Phase Zero: The Pentagon's latest big idea

July 20, 2007
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A new term has entered the national security lexicon, courtesy of the Pentagon. It's "Phase Zero." And it has some potentially troubling implications for U.S. foreign and development policy, particularly in Africa. Unfortunately, the concept isn't getting the attention that it deserves.US Africa Command Pentagon MapThe Defense Department (DoD) spends countless hours drafting plans for potential wars. Each plan outlines specific missions and military requirements for discrete phases of war, from the run-up to hostilities (Phase 1), to the onset of military action (Phase 2), to major combat (Phase 3), to "post-conflict" stabilization (Phase 4), and then to the shift to civilian control (Phase 5).More recently, the Pentagon got the idea that greater military attention to pre-conflict situations-preventive action-could pay huge dividends, by making it unnecessary to use U.S. troops around the world.That’s where Phase Zero comes in. It implies that America's far-flung Regional Combatant Commands have a new military mission-eliminating the roots of instability and terrorism in the world's most dysfunctional countries.The rationale for this new mission was spelled out in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. The QDR argues that victory in the "long war" against terrorism requires bolstering weak and failing states so they can better defend their borders and territories and eliminate "ungoverned spaces" hospitable to America's enemies. Accordingly, the U.S. military should expand training of foreign security forces and cooperate with U.S. civilian agencies in engaging developing countries.A centerpiece for this strategy is the newly announced Africa Command (AFRICOM), slated to begin operations in late 2008. According to the Pentagon, the command's primary mission will be "shaping" activities designed to ameliorate troubling trends before they reach a crisis, rather than traditional operations involving the use of force. To this end, AFRICOM will be an inter-agency operation. Although the commander will be a four-star general, one of his two deputies will be a senior U.S. foreign service officer, and the command will include many personnel from U.S. civilian agencies.So what's the problem? Shouldn't we welcome U.S. military concern with preventing conflict and eliminating instability in weak and failing states? The danger in this scheme is that it puts the Pentagon in the driver's seat and threatens to militarize U.S. engagement with Africa. Interagency coordination is one thing, but assigning leadership for this integration to the Pentagon is a risky proposition -- as a recent Washington Post article makes clear.What the Pentagon is calling "Phase Zero" sounds suspiciously like what some of us still quaintly refer to as "diplomacy" and "development assistance." Given the Pentagon's massive resources compared to civilian agencies, any "shaping" activities that emerge from AFRICOM are likely to reflect U.S. military priorities and give short shrift to broader political and developmental considerations. After all, DoD's primary concern in weak and failing states is to build the capacity of local security forces. Whether those forces are under effective and accountable civilian control is a secondary concern.More generally, the U.S. military is wholly unequipped to expertly address the structural sources of underdevelopment, alienation and instability in target countries. Addressing such weaknesses will require a decades-long approach to governance and development, under the leadership of the State Department and supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development and other civilian agencies -- with the military playing a subsidiary role.Sec. of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace A centerpiece for this strategy is the newly announced Africa CommandThe impulse to consolidate all Phase Zero activities in the Combatant Commands is understandable. Unlike the State Department, which relies on country-level embassies, the several Commands provide an attractive platform for regional approaches. But as I pointed out in a recent book with Kaysie Brown, effective "whole of government" approaches to fragile states work best when the each of the "3Ds" -- development, diplomacy, and defense -- are given equal consideration. By giving the Pentagon responsibility for government-wide policy integration, AFRICOM risks undercutting U.S. public diplomacy while accentuating our image as a militaristic nation.It also reinforces one of the most troubling legacies of the Bushadministration: the outsourcing of U.S. foreign policy to the Defense Department. Since 9/11, the Pentagon has emerged as an enormous provider of economic, humanitarian, security, and counterterrorism assistance, not only in Iraq and Afghanistan but in dozens of African countries.At its root, this unhealthy dynamic reflects a glaring mismatch between the authorities granted to Secretary of State to lead the country's global engagement and the meager resources actually allocated to the State Department and USAID to fulfill this mandate. The massive capabilities of the Pentagon exercise a constant gravitational pull, tugging away at civilian leadership of U.S. foreign policy. But the ultimate answer lies not in surrendering to this pull, but in struggling against it. The Bush administration and Congress must ensure that the civilian branch of government has the mandate, personnel, and resources needed to shape U.S. global engagement-in "Phase Zero" and beyond.


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