January 1, 2009  

Essay: A more enduring legacy

Whole-of-government approaches to national security make sense

George W. Bush’s foreign policy legacy will undoubtedly be debated for years if not decades. For some it will be the global war on terrorism. For some it will be the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that he was unable to finish. And for yet others it will be the so-called “Bush Doctrine” of preventive warfare and unapologetic unilateralism. Less dramatic but more positive and hopefully more enduring may be the legacy of “whole-of-government” approaches to the existential national security challenges of the 21st century.

An existential national security threat is one that threatens not just our lives but our way of living and our ability to preserve our values. Those old enough to remember the darkest days of the Cold War know the meaning of an existential national security threat. Their school days were punctuated by air raid warning sirens and duck-and-cover drills. They were taught the location of the nearest fallout shelter while politicians spoke of mutually assured destruction and thermonuclear war. That sort of threat forces the mind to concentrate and put aside bureaucratic and parochial squabbles in order to protect the safety of the country.

That kind of urgency and concern for national survival began to dissipate with détente in the 1970s and the realization that the loss of Vietnam did not result in falling dominoes leading to the end of the world. In the 1980s, glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union further persuaded Americans that the country was safe and that the setbacks in Iran and Afghanistan were local and did not threaten our lives or livelihoods. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and the Soviet Union and global communism in 1991, resulted in euphoria symbolized by such notions as the “peace dividend” and the “end of history.”

The existential threat to U.S. national security laid bare by the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 shocked Americans out of a false sense of security. They returned us to a life of fear in a dangerous world. To its credit, the Bush administration realized quickly that the full spectrum of American power and capabilities had to be summoned to rise to the challenge. The December 2002 National Security Strategy identified a new and unforeseen kind of national security threat, originating from nonstate actors based in weak and failing states, rather than from strong state enemies. It called for a much more “joined” exertion of the diverse elements of national power, especially defense, diplomacy and development, to meet this threat. Some referred to this concept as the three Ds. Others refer to it as the DIME (diplomacy, information, military and economics) model. The central principle of this legacy is that in order to meet the existential national security challenges of the 21st century, all the elements of national power and all the diverse agencies involved in national security must overcome their bureaucratic stovepipes and work jointly with unity of purpose.

Whole-of-government approach

Whole-of-government approaches are based on strategies that understand the multidimensionality of threats, inventory the full range of national tools available to meet the threats, and craft action plans that generate synergy among the various elements of national power. This enables comprehensiveness across dimensions and a total response more effective than the separate actions of the individual agencies. Interestingly, the Defense Department has responded to this call with the greatest enthusiasm, due in no small part to its abundant resources. The Defense Department is accustomed to so-called “jointness.” The 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act forced jointness on the erstwhile fissiparous armed services. The reaching out over the Potomac by the Pentagon and the armed services has been intense, as soldiers and defense civilians seek to better understand a threat that is more than just military and as they try to develop relevant skills and support their civilian counterparts. DoD Directive 3000.05 of November 2005, “Military Support for Stability, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction (SSTR) Operations,” says basically that state-building will henceforth “be given priority comparable to combat operations.” Moreover it says that “U.S. military forces shall be prepared to perform all tasks necessary to establish or maintain order when civilians cannot do so.”

While civilian-military jointness may seem obvious, it is actually quite distant from typical operational norms and has met with significant resistance. The dominance of U.S. military agencies in terms of size and resources can easily swamp civilian counterparts, leading some to warn of the militarization of foreign policy. In Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, the military has indeed conducted activities that in the past were typically carried out by civilian agencies, such as humanitarian assistance, economic development and governance support. Civilian officials are concerned about perceived incursions into their areas of expertise, and civilians in and out of government warn against the subordination of diplomatic and development to military objectives. This subordination may be subliminal rather than intended, with the preponderant military presence silently shifting the policy center of gravity toward a military perspective. Governmental and nongovernmental experts warn against the delivery of humanitarian and development assistance by armed, uniformed U.S. soldiers. What message does that send to foreign countries and populations?

Even in the military, there remain those who are hesitant to support any blurring of lines and roles between military and civilian agencies and functions. Although they are backbenchers today, they argue that involvement in activities not strictly military in nature diverts resources, attention, training and focus from fighting and winning wars. Historic resistance to “mission creep” discourages military planners from going out too far beyond their traditional institutional responsibilities, or so-called core competencies. The state-building effort in Vietnam is not remembered as a high point in U.S. military history. This tendency is even more pronounced in times of budgetary constraint and contraction.

These legitimate concerns should not prevail, however. The national security challenges we face in the 21st century are beyond the competence or capability of any one U.S. agency, or even of all U.S. government agencies if they are not working jointly. For example, global terrorism attacks us militarily, economically and diplomatically — it attacks the whole. Whole-of-government challenges require whole-of-government responses. First, the cross-over benefits of jointness and close collaboration are significant. The civilian agencies are introduced to the discipline of military analysis with a focus on effects and the military’s culture of extensive planning. The defense community can also introduce the civilian agencies to a wide range of potentially useful cutting-edge technologies, ranging from computer and telecommunications technology to geospatial information systems. From the civilian side, the armed services can better understand the non-military dimensions of national security, particularly the diplomatic and development dimensions. They can learn a great deal about nonkinetic approaches to national security problem-solving. As long as some in the military still believe their job is “to kill people and break things” (surprisingly still heard even today), they will more likely be part of the national security problem than the solution. For those who fear the militarization of foreign policy, it could be argued that jointness, or integrated civilian-military operations, will lead to a beneficial civilization of the armed services. This is not a diversion for the military, but rather its evolution from a force symbolized rightfully or wrongfully by the images of Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib to one exemplified by the U.S. military’s admirable role in providing relief to victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Second, “jointness” results in enhanced national security effectiveness. The threats of the 21st century are neither strictly military, nor economic, nor political, nor ideological. Nor can they be addressed effectively using just military power; or economic or diplomatic power. Our national security can only be effectively protected if all the elements of national power are applied in an integrated fashion guided by unity of purpose. That means that the handoff from military to reconstruction to developmental and diplomatic operations must be seamless, and in many cases, all must be working side-by-side, in the same places. The problems of weak and failing states are multidimensional; poverty and stagnation ignite conflict that can spill over from political to military action, and can spill over across borders, including our borders. In these states, our military efforts must be joined with our developmental and diplomatic efforts. The military’s insightful new counterinsurgency strategy, articulated in Field Manual 3-24, cannot be implemented without significant nonkinetic elements.

Resources and capabilities

Third and finally, the budget for the Defense Department and armed services well exceeds a staggering half-trillion dollars per year. While many are the calls to “right-size” civilian agencies — i.e., plussing up their budgets and personnel — the economic and financial condition of the country is such that any dramatic increases in budgets or staffing are unlikely in the near or even mid-term. Moreover, the civilian deficit is not merely a question of resources. Certain key capabilities are missing; law enforcement capacity and law enforcement development do not really exist. For the indefinite future, the U.S. military will continue to be by far the best-resourced and most-capable player in the game. In our current and foreseeable circumstances, it is simply not responsible governance to maintain a military apparatus that absorbs 20 percent of the national budget but can only perform one function — fighting and winning major conventional wars against foreign armies — a purpose that, according to our own intelligence authorities, seems decreasingly relevant. The U.S. armed services must, for the time being, continue to bear the greatest part of the load in meeting national security threats; they must continue adapting to the challenge by working even more closely with civilians and, in some cases, doing the kinds of work civilians have traditionally done. And until civilian agencies can fill the gaps, the U.S. military must fill them.

President-elect Barack Obama has clearly signaled his intention to reverse much of the Bush foreign policy legacy — to depart Iraq, to re-engage in Afghanistan, to rehabilitate our image abroad and to abandon unbridled unilateralism. While not insignificant, merely recovering the losses of the past decade is only the beginning of the task facing the new administration. Sustained executive leadership will be needed to force the kinds of collaboration and synergisms between military and civilian agencies required to face the national security challenges of the 21st century. Some sort of executive-legislative collaboration will likely also be required to articulate the jointness that the Goldwater-Nichols Act requires of the military. This will be hard, but it will ensure indispensable congressional support. Finally, the new administration and the new Congress will have to get serious about state-building, which is the long-term remedy to the threats emanating from weak and failing states. They will have to convince Americans of the importance of this challenge and of its centrality to the task of protecting the U.S. and the American people.

To meet the existential national security challenges of the 21st century, the U.S. ideally would have a dramatically expanded civilian capacity for overseas operations, committed executive leadership, and a strong and multidimensional military. The current economy may not permit such a dramatic expansion of civilian capacity. That is why it would be such a serious mistake to reverse all that the Bush administration has done to force interagency collaboration and to make the U.S. military more adaptable. Integrated and comprehensive, whole-of-government approaches to meeting the existential and multidimensional national security challenges of the 21st century make sense. Integrated civilian-military approaches to these complex challenges, for the time being powered by a U.S. military able to respond with a full range of capabilities, especially in hostile environments where civilians cannot go, should hopefully constitute a more enduring legacy. AF

Michael Miklaucic is in the U.S. Civil Service and has worked in the fields of development, political reform and civilian-military relations at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department. The views presented here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views or the positions of USAID, the State Department or the U.S. government.