Redeploying American Power Through Listening, and Civilians


A little over year ago after Paul Wolfowitz’s unceremonious departure from the World Bank, the newly appointed head of the World Bank, Bob Zoellick, went on a “listening tour” both as a symbolic gesture to the world to repair damaged relations with investors, but also to gather real “intelligence” of sorts on the needs and demands of the institution’s global stakeholders.
But listening, as a tactic, also has direct applications for national security and counterterrorism. Last week Sen. Russ Feingold highlighted the critical role for civilians in open source intelligence gathering to fill significant gaps:

The problem is our deficits in information collection, as well as reporting and analysis. By “information,” I mean not just intelligence gathered clandestinely, but also information obtained through diplomatic reporting and all the overt channels through which our government learns about the world. Inside and outside the Intelligence Community, our government has failed to coordinate information collection across different departments and agencies…
Appearing before the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Michael Leiter, Director of the United States National Counterterrorism Center, specifically noted that “much of the information about the instability that can lead to safe havens or ideological radicalization comes not from covert collection but from open collection, best done by Foreign Service officers.” The problem is that it is not in the power of Mr. Leiter, or anyone in the Intelligence Community, to make sure that there are enough Foreign Service officers, in the right places, with the right resources.

In a similar vein, Fred Hiatt is supporting such a venture in Iran by opening a US interests section in Tehran, both to advance US narratives in the region but also to gather valuable information through a as a “listening post” to better read the Tehran street (like the scene pictured above). Some others like my colleague David Weinberg came to support roughly the same proposal a year ago.
Nevertheless, the more this idea gains purchase, the better to repair our intelligence deficits in the short term and rebrand a civilian face on American power in the long term. The militarization of American influence has been of increasing concern, especially to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which raised a red flag on this under Sen. Lugar’s guidance in December of 2006.
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson (Ret.) recently critiqued this over-militarization of US foreign policy and, to counter the perception as well as substance of this, suggested promoting regional Assistant Secretaries of State to Under Secretaries effectively make them “proconsuls” in different regional theaters above the four star generals stationed in the unified combatant command.

In addition to opening more “listening posts” and promoting civilians above over military envoys, another simple approach to strengthen the diplomatic offensive agenda would be to announce a doubling of the state department in terms of its budget (between 5-8% of the defense department depending on whether you include supplemental) and personnel (fewer foreign service officers than the military has band members).
–Sameer Lalwani


9 comments on “Redeploying American Power Through Listening, and Civilians

  1. Kathleen says:

    JohnH… you captured the spirit if the US State Department.. while I have not had yions.our experience with the US State Department, I have had my own interactions with them and was able to observe them in action for some years at the United Nations in Geneva, during Reagan/Bush/Quayle terms. The arrogant sense of superiority was palable in all its dealings, lots of huffing and puffing and arm twisting, muscle flexing…threats, veiled and otherwise, very little diplomacy or even common civility, especially to fellow Americans criticizing Uncle Sam on the world stage. Definitely no need to be informed of any divergent opinions…. so little need to know, the US mission generally gets up and leaves the room, when Native Americans speak at the UN Commisssion for Human Rights, now named the Human ‘Rights Council. on one occasion, the head of the US mission came up to me and scolded me for imflammatory remarks ina speech i had written for a Hopi elder. Hopi are peaceful people and do not speak in hostile terms, so iasked him what imflammatory remarks and if he had actually heard the speech. His reply got him re-assigned. He actually said, “You hear one Native American speech, you’ve heard them all.” He lost that argument. I have no experience with the US State Department under a Democratic adminstration. Let’s hope it is better able to relate to others as equals , not enemies.


  2. ... says:

    excellent comments Johnh – thanks for sharing your perspective…
    as usual the captcha is forcing me to try to post this 3 or 4 times… wonder how long before it goes thru… it is one way to cut down on posts..


  3. Mr.Murder says:

    Don’t forget that Iraq spending is often put under supplemental and emergency/special appropriations, so it isn’t technically part of the budget comparison in its entirety.
    They always find ways to group Afghanistan spending in with Iraq spending as well, so the two fronts we fight war in both are not actually counted as a piece of our budget’s proprietary pie.
    This is Enron/Countrywide on steroids. Fuzzy math, ad infinitum, worldwide.


  4. Mr.Murder says:

    What about the Aug. 6th memo didn’t you guys get?
    I believe “a failure of imagination” is the conclusion that was reached. Who could have imagined?
    You said Condi has a new foreign policy triumph?
    A combination of Senior positions, subalterns, staffers, all have made the progress, several of whom recently left. Burns, etc. have taken on the mantle of diplomacy and actually helped engineer some level of normalcy in foreign policy.


  5. Paul Norheim says:

    Excellent, jon.


  6. Bob says:

    What, a kinder, gentler, imperialism? Will there be a slot for Oprah?


  7. jon says:

    The proposal is good, but only half of the equation.
    After listening must come actions that reflect what was heard
    and learned. To ask people’s opinions and then not have that
    reflected in the outcome is a deep insult.
    World perception of the US currently is that we are ignorant,
    belligerent, and spoiled. It should not be hard to make a change
    for the better.
    Demilitarizing foreign policy is also essential. Civilians should
    be handling the main contacts and negotiations. The military
    must be aware and supportive of diplomatic and policy goals,
    but their role should recede. Currently, it is the opposite, and
    State is following the military, while the military expands its
    diplomatic initiatives.
    Diplomacy is cheap, so there’s also the bang for the buck to
    consider. No matter how expensive the striped pants and
    shrimp cocktail, it’s vastly less costly than the smallest exertion
    of military force, even discounting the future costs brought on
    by resentment to military force.


  8. PacificCoastRon says:

    We will also be requiring a citizen movement dedicated to providing an America without an imperialistic foreign policy.
    Of course, to reach this goal, we will have to either re-arrange the Democratic Party, and/or create our own new party, and re-structure the media, and defend the Constitution, just as by-products.
    The work of the next decades is waiting to be done. Are there a million or more Americans ready to step up for this movement ??
    Reading the blogs, a lot of people seem to get it … America needs a non-imperialistic foreign policy. How do we come together to work for it ??


  9. Johnh says:

    Reasonable though this post is, it represents a radical departure from traditional American foreign policy as practiced in the field. American diplomatic posts are put in place to advance American interests, period. Above all is American commercial interest.
    In my own personal experience, State Department employees overseas hang out mostly with the expat community and high local government officials. In the developing world they often speak only the European colonial language (French, English) and have no interest in learning the local language. Iraq is a particularly pathetic example–there are only a dozen or so people competent in Arabic. As in the run-up to Vietnam, people were de-selected, precisely because they knew something about the country and might interfere with Washington’s preconceived agenda.
    I asked a State Department employee charged with democracy-building why Europe was more successful at it than the US. He said that European countries typically employ country specialists, while Americans employee only functional specialists, who are supposed to move seamlessly between countries, dispensing their wisdom, oblivious to the local context. Unfortunately, you reap what you sow.
    And you will not get change unless you purge the entrenched foreign policy establishment and replace them with people of an entirely different mindset, people who listen to and respect the people of the countries where they serve.


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