Admiral Mullen: foreign policy is too dominated by the military

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says US foreign policy is too dependent on military generals and admirals and not enough on the State Department.

Gerald Herbert/AP
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, left, and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen take part in a briefing at the Pentagon Feb, 22.

The Pentagon’s top officer said the military cannot continue to do the bulk of the heavy lifting overseas, and it’s time for the State Department and other agencies to step up.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Wednesday evening that there are limits to American military power and diplomatic efforts must be just as important if not more so. But despite recognition of this, the military has become the default for American foreign policy.

“It’s one thing to be able and willing to serve as emergency responders, quite another to always have to be the fire chief,” Mullen said in prepared remarks at Kansas State University.

Time to invest in other departments

Citing a speech delivered by President Obama late last year, Mullen said it’s time to invest in other departments, such as homeland security, intelligence, and the State Department, whose budget pales compared to massive Pentagon funding.

“My fear, quite frankly, is that we aren’t moving fast enough in this regard,” he said. “US foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands and not enough on the State Department.”

As critical as the admiral’s remarks appeared to be, he’s not the first one to make them.

Mullen is reinforcing an appeal that his boss, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, made when he appeared at the same lecture series at Kansas State University in 2007. Mr. Gates told the audience that there are limits to American military power, and that agencies such as State and USAID must be resourced properly. He highlighted the lopsidedness of how Congress funds the defense and state departments.

Pentagon budget much larger than State's

This year, for example, the proposed Defense Department budget is $708 billion, and that does not include all war costs. The State Department’s proposed budget, on the other hand, is approximately $52 billion and that includes funding for overseas development efforts conducted by USAID.

One former USAID official agreed with Mullen’s premise. He said part of the problem is that an agency like USAID doesn’t have the bureaucratic instincts to demand more money from Congress. And even if it did, it lacks the capacity to handle the additional funding to hire the kind of qualified people with development experience that the US needs to deploy overseas.

“They can’t handle it,” said the former official. “They don’t have the professional capacity in their staff to manage that level of money.”

While Gates and Mullen stopped short of recommending that Congress cut his own department’s budget in favor of State’s, their call for a more balanced resourcing of foreign policy is causing some policymakers and lawmakers to begin rethinking the status quo. But it could take years before Congress really gets the message.

The culture within non-military agencies must change, too, say experts. State, Agriculture, Justice, and even the FBI need to become more “expeditionary” in nature – willing to send their agents to dangerous places with little infrastructure and change security regulations that can make it difficult for civilians to work in conflict zones.

Generational differences

“The scope and scale of the change required is probably generational,” says John Nagl, president of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington and a former Army officer who specialized in counterinsurgency. “That doesn’t mean we don’t start now.”

Non-military agencies already send personnel to war zones and to other countries, but it can be difficult to get volunteers from agencies whose cultures cling to antiquated views of how the US engages overseas.

The US sees a need to spend more resources in Africa, for example, to help development efforts in many countries, build military capacity within those governments, and help prevent some regions from giving terrorist networks cover to operate. For now, the military steps into a void. US Africa Command was created in 2007 to help advance some of these interests. But Africans have been wary, seeing it as the militarization of American foreign policy.

“It’s hard to see our way out of this, given that it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get an influx of money and resources going into the State Department,” says Richard Downie, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington. “People have been talking about this for a long time.”

Mr. Downie, who participates in the organization’s Africa program, noted that the US needs more resources to engage effectively overseas, including Africa.

“More resources are needed, full stop,” he says.

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