SecDef Gates Proposes Closer Ties Between Defense and State

Stephen DeAngelis

December 29, 2009

For years, analysts and planners who have focused on ways to improve development strategies and policies have encouraged decision makers in the U.S. government to seek greater interagency cooperation. Although things have appreciably improved over the past 15 or 20 years, frictions and separate agendas have continued to plague development efforts supported by the Departments of State and Defense. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates hopes to end all that by establishing a development fund jointly controlled by the two departments [“Gates proposes $2 billion in funds to aid unstable countries,” by Mary Beth Sheridan and Greg Jaffe, Washington Post, 24 December 2009]. Sheridan and Jaffe report:

“Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has proposed a major overhaul of the way the Pentagon and State Department do nation-building, seeking to end friction between the bureaucracies by putting them jointly in charge of three huge new funds aimed at stabilizing strife-ridden countries. The proposal is aimed at addressing problems that have dogged the U.S. effort in Iraq and Afghanistan — particularly, disputes over whether civilians or the better-funded military should be in charge of stabilization. But Gates’ proposal goes beyond those conflicts to address what the military increasingly sees as the greatest threat to the United States — failing states such as Yemen and Somalia that could provide a haven for terrorist groups. The proposal would concentrate existing and new money in three long-term funds totaling as much as $2 billion. They would be dedicated to training security forces, preventing conflicts and stabilizing violence-torn societies around the world. The funds would exist separately from the war budgets, and allow for quicker and better-coordinated response to looming or actual conflicts, officials said.”

It’s a bit of hyperbole to call three funds containing a total of $2 billion “huge.” While I’ll admit that $2 billion is a large amount, compared to other programs and the needs that exist in the area of development, the sum is quite modest. I also think that Secretary Gates has another agenda in proposing these funds beyond better interagency cooperation. He has made it quite clear that he does not think that the military should be in charge of development over the long term. His fear, I suspect, is that unless he can institutionally shift responsibility for nation-building away from the military the Pentagon will remain in charge by default. Sheridan’s and Jaffe’s report makes it clear, however, that Gates understands that development cannot be achieved in unstable environments. Nevertheless, he would prefer to see the military focus on security and let State focus on development. Sheridan and Jaffe continue:

“In a memo to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Gates noted that the huge increase in Pentagon funding for stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan has prompted complaints about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. The proposal ‘sets forth a new approach that could transcend these debates. It argues for a new model of shared responsibility and pooled resources for cross-cutting security challenges,’ Gates wrote in the unclassified Dec. 15 memo, which was obtained by The Washington Post.”

Although many people involved in development think that it’s about time that Defense and State stop bickering and start working together, Sheridan and Jaffe assert that Congress (one of the most divisive institutions in government) could be a major impediment to progress. They report:

“Several legislative aides and a senior administration official said Gates’ idea for joint funds might not fly, given that the multiple congressional committees that oversee the Defense and State budgets are unlikely to cede control.”

What really surprises me, however, is that some observers believe “the plan could raise concerns that the Defense Department is trying to expand its growing role in institution-building, which was traditionally carried out by the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).” It appears to me as an outside observer that Gates sees nation-state building as a tar pit that could drain both energy and resources from the military’s main focus — security. By emphasizing an interagency approach, it is more likely that Gates is trying to move the issue out of the Pentagon into the broader Washington arena. The article continues:

“Defense Department spokesman Geoff Morrell said the proposal wasn’t a Pentagon power play but ‘an attempt to get people out of the business-as-usual approach.’ ‘We need to be much more quick to respond to allies who are in need of security assistance so they can handle these problems and they don’t devolve into emergencies that require American forces,’ he said. Under Gates’ proposal, State and Defense would provide money from their own budgets — either contributing 50/50 or according to each department’s priorities. The departments would select the projects together.”

I suspect that a 50/50 split won’t fly. State has complained for years that it has been underfunded in comparison to the Pentagon. If Gates is serious about this proposal, he should recommend a departmental contribution more in line with budget realities. The 50/50 split was probably offered because half of the money would be used to create better security in troubled regions and half of the money would be used to support development. Sheridan and Jaffe explain:

“Gates painted different scenarios for launching the three funds in 2011. The most ambitious envisions a $1 billion fund to train and equip foreign security forces and another $1 billion for conflict prevention and stabilization. ‘Such an approach would dramatically increase non-military assistance,’ the memo says. The joint funds, based on a model used by Britain, would not only improve coordination but set up a broader mechanism to finance national-security needs, Gates said. While the Pentagon has gotten generous increases in recent years, State has lagged.”

Another reason that I’m surprised that some analysts see this as a power grab by the Pentagon is that Gates has been emphasizing that he wants greater cooperation between Defense and State for some time. It was one of the reasons that President Obama kept him on as Secretary of Defense (see my post entitled Transforming U.S. Foreign Policy). Even Sheridan and Jaffe note that Gates has stressed the importance of close cooperation between the military and civilians.

“‘The civilian component of what we’re doing is critical to success for our country,’ Gates told U.S. soldiers in Kirkuk, Iraq, earlier this month, echoing a concern he has expressed frequently. ‘And, unfortunately, the civilian elements of our government — the State Department, AID and so on — have been starved of resources for decades.'”

That hardly sounds like the rhetoric of someone trying to establish nation-state building fiefdom. The State Department is nevertheless moving forward cautiously.

“State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the department was reviewing the memo. ‘It contains some creative ideas on moving forward. Secretary Clinton and Secretary Gates share an interest in improving the security assistance process,’ he said.”

Like all programs, the devil is in the details. According to Sheridan and Jaffe, “The Gates memo is vague on where the lines would be drawn between the funds aimed at improving security services, fostering stabilization and preventing crises. The lack of detail could raise hackles among lawmakers concerned that the pools could become open-ended funding obligations.” One group that is likely to be asked to weigh in on this subject is the Center for Excellence in Disaster Response and Humanitarian Assistance. The Center is working feverishly to establish inter-agency relationships that will foster better prevention, mitigation, and response to disasters and better strategies for development. Sheridan and Jaffe conclude:

“Gates noted that the joint funds would fall under the oversight jurisdiction of eight congressional committees. To avoid a bureaucratic nightmare, he suggested creating special standing committees in the House and Senate. The State Department traditionally has taken the lead in institution-building abroad, including providing funds for training and equipping security forces. In recent years, the Pentagon has become more active in that area through its $350 million-a-year Global Train and Equip Program and the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which allows officers to hand out small grants for starting businesses or doing community projects. That program received about $1.5 billion in 2009.”

By all accounts Secretaries Gates and Clinton get along well. Let’s hope that they can put together a program that better addresses the security and development needs that the U.S. will be asked to address in the coming years. Everyone knows that preventing war is much cheaper than having to fight one. With the government running historical deficits, any effort that can save money, achieve policy aims, and improve the lives of millions of people should be supported.