The weekly meeting of regional assistant secretaries of State is a time-honored affair. But when the State Department's recently named coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization, Carlos Pascual, was invited into last week's meeting, it was a sign of evolved thinking in the Bush administration.
After all, here is an administration that once eschewed nation-building and other forms of "soft power" as quiche eaters' social work. Moreover, the State Department is headed by a woman who once derided the Clinton White House for sending off soldiers to escort school kids in conflict zones.
Yet now Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is commanding an effort to give new importance to postconflict reconstruction, and the White House is pumping more money into finding innovative ways of addressing failed states around the world. Among its ideas: developing coordinated efforts by public and private forces and the military for intervening in crisis situations.
Underlying the change is a realization - after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that were envisaged as quick operations for regime change but have evolved into long-term rebuilding commitments - that the 21st century requires smarter approaches to weak but potentially threatening states.
"There's been a sea change in thinking as a result of the engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq," says James Dobbins, a former diplomat in the Bush and Clinton administrations.
"This administration came in not only opposed to involvement in peacekeeping and engaging US forces in these activities, but also skeptical even if other people were doing them," says Mr. Dobbins, now director of the Rand Corp.'s International Security and Defense Policy Center in Arlington, Va. "Now they recognize these kinds of missions are unavoidable, so they are putting a new emphasis on developing more effective and rapid-response ways of doing them."
Noting that Secretary Rice often speaks of "transformational diplomacy," the new undersecretary for political affairs, Nicholas Burns, told an audience here last week that there is "no better example of what she means by that than this office" for reconstruction and stabilization.
Perhaps even more telling of the changed thinking is the extent to which the Pentagon has signed on to the new effort. When the Defense Science Board last year issued a study criticizing preparations for Iraq and postwar stabilization planning, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld not only embraced the report but directed staff to find ways to implement its recommendations for doing things better next time.
The Pentagon is putting more effort into expanding and training military police, engineers, and civil affairs officers that play key roles in these kinds of deployments - and were found lacking in the Bush first-term engagements.
In addition, Mr. Rumsfeld supported creation last year of the coordinator for stabilization and reconstruction in the State Department - a position that ran counter to his image of keeping State in the dark and out of matters comprising military deployment.
Mr. Burns says the office for reconstruction and stabilization, which will draw on work in agencies ranging from the CIA and Treasury to the US Agency for International Development, will focus on "getting civilian expertise to our military leaders as they plan operations and undertake" them.
The administration is still reluctant to appear as a proponent of nation-building - or at least to adopt the terminology. "If you ask them if they've embraced nation-building, they would say 'We don't do nation-building, but we do help people build their nations," says Mr. Dobbins. But what they're doing, he adds, is basically nation-building by another name.
One reason for the reluctance to embrace the concept beyond mere face-saving is that Congress, for various reasons, remains skeptical of the administration's new interest in global intervention. "We're seeing an appetite in Congress to limit funding and put conditions on it in this area, whether it's to the UN or to the administration's requests," says Victoria Holt of the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
Congress approved less money this year for UN peacekeeping than the White House sought, and substantially less - $3 million compared to a requested $17 million - for the office for reconstruction and stabilization. And Congress failed to approve creation of a contingency fund for emergency interventions - such as to Haiti last year - although President Bush is trying again for $100 million to set up such a fund in 2006.
The impact of Iraq is a major reason for the hesitancy on the Hill, on both sides of the aisle. Liberals fear the Bush White House might use such a fund to undertake new regime-change adventures - such as in Iran or Syria - while conservatives stress how Iraq demonstrates a costly transition of military interventions into nation-building. "The opposition seems to come from the idea that if we get good at this kind of thing, we'll just do more of it," says Dobbins.
The Bush administration is showing new interest in peace operations at a time when other countries and international organizations are also stepping up such activity. The United Nations, NATO, the European Union, and the African Union - even the G-8 - are all either setting up new bodies like rapid-reaction corps, or pressing reforms to improve peace and stabilization operations. "The whole world is trying to figure out how to do this better," says Ms. Holt.
She agrees the Bush administration has undergone a striking transformation in its approach to intervention and stabilization, but says it is still uncertain how dedicated the US really is. For one thing, she says the nomination of John Bolton as ambassador to the UN raises questions about the commitment to peace operations.
"He's long been a major skeptic on peacekeeping," she says. "Either he's shifted fundamentally, or the administration is signalling through his appointment a change in what had been an improving view of such international operations."
Holt says the crisis and ethnic killings in Darfur, Sudan, will test the administration's new interest in improving international intervention. But she adds that Darfur also offers an example of how the administration is going to have to do more than talk about intervention or coordinate better among agencies if it is really going to make a difference.
"There's going to have to be more leadership," she says, "to convince the country, but really the critics on the Hill, that there's something to be gained from improving the US capacity for such operations."