Guest Post by David Shorr: The Hopeless State of State – Taking Gen. Zinni’s Provocative Bait


Steve Clemons and Anthony Zinni.jpg
David Shorr is a program officer at the Stanley Foundation and co-editor of Powers and Principles: International Leadership In A Shrinking World.
In his recent presentation at New America Foundation, retired General Tony Zinni made a number of consciously radical proposals to enhance America’s smart power and boost our government’s effectiveness in achieving the country’s objectives around the world.
General Zinni’s comments compelled the State Department to officially respond on this blog.
Mainly Gen. Zinni’s radical ideas called for putting foreign policy responsibilities into military hands to an even greater extent than they already are. I don’t think this is really the way to go, but it’s a tempting approach because it exploits — albeit for convenience sake and choosing the path of least resistance, rather than difficult change — undeniable strengths and advantages of the military.
So before I raise some questions and difficulties, let me start by stipulating some premises that I actually share. As an organization, the US military is impressively systematic in assessing, planning, mobilizing, and executing — giving it the kind of deep capacities for shaping and improving world conditions that our entire foreign policy indeed needs. It’s operational assets are formidable, and its flexibility is enviable. Time and time again, the military runs into the same question: where are our civilian counterparts to help with the political / social / economic pieces of this mission? One more point to stipulate, General Zinni has given a great deal of attention and thought to these issues in recent years.
Now moving onto the problems I see in Tony Zinni’s ideas:
1. Is taking charge the only way the military can help? Zinni makes a good point when he says that his new command structure for the military’s civil affairs units will help “convince others of the resource needs.” Indeed, one of the structural problems is that budgetary resources tend to flow like water for the military and are parceled out stingily and skeptically for the 150 account. Late last year, a proposal from the Stanley Foundation and Center for a New American Security tried to take advantage of DoD influence through a new budgeting process at the highest levels. Zinni proposes to demonstrate the resource needs by continuing to let the military do the job; how will that ultimately help strengthen the civilian agencies?
2. What about the whole civilian-control-of-the-military thing? As my stipulations basically concede, Gen. Zinni may have understandable reasons — impatience, urgency of the stakes, grounds for pessimism — for not waiting for a beefed up State Department and USAID, but can we really give up on this one? Don’t we have to accomplish a meaningful rebalancing of the military and civilian agencies as a matter of principle? Where would his proposal leave us on that front?
3. Resources versus reform and restructuring. General Zinni offers his own conclusion that strengthening DoS and USAID is not merely a matter of boosting their budgets and personnel, but rather “major restructuring and cultural change.” Other experts like Matt Armstrong can give a better picture of the weaknesses and dysfunctions of these agencies. Undoubtedly major reforms are needed, but let me hone in on this idea that resources without reform are not a solution. I think this is a more damning claim than people realize. From my view, these agencies are manifestly short-staffed. Whatever the shortcomings in keeping up with the times, they have also been starved of resources. (This excellent Stimson Center – American Academy of Diplomacy report gives a detailed plan for rebuilding.) The no-resources-without-restructuring argument denies the past decades of lack of budgetary support. But it’s even more drastic than that. To deny the importance of budget and personnel increases is to call DoS and USAID utterly incapable of putting resources to good use, and we just shouldn’t go there.
4. The need for a strategy. Switching back to some common ground, I completely agree with Tony Zinni that an overarching national security and foreign policy strategy is essential to help steer the authors and implements of US policy, which is why I’m glad Secretary Clinton has launched a new Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I do want to ask General Zinni, though, whether he really thinks political, social, and economic efforts and contingencies can be planned to the same degree as kinetic military operations? Also, I think it’s worth preserving some of the legacies of former Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s efforts on transformational diplomacy. From what I remember, the report on The State Department of 2025 was pretty good, and I liked this formulation of the DoS strategic objective:

A more democratic, secure, and prosperous world composed of well-governed states that respond to the needs of their people, reduce widespread poverty, and act responsibly within the international system.

5. Post-conflict, pre-conflict, reconstruction, stabilization, etc. I’m in partial agreement regarding the nature and scope of the smart power problem. On the one hand, General Zinni is right to focus on the intensive on-the-ground challenges of post-conflict stabilization, and even more on-target for highlighting pre-conflict needs for stability, governance, and basic living standards. Indeed, this idea of fragile states as a first-order cause of critical problems is a major focus for the Stanley Foundation, as articulated here by my colleague Mike Kraig. I’m not in a position to adjudicate between Gen. Zinni and Jeffrey Stacey’s response on this blog regarding the development of S/CRS, except to note once again that the very nature of the civilian reserve corps is temporary rather than permanent capacity. But I also want to point out that these stability efforts hardly constitute the entirety of the strategic challenges to US foreign policy and the civilian agencies, though I’ve written on my own blog, Democracy Arsenal, about a related conceptual problem.
Okay, that’s probably (more than) enough response. Now discuss.
— David Shorr


9 comments on “Guest Post by David Shorr: The Hopeless State of State – Taking Gen. Zinni’s Provocative Bait

  1. John Waring says:

    How much money are we spending on what are essentially cold war weapons systems?
    How much money do we spend on what is essentially signals intelligence?
    The USA spends more on defense than the next 40 countries combined, according to Juan Cole.
    The fundamental problem is that the civilian agencies have been starved to death.
    The issues we face are primarily political in nature and do not admit of a military solution.
    The budget should start to reflect this fact. That’s the reform we need.


  2. JohnH says:

    Oh treat (not). Teaching the military how to do “national building”…so they can try it here.


  3. David Shorr says:

    Thanks, Dan et al for such thoughtful responses. I don’t believe Zinni or any of the current military brass are trying to extend their foreign policy domain, nor that they begrudge the State Department’s pivotal role in formulating the country’s foreign policy.
    On the other hand, I think the military’s (not wholly unjustified) confidence in their own capabilities may be leading them to some insensitivities and blind spots regarding the State Department’s shortcomings and the associated questions of civil-military relations. I worry about offers to step in and “get ‘er done” rather than getting behind an effort to strengthen DoS and USAID. And with regard to Afghanistan and McChrystal in particular, the regional commmander’s public maneuvering regarding (lack of) potential options is quite troubling.
    I’m having difficulty reading the State Dept / USAID situation myself. I can see the problem with doling out aid to serve short-term, short-sighted expediencies. But it should also be possible to be sophisticated enough to put development assistance into a larger foreign policy context without betraying the good principles and practices of economic development. Advocates of a cabinet-level development agency seem to have lost the battle, and Secretary Clinton is probably fighting for the same traditional primacy of the State Department in all dimensions of foreign policy.


  4. Dan Kervick says:

    OK, a lot of this is above-my-head, inside Washington baseball, I admit. But here’s my guess about what is going on here: Secretary Clinton has been charged by President Obama with remaking the State Department, elevating its role, restoring it as the pre-eminent center of US foreign policy-making and clawing back some of the substantial power it lost to the Pentagon in recent years, especially during two terms under the exceedingly militaristic Bush administration. This is the kind of change almost all Democrats, who tend to be deeply suspicious of the military, military command structures and military solutions, agreed they wanted during the 2008 presidential election. That’s why a major player like Clinton wanted this job in the first place.
    The Obama administration, as is its wont, is not just barging and blundering ahead with these major changes to the executive branch of government, but is preparing for them and thinking them through with a careful review process. Obviously a drawback to such a process is that certain things cannot get done as quickly and efficiently during the interim period of review as they will once the reorganization is complete.
    The soldiers are worried about these changes, of course. Like every big government interest, they never want to lose any of their power, their budget allocations, their independence or their staff. And I suspect that many of those tough guys in the Pentagon, who are now riding high with unprecedented autonomy and independence from the other departments of the executive branch, are not looking forward to an anticipated reorganization that forces them to answer to some little lady Madame Secretary in the State Department. So they are attempting a power grab during this review period, to preempt as many of these power shifts as possible by forcing peremptory executive decisions and bureaucratic faits accompli.
    Personally, I trust Obama and Clinton to get this done right, and am disinclined to heed these opportunistic pleas for urgency and haste. Zinni seems like a good guy, but frankly, his home department and favorite part of our government needs to be knocked down several pegs. This might seem like meaningless bureaucratic maneuvering to a lot of us. But we are talking in the end about the degree to which the United States engages the world as a citizen-run republic, or as a hierarchical, soldier-run military machine.
    The challenges and dangers here were made apparent to me earlier this week by a post from Thomas Ricks at his Foreign Policy blog. Ricks was miffed that Obama was daring to “dither” on Afghanistan policy, due to the fact that he had taken up *all of a week* to evaluate General McChrystal’s report and recommendations, without having reached a decision on the next steps in Afghanistan. Now Ricks is a big-time soldier-hugger, and his attitude seemed to be that once a general tells his commander-in-chief what needs to be done in his own assigned part of the world, it is the boss’s job to hop-to and rubber stamp the request expeditiously. I assume Ricks was reflecting some grumbling he is hearing among the military.
    But the president has the responsibility of developing and overseeing a global national security strategy, and weighing the needs of commanders in the field against the broadest national security considerations. His job isn’t to take orders from his field commanders. And I’m not too comfortable with the unauthorized leak of the McChrystal report.
    So, from where I sit, these Defense Department brass might have gotten a bit too big for their britches lately, and we need to stay the course to restore the of authority and capacity of civilian government, the policy-making oomph of the non-military branches of the foreign policy apparatus, and a more appropriate and republican understanding of military deference to the executive. Give the administration time to get these reforms right. They aren’t simple or easy, but they are very important.


  5. ... says:

    “it becomes a tool of diplomatic strategy as opposed to a development agency”..
    propaganda would be a better one word summation….


  6. Dan Kervick says:

    From what I can tell, the US AID situation is up in the air because nobody knows what the future of the agency is going to look like. There are two ongoing government reviews related to the agency, including one directed by the State Department itself, and apparently there are widespread worries inside the agency that Clinton’s ambitious plans for development include absorbing US AID’s operations fully into the State Department as a tool of diplomatic strategy.
    “The biggest fear in the development community is that State views USAID as implementation only, so it becomes a tool of diplomatic strategy as opposed to a development agency,” said Atwood, adding that even inside the USAID bureaucracy that tendency persists.”
    “Clinton has backed the use of “smart power” — employing a full range of economic, military, political and development tools in U.S. foreign policy — but many aid experts are questioning whether the U.S. Agency for International Development could lose clout under her plans. While Clinton has championed additional personnel for USAID, aid groups worry that the once-autonomous agency could be swallowed up in the State Department, with long-term development goals losing out to short-term political aims.”
    It’s no wonder no one wants the job if basic questions about budgeting, chain of command and status of the position have not been answered yet.


  7. WigWag says:

    This very interesting post by David Shorr. Perhaps Zinni’s proposal is not quite as radical as it appears at first blush. After all, wasn’t it Clauswitz who first demonstrated the fundamental symmetry between politics and war when he famously said, “It is clear that war is not a mere act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political activity by other means?”
    Shorr notes Zinni’s impatience with the State Department and AID when he said,
    “As my stipulations basically concede, Gen. Zinni may have understandable reasons — impatience, urgency of the stakes, grounds for pessimism — for not waiting for a beefed up State Department and USAID, but can we really give up on this one?”
    The reality on this is not pretty. During most of the Bush Administration the State Department was completely marginalized and during the first George W. Bush term it was little more than a vassal agency of DOD.
    And now, we’re nine months into the Obama Administration and there’s still no Administrator for the Agency for International Development (AID). Despite frequent complaints by Hillary Clinton to the White House, the Administration appears either too indifferent or too incompetent to select someone to run the organization; frankly Obama should be embarrassed.
    As Robert Kaplan has pointed out, the military is already highly involved with political activity and nation building and development activities in the countries in which it operates. It’s not just higher ranking officers and civilian DOD leaders who play this role; its midlevel officers, and “grunts” who are actively involved. Anyone wanting to learn more about this should read Robert Kaplan’s, “Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond.”


  8. samuelburke says:

    “During the Bush years, according to the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, a military coup took place in the US, and the Pentagon is now ascendant in every area of American foreign policy. A measure of its control is the number of wars of aggression being waged simultaneously and the adoption of a “first-strike” doctrine that has lowered the threshold on nuclear weapons, together with the blurring of the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons.
    All this mocks Obama’s media rhetoric about “a world without nuclear weapons.” In fact, he is the Pentagon’s most important acquisition. His acquiescence with its demand that he keep on Bush’s secretary of “defense” and arch war-maker, Robert Gates, is unique in US history. He has proved his worth with escalated wars from south Asia to the Horn of Africa. Like Bush’s America, Obama’s America is run by some very dangerous people. We have a right to be warned. When will those paid to keep the record straight do their job?”


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