04/01/2007 - 22:00

The U.S. military’s growing role in foreign policy

Gordon Adams

Gordon Adams

A professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service, Adams also serves as a distinguished fellow at the...

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As the United States struggles with societal disorder and economic disarray in Iraq, some parts
of the U.S. government are also looking for ways to shape an alternative to the policies pursued in
Baghdad for the past four years. This search for a different approach focuses both on the front end
(how to prevent such conflicts in the future) and on the back end (how to cope with the aftermath
when they do). Call these "shaping" and "stabilization and reconstruction."

Strikingly, this search seems to preoccupy the military more than the civilian branches of
government. In fact, the U.S. approach to the future of global security is almost entirely military
in nature; any other center of strategic or post-conflict planning in the government is absent.
Without thinking about it, the United States is moving toward reliance on its military instrument
for the future of its security.

Let's start with "shaping" and the so-called "long war." Shaping did not emerge from the State
Department or the National Security Council; it originated in the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review,
under the leadership of Defense Secretary William Cohen. The goal of shaping was to influence the
international environment so much that the risk of open combat was reduced.

Shaping could easily describe what the Bush administration and the neo-conservatives thought
they were up to in Iraq--overthrow Saddam Hussein, install democracy in Baghdad, and a wave of
democracy around the Middle East would be unleashed. The term, however, disappeared until recently,
when the head of STRATCOM, Gen. James Cartwright, used it to describe a growing part of his
mission. As Cartwright told the House Armed Services Committee in March, shaping comes before a war
begins, "and that is where you want to win." He suggested the United States "help nations police
their borders, understand what is happening inside of their borders [and] control that."

Admiral William Fallon, the new head of USCENTCOM, echoed this theme when he left his previous
position as head of the U.S. Pacific Command. Interviewed in March by
Inside Defense, he argued that rather than take a "kinetic" approach to an adversary (in
this case China), we ought to focus on "things that tend to bind people together and start people
talking. The more of this that occurs, the less likely--at least historically, it's been--that you
end up going to blows with people." As he concluded, "Happy people make better neighbors."

These statements reflect broad thinking in the military, well beyond what has characterized U.S.
national security policy over the past six years. It is consistent with the advice given 2,500
years ago by the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who recommended a strategy of the "sheathed sword" to
his generals--seek to prevail without ever using your weapons or forces.

The concept of a long war emerged fully in the 2005 Quadrennial Defense Review. While this
strategic design has multiple kinetic elements, it, too, focuses on the need for a broad engagement
internationally to confront the "global war on terror."

It's curious that this long-term, broad strategic thinking is coming from the military, and in
greater depth and detail than from anywhere else in the national security apparatus. Yes, we do
have a national security strategy, but it's a document of such unique generality that it does not
qualify as strategic thinking.

The government's thinking focuses on the back end of conflicts as well--the problems of
"stabilization and reconstruction" (S&R). Here, too, the detailed creative thinking is
happening in the Pentagon. In November 2005, the defense secretary released a new Defense
Department Directive (DOD 3000.05) regarding the military's role in S&R operations. The
directive put S&R operations on an equal level with combat in terms of missions for the U.S.
military.

At one level, this directive concedes to reality. A lesson some have drawn from the Iraq War is
that the military mishandled the aftermath of the invasion in large part because the administration
did not anticipate the breakdown of order, the inadequacies of the Iraqi government, and the
dilapidated state of the Iraqi economy. Having no plans in place to deal with security, governance,
or reconstruction, the U.S. forces simply watched the post-war situation implode as they scrambled
for answers.

The military is not an institution that stands idle and watches failure without searching for a
better answer. In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon has created military training programs for
both the military and police. Since 2003, the Pentagon has operated its own economic reconstruction
program--the Commander's Emergency Response Program. Today, the Pentagon is seeking to make both of
these programs global.

The military's creative thinking doesn't stop there.
Inside Defense reported in March that the army is circulating a draft "action plan" to
implement its S&R responsibilities under the new Defense directive. It's a far-reaching plan.
The army's Training and Doctrine Command would create a deployable forensics lab to help with
criminal prosecution in "host" nations and develop training for the police of that country to learn
how to collect criminal evidence. Army medical units would create special teams to handle liaison
with local health officials, take charge of building hospitals and clinics, and oversee the
acquisition of medical supplies. Chaplains would handle liaison with local religious leaders.

Where are the civilian institutions while all of this creative thinking is going on? The State
Department has no track record of long-term strategic thinking. Its Office of Stabilization and
Reconstruction, created in 2004 to coordinate the interagency response to the S&R challenge was
kept out of Iraq, sidelined in Lebanon, and recently absorbed by the Office of the Director of
Foreign Assistance. The United States Agency for International Development has extensive experience
in the health field, including considerable liaison with local health ministries, and the Justice
Department has built-in knowledge about criminal evidence and prosecutions. But the National
Security Council avoided the tasks of interagency coordination and planning in Iraq and
Afghanistan, leaving them to Defense.

There is a severe risk in loading up the military with these missions, as it tends to leave the
long-term shaping of the international environment to the institution whose primary concern is
deterrence and war. While these new missions are important, they are best set in a broader
strategic approach, where the services can play their role. The S&R missions expand the role of
the military beyond its combat focus into arenas where the military is not clearly more capable or
suited than civilians. While military responsibilities and authorities grow, the nation no longer
examines how to develop and empower civilian capabilities for these nonmilitary missions.

Fundamentally, this is a question of how the United States engages the world. Do we do so with a
"one size fits all" military capability or with a balanced statecraft toolkit? Do we fulfill all of
these missions ourselves or by engaging allies and friends? If we leave the military holding the
bag, it could weaken the armed forces ability to perform their core mission. And by not developing
a more balanced toolkit, we might, through inaction, weaken our civilian tools further. In the end,
letting the military serve as our "face to the world" could lessen, rather than strengthen our
long-term security.