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« Foreign Policy: Think Again: The Pentagon (The military's Chicken Littles want you to think the sky is falling. Don't believe them: America has never been safer.) | Main | The Boomers' Pontius Pilate moment »
12:33AM

Mr. Ignatius, I called it the "Department for Everything Else"

Nice piece by David Ignatius at WAPO about the "power gap" in the US foreign policy establishment.  He describes it as basically the missing link for all the complex security situations out there where the traditional "big war" US force isn't appropriate:

Here lies one of the biggest unresolved problem for U.S. national-security planners today: How can America shape events in an unstable world without putting “boots on the ground” or drones in the air? Does this stabilizing mission belong to the experts at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID)? Or to the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which was created in 2011 to deal with such problems? Or to the facilitators and analysts at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which was created in 1984 to help resolve conflicts peacefully? Or maybe to the covert-action planners at the CIA, who work secretly to advance U.S. interests in key countries?

The answer is that all of the above would have some role in shaping the U.S. response to a potential crisis. But in practice, the overlapping roles mean that none of them would have ultimate responsibility. Thus, in our imaginary NSC meeting, no one takes charge.

Actually, I called it the System Administrator force at first, and I said it would ultimately be more civilian than uniform, more USG than DoD, and more private-sector funded than fueled by foreign aid.  

That was in The Pentagon's New Map, which Ignatius praised so much in a December 2004 WAPO column that he got me fired from the Naval War College a few days later (so yes, I have known what it was like to have your government career axed by a flattering MSM piece).  

I haven't had a full-time job since - and never will again (by choice).  As the old Roman proverb goes, A slave with many masters is a free man.

Then, in Blueprint for Action, I argued that my Sys Admin force needed a bureaucratic center of gravity in the USG for all the reasons Ignatius cites in this recent column, and I called the Department of Everything Else.  And yeah, it was all about the "power gap" he describes there: 

I’ve talked recently with officials from all these agencies, and what I hear is discouraging. They’re each heading in their own direction, working on their own particular piece of the puzzle. The pieces get assembled in well-managed U.S. embassies overseas, where the ambassador makes the country team work together. But similar coordination happens too rarely in Washington.

The U.S. Institute of Peace, headed by Jim Marshall, prides itself on being a small, nimble organization with a cadre of specialists who can travel to crisis zones and meet with different sects, tribes and parties. But the organization likes its independence and doesn’t want to be an arm of the State Department or any other bureaucracy. It’s a boutique, but that means its efforts are hard to multiply. And its presence can create confusion about who’s doing what.

State’s new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has the right mission statement. But it’s only 165 people and shrinking, and it doesn’t even have the heft to lead the State Department’s activities, let alone the full government’s. The bureau’s chief, Rick Barton, wants State to designate a “center of gravity” for each budding crisis, so that there’s at least an address for mobilizing resources. It’s a good idea but just a start.

USAID has been America’s lead development agency for decades. But it’s also a perennial area of bureaucratic dispute, and many analysts argue that the nation gets less bang for its development buck than it should. It’s hard to imagine USAID being the strategic answer. The same goes for the CIA, which under John Brennan wants to refocus on its core intelligence-collection mission, rather than covert action.

It’s a cliche these days to talk about how America needs more emphasis on “soft power” and its better-educated cousin, “smart power.” Meanwhile, for all the talk, the problems fester and the power gap grows.

What I was told by many government types back then was that I was right, but that it could not happen until an entirely new way of thinking emerged on the subject - USG-wide.  

Well, I spent the next decade trying to spread that thought both here in the US and in about four dozen other countries.  I gave that talk about a thousand times (literally) to about half a million people - live and in person.

And I still try to spread that vision.

What I've said to people all along is that we simply need to suffer enough failure to finally realize that the old packages don't work.  We can go in and blow everything up (Powell Doctrine, Bush in practice), or we can pretend a mafia-style decapitation/assassination campaign will work (Israel for decades, US under Obama).  

But the real solution still hangs out there, waiting for us to get serious about finally addressing it - instead of chasing this "pivot" fantasy against the Chinese.

So no, the problem isn't going anywhere, and neither is the solution - sad to say.

But eventually it happens, because eventually we'll fear the change less than the repeated failures.

Hat tip to Jeffrey Itell for alerting me on the Ignatius column.

Reader Comments (4)

It seemed to me that John Kerry's announcement about the kind of aid he was pledging to the Syrian Opposition had the potential for making your ideas real. I know that we have been helping in "non weapon" ways for a while, but Kerry seemed to be putting an emphasis not so much on training fighters, but in creating or maintaining infrastructure and civil institutions, plus medical and food aid. This kind of help has been, up to now, the province of the Muslm Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations, who have been successful in wooing the population politically as well.
Do you see this as a possible shift, or just more stalling and fine words?

March 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichal Shapiro

Maybe the key is something similar to wikistrats crowdsources strategy on a bigger scale?

A possibility is building further on the ideas of "sys-admin force", towards an international multi-ideology organization for counterterrorism, security and peace - working in open, empirical and innovative ways.

Lets for the moment call this possible strategic framework: "INNOVATIVE DIPLOMACY".

The US government or anyone else could start an initiative for this. Various organizations, governments and individuals could cooperate on the process.

Any problems along the way can be defined as learning experiences and data for the further development of a modern world security strategy – which actually (for some reason or other) works.

A diplomacy for the new millennium would probably need a very different approach from anything tried previously. The good news is that most speculations about the “generally right approach” are superfluous. The project could rather function as a social science in the making – trying different approaches experimentally until finding something that works well for all directly affected parties.

What would be the goal of such an organization? Maximation of all affected parties interests and concerns with little or no problems. Redifing the whole social structure and implementing contextually tailored designes for each specific situation. Using open crowdsources exchanges of ideas going on through internet sites.

Only work on win-win solutions prioritized all the way, and development and experimentally testing specific social strategies until such effectively working solutions are found.

What interests could have priority in the analysis? “Solid” interests which everyone without exception shares. Among such interest areas: total security for all affected parties in a certain region. Good food and shelter for all humans in a region. Open sourced social development projects of learning arts, crafts and systems for reducing stress for the people and managing time and other resources with more efficiency. Reducing all waste of resources to an absolute minimum. Develop flexible social systems for resource maximation: Designing systems where each resource serves multiple functions simultaneously. Taking knowledge of systemdesigners, sociologists and permaculture and integrating in to troubled areas > Testing it openly and empirically > Developing and using only what actually works for all parties. Many other things.

What could be an ideological platform to operate from?

-Basic human value and dignity: As every baby thrown into the world needs care and protection, even every non-perfect adult can be respected as a fellow human being.

-Resource-efficiency and general value maximation designs of social systems: All resources used in supereffective ways with no waste in no areas. Innovation of ideas + Empirical testing of solutions = Inevitability of something effective turning up eventually. It would actually be a kind of evolution of ideas through natural selection: Testing it all and rejecting what don’t work.

-Eclectic and pluralistic pragmatism + contextual empiricism: All ideas, methods, systems, approaches, theories, views, opinions and experiences can be defined as something POTENTIALLY VALUABLE. They can all be viewed as something which may be useful to integrate or test out, under certain empirical life conditions. They can at least be al viewed as a contribution to the pool of ideas. All ideological “generalized devaluation” can simply be skipped right from the beginning. In short: Anything goes and the situation will decide the specific approaches.

Could something in this direction be worth investigating further?

March 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGG

I know what "Department of Everything Else" is called - it is called the Colonial Service.

Some of us ex-Colonials know what the trajectory is, we implore you not to take it. You can't have a colonial service without colonies. So if you can't have colonies, concentrate on more realistic objectives.

You cannot remake the World in your image.

The Arab World will go through a period of turmoil before they stabilise - they will sort themselves out, just like the US sorted itself out during and after the Civil War.

March 4, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMaduka

Mr. Barnett,

I don't understand, how come the Petraeus-led Counterinsurgency did not mature into the SysAdmin force like the OSS matured into the CIA?

Maduka: "I know what "Department of Everything Else" is called - it is called the Colonial Service."

You're thinking of Europeans. That's now how Americans do it.

March 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterEric

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