Can Civilian Agencies Pick Up the Slack?


By Richard Weitz

The fourth discussion panel at the April 2012 Army War College Annual Strategy Conference assessed the roles and missions of the U.S. civilian agencies in coming years, especially those of the State Department.

Dr. Peter Feaver

Dr. Peter Feaver, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University, was not optimistic about the prospects for balancing power and resources better between the Department of Defense and civilian government agencies.

According to Feaver, four iron laws make strengthening the civilian agencies nearly impossible without a significant overhaul of existing U.S. government practices.

The first is that what looks dysfunctional to the outside observer actually benefits some powerful people or interests, who have reasons to preserve the status quo.

Second, most reform efforts focus on restructuring organization charts, but the real problems are often due to personalities.

The third iron law is that making major interagency reforms require comprehensive reforms of Congress, which are rare. Only marginal reforms are possible within the current congressional committee structure.

A final obstacle to strengthening civilian agencies is that they are typically under resourced. For example, the State Department does not have a personnel float system like DoD.

Feaver notes that military and civilian agencies have never achieved an enduring optimal balance in recent American history. The U.S. government has constantly oscillated between being unprepared to handle military conflicts and having the military pursue missions that fall outside its area of expertise.

It costs a lot to develop and maintain a powerful military, so when that burden is accepted, policy makers are then inclined to make use of this powerful tool—even when its use is suboptimal, the military is often a better instrument than the available civilian alternatives, which are under resourced.

Yet, this self-reinforcing dynamic results in a vicious circle in which the military, having the most resources, is called upon by civilian policy makers as the most effective tool, and then receives more resources to pursue its expanded missions.

If the civilian agencies were better resourced at the start, then policy makers could rely more on their contributions, which would often be more effective than using the military to undertake non-military tasks.

In Feaver’s view, Washington’s current preoccupation with U.S. domestic economic recovery will further starve the U.S. civilian national security agencies of funds.

The pressure for strengthening civilian agencies that resulted from the drive to win the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere is ending with those wars. He noted that if the strong Defense –State partnerships that had existed under former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, as well as more recently during Gates and Clinton, had failed to rectify the balance—Gates was one of the most influential advocates before Congress of the need to provide more resources to the State Department—then such rebalancing was even less likely now that internal reconstruction had become the highest priority for the White House.

Feaver told the audience to review the recommendations for reforming U.S. civilian agencies found at the end of Rice’s most recent book. Nevertheless, despite Feaver’s despair at soon rectifying the civilian-military resource imbalance, he still believes that the United States had achieved a balance between its military and civilian agencies superior to that of most other major powers.

Michael Lekson

Michael Lekson, Director of Gaming at the U.S. Institute of Peace, addressed the need to reform the State Department, where he had earlier served for 26 years. Reflecting on his experience, Lekson believed that the civil-military relationships that used to exist in U.S. Embassy Teams demonstrated better unity of purpose and clarity in their power structure than the situation that has developed today.

For example, Lekson was involved in the negotiations during the mid-1990s Dayton Peace Accords and reflected positively on the inter-agency practices during that time. He described his experiences at the Embassy in Bosnia as an example of well-balanced relationships (“one team, one mission”) that directly contributed to carrying out the mission, one of the first successful examples of a U.S.-led peacekeeping effort after the end of the Cold War.

Lekson highlighted the importance of the relationship between the Ambassador and the senior military commander, since their ties filter down to the rest of the Embassy Team.

Since then, Lekson believes the balance between the military and the civilians had degraded, at the State Department’s expense, due to the addition of State responsibilities without a simultaneous increase in Departmental resources.

He credited Colin Powell with working to bolster the State Department’s role abroad. In order to expand their capabilities, State was able to improve training programs, equipping Foreign Service Officers with the skills necessary to work more closely alongside the military. However, due to the recent wars, the available training has once again been unable to keep up with the demand.

The recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) initiated by Clinton, revealed the need for improved debriefing practices and better communication with Washington. Lekson also said that the State Department needed to improve its communications with NGOs, civilian contractors, and other private sector actors to make additional progress in the Administration’s “three D’s” of diplomacy, defense, and development.

James Stepheson

James Stepheson, a Senior Advisor at Creative Associates and previously the USAID Mission Director for Iraq, saw the problem as due less to the under resourcing of civilian agencies than to the excessive growth in the scale of foreign U.S. government operations.

He claims that the many agencies often work at cross purposes to one another and that the bureaucracies have become too large and therefore inefficient.

Stepheson called for downsizing the number of agencies involved in U.S. diplomatic, military, and development projects abroad, which now can number over a dozen, to have only 4-5 key players on the ground.

He also believes the number of personnel and amount of resources allotted to these activities should be capped.

Stephenson cited the example of counterinsurgency efforts in El Salvador in the 1980s as an exemplary model for current and future stabilization and reconstruction missions. The number of military, State, and USAID officers in the country was severely limited. As a result, the Embassy Team resisted the temptation to try to run the counterinsurgency operation itself.

Stephenson also cited the example of the lesser known counterinsurgency mission in Serbia in 2001 as an extremely successful collaboration between a small number of American military, diplomatic, and development personnel that developed and implemented a cohesive inter-agency program. He claims the mission was successfully completed in a matter of months because, Stephenson argues, it was so efficiently run and organized. The small number of people involved helped keep people’s focus on the mission, which managed to avert a full-scale insurgency in an Albanian-dominated ethnic region of Serbia.

In contrast, Stephenson attributes the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan to the United States assuming the lead role in managing their public affairs.

In his view, the United States has invested far more resources and lives, but continue to have grim prospects for success. Stephenson argued that few U.S. Ambassadors have the skills needed to manage such large missions.

He also doubted if the competition among these large number of U.S. government agencies actually yielded better results than would a smaller number of better-integrated actors.

And many of their personnel are forced to remain in the embassy compounds for reasons of personal safety.

Stephenson urged that people assess these counterinsurgency operations with greater patience since they require a long time to succeed because the locals have to initiate and carry out the reforms themselves. The United States should support this effort by sending only a small number of highly experienced and dedicated personnel who are willing to stay in country for a long time.

For example, Stephenson argued that the United States should use this approach in Libya. For most military development projects, the purpose is not only to build the object but also to promote cooperation and solidarity among the locals.

In his commentary from the floor, Steve Metz maintained that there were limits to the effectiveness of the El Salvador model. It works for situations in which the United States is providing counterinsurgency support of an imperfectly functioning government, but not when Washington is seeking to undertake a revolutionary transformation in a country.

Stephenson concurred but argued that precisely for this reason the United States should eschew seeking such revolutionary transformations. He worried that we were mistakenly trying to make Afghanistan in our own image and give it a centralized government even though it has never had one.

At the conclusion, Feaver noted the irony in that, if he was right about the coming reductions in U.S. foreign spending, then the United States should benefit from the resulting decrease in the U.S. overseas presence, giving grounds for optimism in what otherwise was a very pessimistic panel.