Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Really Soft Power

By Gary Schaub, an assistant professor of strategy at the Air War College (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 27/01/09)

Gen. David Petraeus, not Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, will shape American engagement with the Middle East for years to come. While Mrs. Clinton prepares to put together the State Department, the military is already reconsidering American policy in critical regions. The politically savvy General Petraeus has both a plan and the resources to see it through.

Unfortunately, Mrs. Clinton can’t say the same. The State Department is supposed to direct American foreign policy, but it lacks the human and financial resources to fulfill its mission. R. Nicholas Burns, a foreign service veteran, may have summed up the problem best when he said that we have more musicians in the Pentagon than we have diplomats in the State Department. The department’s budget for 2009 is $39 billion — less than 8 percent of the amount allotted to the Defense Department.

Not surprisingly, the State Department has trouble pulling its weight — and the Defense Department fills the void. Regional commanders like General Petraeus — or Gens. H. Norman Schwartzkopf and Anthony Zinni before him — have amassed great power and influence in the United States government and abroad since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

General Petraeus oversees Central Command — America’s military presence in the Middle East — and has assembled a task force to develop a strategy for the area that stretches from Egypt to Pakistan. This task force will not develop a traditional military strategy with a focus on offensive and defensive operations. Centcom will aim to help nations in the region govern effectively, build their economies and provide security to their people. It will also try to communicate America’s foreign policy intentions clearly.

Regional commanders oversee policy in their regions because no one else can. They have staffs of thousands, forces numbering in the tens of thousands and vast financial resources. These generals tower over civilians who share responsibility for securing American interests abroad: ambassadors, regional desk officers and assistant secretaries of state.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates recognizes the imbalance and has called for increasing the State Department’s budget. But this is a long-term proposition. As he rebuilds his team in a new administration, Mr. Gates should see to it that every command has civilian officials to work alongside their military counterparts. He could, for instance, designate regional deputy defense secretaries to work with the regional commanders, just as Ambassador Ryan Crocker worked with General Petraeus on the successful surge strategy in Iraq.

As it stands, Defense Department civilians simply don’t have the authority to hold their own with the regional commanders. They are ranked as deputy assistant secretaries of defense and are fourth-tier civilians within the secretary’s office. They reside in small offices in the Pentagon and have even smaller staffs. Rarely do they engage with regional commanders.

Mr. Gates could promote these officials, give their staffs bigger budgets and more support, and coordinate their activities with the regional commanders so that they would have increased awareness and influence over American policy.

Reorganization of the Defense Secretary’s office along these lines would not solve the structural problem of a weak State Department. But it would be a necessary first step toward more effective oversight of foreign policy, and it would put a civilian face on American engagement with the world.