General Stanley McChrystal’s candid disrespect for civilian leadership is being treated as an issue of bad judgment and personality. But this episode reveals a much deeper dilemma for American statecraft, one that has long roots but has reached near crisis proportions over the past ten years: the gradual erosion of civilian leadership and the militarization of our foreign and security policy.
Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen warned about this trend in remarks to the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University last year, but it has been under way for years. Its manifestations include:
- DOD and the military now define what America’s national security strategy will be. The DOD strategic document – the Quadrennial Defense Review – was for many months the only definitive description of our strategy; the National Security Strategy followed, and is significantly less informative or clear. DOD has for years done our only real national strategy planning, well ahead of any White House guidance.
- DOD and the military have determined that our most important engagement abroad will be to fight terrorist and insurgents, despite the fact that terrorist tactics hardly threaten our existence and, outside of insurgents in Afghanistan (and in decline in Iraq) it is not clear either that there are a lot of insurgencies for us to fight or that other countries will welcome a major US military presence to deal with those that do exist.
- The regional combatant commanders are a more prominent US forward presence in most regions of the world than our ambassadors or regional Assistant Secretaries of State.
- These same regional combatant commanders seek to become the “hub” around which all US government agencies engage the world. Adm. James Stavrides, as COCOM for Latin America described that command as a “velcro cube” to which other civilian agencies could attach. AFRICOM was deliberately created to be such a command, despite the absence of any formal civilian role or authority in the operations of such a command.
- The Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) was designed and implemented as a development assistance program entirely under the authority of the local commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan. In funding, it is as large as thecivilian Millennium Challenge Corporation and nearly as large as USAID’s development assistance (DA) funds. During the Bush administration, DOD sought to make CERP a global development assistance program and Carl Schramm's article in the latest Foreign Affairs proposes that the military be given responsibility for all US bilateral development assistance.
- The Pentagon has taken increasing responsibility for the American message abroad. Through a variety of accounts ranging from the Joint Staff to the regional COCOMs, to local commanders, the military may now spend more on “public diplomacy” (sometimes called “strategic communications”) than the entire budget of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, ostensibly responsible for all US international broadcasting.
- While supporting increased funding for the civilian institutions of statecraft, Secretary Gates has also strongly advocated a significantly greater role for DOD in funding and providing training and equipment for foreign security forces, ranging broadly from the military, to constabulary forces, to border guards to police. Traditionally, while the military has played a key role in implementing these programs, policy leadership, country selection, and funding levels have been a civilian responsibility at the State Department.
- The new QDR asserts a significant leadership role for DOD and the military in US energy policy, ostensibly the responsibility of the Department of Energy, and for climate change policy.
This broad expansion of DOD and military roles and missions has taken years to develop. It received strong impulse from the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the assumption by the military of some kind of responsibility for “governance” and “reconstruction” in those countries. It is the underlying policy and institutional trend that has led us to historically unprecedented levels of defense spending.
It is a trend which has not been disciplined and now demands serious attention. The military is a vital support function for American statecraft, but it is not and should not be the shaper of that statecraft or the lead strategic planner and implementer of US global engagement. That is a civilian, and Presidential responsibility.
Leaving our statecraft to DOD and the military puts responsibilities for a very wide series of international problems – governance, weak states, energy, development, climate, the US reputation – in the hands of an institution which has no specific or peculiar skills to carry these responsibilities. This trend exacerbates the weakness of our civilian institutions of statecraft, which need and deserve support – making the expansion of the DOD role a self-fulfilling prophecy. And putting the military in the vanguard of statecraft sends a confusing message to our friends and potential partners overseas: America is globally engaged, but that engagement wears a uniform.
General McChrystal’s minor, ill-tempered remarks are only the tip of this iceberg. He should be relieved of his command, but that is only a starting point for rebalancing the relationship of the White House, State, USAID, and our other foreign policy institutions with the Defense Department.