civilian Reserve Corps--a sort of Peace Corps on steroids--drawn from U.S. citizens with appropriate technical expertise. These are all promising developments. The two dark clouds on the horizon are the political calendar and the looming recession. Although advisers to Senators Clinton, McCain, and Obama have all been on record as supporting strong civilian capacity, securing passage of major new spending in an election year can be problematic, particularly at a time of looming budget austerity.

Q: What's needed to make sure the Pentagon's expanding role advances rather than detracts from development prospects?

A: The overriding objective should be to ensure that the Pentagon's expanding aid role is not independent but embedded in a broader U.S.-government wide strategy, with civilians having the lead in determining policy and integrating all instruments of U.S. national influence, both in Washington and in the field. This should be equally true both for post-conflict operations and for U.S. military assistance to fragile states. In Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, it is critical to involve civilian development and governance experts in the design and evaluation of U.S. reconstruction efforts, even where U.S. troops are taking the lead in implementation. When it comes to more "permissive" environments -- such as the U.S. military activities of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa or the newly created AFRICOM -- the executive branch and Congress should work to ensure that the U.S. military sticks to its lane, focusing on security sector issues and military-to-military cooperation, while leaving development and governance interventions to civilian professionals who have the training and expertise required to promote effective institutions. The ultimate goal should be a "whole of government" approach based on a partnership of equals.