A new U.S. focus on nation-building

Critics say the Bush administration is relying too heavily on the military.

Susan Walsh/AP
Getting along: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice talks with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Capitol Hill April 15, prior to testifying before the House Armed Services Committee.

George W. Bush resisted calls to do nation-building during his 2000 campaign, but eight years later, his cabinet is making fundamental changes to reorganize the way the American government can prop up countries around the world.

As the US spends billions to build the military and governance capacity of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Bush administration finds it has no choice but to support such efforts in other emerging countries.

But analysts and members of Congress warn that a recent push by the administration for more money for train-and-equip programs relies too heavily on the Defense Department, and those initiatives will continue to erode the powers of non-military agencies.

"I would argue that what it will do over time is just continue to emasculate the civilian agencies," says Kathleen Hicks, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. "[The State Department] is never going to be able to compete with money and people, and if the mission goes, then you'll continue to rely on the military."

Last week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice appeared before a House panel asking to stabilize a funding stream that allows the Pentagon to conduct train-and-equip missions and for the State Department to work alongside or separately to support military and other forms of nation-building.

The request amounts to a large increase, from $300 million a year for the military to perform training, to about $750 million per year. A separate legislative request to transfer at least a $100 million from the Pentagon to the State Department would let it provide civilian support for emerging nations.

The proposal, which falls under the Building Global Partnerships Act, simply extends work the military has done in places like Georgia, Somalia, and Haiti.

The US is in an era of persistent, "preventive conflict," as analysts say, in which propping up the militaries and governments of failing states helps stop extremists from establishing footholds there.

But given the Defense Department's vast resources, and, by contrast, the State Department and USAID's more paltry budgets, the military has become the de-facto nation-builder. That worries members of Congress who think the military is already strained. Requests by Secretaries Gates and Rice would add to its burden.

But for two departments that especially in recent years have not gotten along well, analysts said it was significant that Rice appeared at the hearing with Gates. And Rice said she agrees with the way ahead.

Still, propping up nations requires more people than even perhaps the military, with its 1.4 million active duty personnel, has to spare.

During last week's hearing, Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D) of Calif., noted the need for manpower. "We came out of the 20th century believing that we had invested in smart systems and smart platforms and lot of things, and the truth is, it's about people," she said. "And I think that what we're finding is that we don't have enough people across the board."

The US government is still trying to get a handle on just what globalization means for its national security policy, says Lt. Col. John Nagl, an expert in counterinsurgency who advocates more military resources be put toward building other nations' militaries. "There is an increasing realization that helping our friends and allies help themselves against the scourge of radicalism and insurgency is key to winning the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the broader long war," he says.

The need for more people – both military and civilian – comes as agencies that traditionally provide civilian experts to developing countries have shrunk. USAID, for example, has reduced from as many as 15,000 officers during the Vietnam War to about 1,100 today.

Meanwhile, what the Defense Department spends on healthcare alone is more than the entire State Department annual budget – about $36 billion.

Gates was lauded for a speech he made in November at Kansas State University in which he argued for a more flexible approach to addressing radicalism around the world using the whole of government, and funded accordingly. "I am well aware that having a sitting Secretary of Defense travel halfway across the country to make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies might fit into the category of man bites dog – or to some back in the Pentagon, blasphemy," he joked. "It is certainly not an easy sell politically."

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