• Book Review: State Versus Defense

    January 15, 2012 // 8 Comments »




    Stephen Glain’s new book, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire, is a brilliant, sober, sad and important biography of the Department of State since World War II. The choice of word here–biography–is significant, in that instead of a simple history of State, Glain traces its decline in old age as America’s foreign policy is increasingly made and carried out by the Pentagon. This does not bode well for America. Mini review: Be afraid.

    McCarthy: Beginning of the End

    Though not casual reading, State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire‘s detailed text will gift the reader with a thorough history of America’s overseas activities since the end of the Second World War. Told largely through tales of bureaucratic infighting between State and Defense, with Congress often coming on stage at critical moments to drive a dagger into State’s corps(e), it is not a pretty story. Author Glain, for example, chronicles the rise of the national security state post-war, but leaves it to McCarthy to devastate the State Department at a time when its prescience might have altered relations in East Asia forever, possibly preventing the Korean War:

    The damage done to the State Department by McCarthy’s attacks [and the destruction of State’s China hands like Service, Davis and Vincent] was irreparable. Those who did pursue diplomatic careers would find a culture of caution that impaired lateral thinking. (McCarthy’s) real legacy is the diminution of the Department of State into the intellectually inert and politically impotent agency that it is today. p.76

    Limping into Vietnam, Glain shows how State never reached Presidents Johnson and Nixon, and instead allowed itself to be a forgotten extension of the military because it could never break free from its own bureaucratic in-the-box conception of international relations:

    A 1972 RAND study scolded US diplomats for not doing enough to prevent the militarization of Washington’s pacification efforts in Vietnam. “The State Department,” the study said, “did not often deviate from its concept of normal diplomatic dealings with Saigon, not even when the government was falling apart. Similarly, State… made little effort to assert control over our military on political grounds… State’s concept of institution building in Vietnam turned largely on encouragement of American democratic forms, a kind of mirror-imagining which proved hard to apply to the conditions of Vietnam. p. 233


    Jesse Helms and George W. Finish the Job

    Despite the sparring between State and Defense over what to do in the Balkans in the 1990’s, which showed some hope for diplomacy, it was the one-two punch of Jesse Helms’ decimating State’s budget from his perch on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, followed by the almost complete militarization of everything after 9/11, that effectively ended State as a significant Washington player.

    No one outside of official Washington can appreciate how much 9/11 altered the way the US Government thinks about itself. The shock of an attack on the US changed the posture of the government from one of at times satisfied with passivity in its more distant foreign affairs to one demanding constant action.

    The shock was because 9/11 was not supposed to happen, again. Everything about the US government was as of 9/10 still configured around the mistakes made concerning Pearl Harbor. My favorite CIA Station Chief kept, framed, in his guest toilet, a copy of a cable sent by the US Embassy in Tokyo on December 7, 1941 (the attack took place December 8 Japan time) claiming war was far off. He maintained that from that December morning forward the purpose of the U.S. government was to make sure Pearl Harbor never happened again. Then it did.

    On 9/12, every part of the U.S. government, with a special emphasis on those who worked abroad (State, CIA, DOD, et al), was to shift was a passive mode of listening and reporting to an action mode. The President would probably have preferred that each Federal worker go out and strangle a terrorist personally, but if that was not possible everyone was to find a way to go to war. The intelligence agencies, whose 1960s and 70s comical attempts at assassinations and dirty tricks were so well documented in the Church Hearings, suddenly saw the sharp, sudden end of the debate on whether they were to conduct clandestine or sort of clandestine ops or not. State froze like a deer in the headlights, and almost lost the one action-oriented bureau in the agency, the visa office, to the new Department of Homeland Security.

    George W. Bush administration is particularly singled out by Glain as having forced the air out of State. Reminding readers how the early days of Iraq occupation were run not by skilled Arabists from the State Department, but by recent college grads from the Bush campaigns, Glain writes:

    American militarism came about the same way that free societies succumb to authoritarian rule: with a leadership that rewards sycophants and the like-minded, co-opts the ambitious and punishes those in dissent. p. 381

    In 1950 State had 7710 diplomats abroad. In 2001, they had only 7158. The world had changed around the Department (personnel figures from Career Diplomacy, by Harry Kopp and Charles Gillespie, Second Edition).

    Rise of the Combatant Commands

    Roughly the last quarter of Glain’s book covers the post-9/11 period. His key contention is that the vacuum in foreign relations has been largely filled by the military combatant commanders, the men who head CENTCOM, SOCOM and the rest:

    The combatant commands are already the putative epicenters for security, diplomatic, humanitarian and commercial affairs in their regions. Local leaders receive them as powerful heads of state, with motorcades, honor guards and ceremonial feats. Their radiance obscures everything in its midst, including the authority of US ambassadors. p. 350


    Glain’s point is worth quoting at length:

    This yawning asymmetry is fueled by more than budgets and resources [though the Pentagon-State spending ration is 12:1, p. 405], however. Unlike ambassadors, whose responsibility is confined to a single country or city-state, the writ of a combatant commander is hemispheric in scope. His authority covers some of the world’s most strategic resources and waterways and he has some of the most talented people in the federal government working for him.

    While his civilian counterpart is mired in such parochial concerns as bilateral trade disputes and visa matters, a combatant commander’s horizon is unlimited. “When we spoke, we had more clout,” according to Anthony Zinni. “There’s a mismatch in our stature. Ambassadors don’t have regional perspectives. You see the interdependence and interaction in the region when you have regional responsibility. If you’re in a given country, you don’t see beyond its borders because that is not your mission.” p. 351


    With stature as defacto leaders abroad, the combatant commanders also stripped State of its already meager resources. In particular, Glain focuses on the non-battle to move foreign military assistance money out of State’s hands, and dump it into the Pentagon’s coffers:

    Section 1206 funding: for the first time since president Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, the US military would fund such activity directly from its own accounts, bypassing the State Department. Conspicuously absent from the debate over Section 1206 was Condoleezza Rice, America’s secretary of state. To no avail, Senator Patrick Leahy, implored Rice not to relinquish such vital funding authority as requested by the Pentagon… Legislative aides involved in the debate were staggered by Rice’s passivity. p. 399

    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s mantric utterance of the “3Ds”–defense, diplomacy and development–suggests at least passive acceptance of such a lopsided collusion. p. 404


    The End

    In 1940, the U.S. place in the world was simple. Diplomacy was Euro-centric, and the State Department was a collection of gentlemen committed to proper discourse. As World War II broke out, State had just 840 diplomats stationed abroad. The world that emerged from that war still played the old game, albeit with some different players. State participated in the overall mad growth of the U.S. government, and by 1950 had 7710 diplomats assigned outside the U.S. New countries emerged, power shifted, colonies disappeared, and State blithely sat back and reported on it all. Millions of pages of reports on everything under the sun were written, likely billions of pages. You can see contemporary reports on WikiLeaks, or delve into the historical pile, where State is currently declassifying and publishing things from the Carter administration.

    Glain offers no prescription for a Department of State resurgence, ending his biography with the institution at near death. State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire concludes with a depressing coda, warning America what the almost complete militarization of its foreign affairs really means:

    US relations with the world, and increasingly America’s security policy at home, have become thoroughly and all but irreparably militarized. The culprits are not the nation’s military leaders… but civilian elites who have seen to it that the nation is engaged in a self-perpetuating cycle of low grade conflict… They have convinced a plurality of citizens that their best guarantee of security is not peace but war. p. 407

    Despite the fanatic growth in size of government under the Bush administration, State remained a sidelined player. With 7158 employees stationed abroad in 2001, by 2010 the number had only grown to 8199, diplomats supplemented by civil servants and others on “excursion” tours abroad.

    History can be quite naughty, and State may yet be handed another chance at transformation before slipping away to become not much more than America’s concierge abroad, arranging hotel rooms for Congressional delegations and aiding tourists with lost passports. But that is unlikely, leaving the military as America’s representative abroad. Be afraid.

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    State and the Army: Looking Away and Looking Forward

    October 5, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    Much is made of the difference between State and Defense; an Internet favorite is an essay called “State is from Venus, DOD is from Mars.” Later this week I’ll be on PRI Radio with author Stephen Glain, who wrote the book State vs. Defense: The Battle to Define America’s Empire to discuss this topic.

    Stephen and I will hammer through the usual stuff about budgets and bureaucracies, but one point of difference, maybe one of the key points we will need to dissect, is the military’s (good) obsession with learning, with lessons learned, with self-criticism. This happens behind the scenes, of course, so while you should not expect to see much at press briefings, it is happening.

    I had a chance to understand this this past weekend, when I was invited to speak to the US Army Civil Affairs Conference in Los Angeles, courtesy of the 425th Civil Affairs Battalion. Civil Affairs, CA, is the branch of the military that does reconstruction, nation building, the hearts and minds stuff that makes up my book. A bunch of soldiers, almost all of whom had already served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, spent a weekend talking critically among themselves and listening to speakers chosen for their varying points of view. So, in addition to a number of military speakers, I shared the stage with Nathan Hodge, author of Armed Humanitarians: The Rise of the Nation Builders, Carter Malkasian, a former contractor PRT leader from Afghanistan and author of Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare PB (Companion), Teru Kuwayama, a brilliant combat photographer now on fellowship at Stanford and author of The Freedom: Shadows And Hallucinations in Occupied Iraq, Steve Zyck of the NATO Civil Military Fusion Centre, as well as a professor who studies the role of gender in post-conflict situations and a Marine working on the use of women soldiers to better interact with the gender-separate societies typical of Islam (interesting point: women soldiers were seen as a third gender when in uniform; however, when they wore a head scarf they sexualized themselves in the eyes of Muslim men and were treated poorly). The whole thing was like a Small Wars Journal piece come to life. Ground zero for development and reconstruction nerds.

    Reality. The soldiers were laser-like in criticizing mistakes they had made in the past, both personal and institutional. Every break saw mini-debates form around the water fountains and while these tended to segregate by rank, I moved among them to hear no shortage of straight talk about the business of nation building, good and bad things about various PRTs they had served with in Iraq and Afghanistan, commanders who got it and those who did not.

    Though every PRT in Iraq had been lead by a State Department Foreign Service Officer, and though every PRT in Afghanistan had had at least one FSO on staff, the State Department did not send a representative (I was present in my private capacity). The Army did invite local press, as well as ROTC cadets from nearby colleges. Both were encouraged to join in the discussions.

    And there’s the money shot: as the US seems edging toward a new stream of reconstruction work (the rumors in the room spoke of work to come in Libya, Yemen and maybe even Syria), the Army is preparing by looking back on its work since 2001. Units preparing for yet another deployment to Afghanistan were there to soak in lessons learned. Where was the State Department? Self-criticism and frank talk seem to be missing inside Foggy Bottom; PRT leaders are not systematically debriefed upon return to the US, and only the US Institute for Peace has made an (uneven) effort with its PRT Oral History Project. A lot of knowledge has been lost, in part due to the lack of interest in writing it down, but perhaps in larger part due to a culture that seems to fear taking a hard look at itself. Maybe they are afraid of what they would see?

    Go Army!



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