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A much needed shot in the arm for U.S. civilian power

Admiral Mullen is only one in a long line of defense leaders to call for rebuilding U.S. civilian capacity. As Chief of Naval Operations, he flat out offered to hand over part of his budget to the State Department. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is just as blunt, saying recently: “Development is a lot cheaper than sending soldiers”.  At a recent Senate Armed Services hearing, our top general in Afghanistan David Petraeus joined the chorus of voices supporting increasing the civilian capacity in the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Our war fighters believe that USAID and the State Department are better positioned to avert future crises through accelerated development and poverty reduction, capacity building in fragile states, and conflict prevention. A recent poll commissioned by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition found that nearly 90 percent of active duty and retired military officers believe that the tools of diplomacy and development are critical to achieving U.S. national security objectives.

The Obama administration should prioritize securing congressional support for the long-term rebuilding of USAID, the State Department, and other civilian foreign affairs and foreign assistance agencies that were gutted in the aftermath of the Cold War. While the president has called for sufficient funding for foreign aid programs and diplomatic initiatives, focusing squarely on funding may minimize the daunting task of rebuilding lost human capital (such as engineers and agricultural specialists) and basic operating systems to plan, design, implement and evaluate U.S. foreign assistance. The wide range of reforms launched by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah are an excellent first step, but they will require bipartisan political support to modernize, streamline and strengthen U.S. aid efforts. When effectively delivered, U.S. assistance will accelerate inclusive growth, reduce poverty, improve people’s lives, support stability and build democratic governance in fragile states. Those results support American security and contribute to our prosperity.

Our nation’s atrophied civilian power cannot be restored overnight, but our civilian and military leadership can begin working together immediately to get the ball moving.

First, the president should mobilize political support for a unified national security budget. In our current budgeting process, congressional authorizers and appropriators are much more likely to siphon funds from the State Department’s budget than the Defense Department. A unified national security budget is the best way to ensure long term, robust funding for development and adequate civilian power to meet the challenges of 21st century statecraft. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressly endorsed the concept in remarks at the Brookings Institution. It is time for President Obama, Secretary Gates and congressional leaders to follow her lead.

Second, our defense leadership should present a united front with our civilian leadership. Our military leaders must do more than talk the talk on civilian power; they must also walk the walk. When senior State, USAID, Treasury and Millennium Challenge Corporation officials appear before Congress to justify their budget requests, they should be joined by the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of State, or the four-star commanders of DoD’s regional commands and Special Operations Command.  In defense budget hearings, DoD witnesses should be accompanied by witnesses of similar rank from relevant civilian agencies.  Such joint public appearances and subsequent private meetings would make clear to the bipartisan Congressional leadership that the FY 2012 DoD, State and foreign assistance budgets need to be seen as parts of a unified national security budget and considered as a whole, not piecemeal. A strong military alone is not enough to protect America, and our budget – even under duress – ought to reflect that.

The clock is ticking. Without an innovative “civil-military” political strategy and careful consultation with both authorizing and appropriations committees, a Republican-dominated House is likely to place the International Affairs budget on the chopping block, even though it only accounts for a sliver of our federal budget. Our civilian and military leadership must speak in unison to underscore how vital rebuilding our civilian institutions is to our national security. Money invested today to accelerate inclusive economic growth and strengthen key institutions in fragile states will prevent far larger resources spent later on post-conflict assistance or in deploying U.S. combat forces. Reversing course only ensures that our military must continue to take on responsibilities traditionally delegated to civilian agencies, while distracting them from their primary responsibility: war fighting.

Anderson is a principal member of the Modernizing Foreign Assistance Network (MFAN) and a Visiting Professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Public and International Affairs. He was a career Foreign Service Officer at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where he served as Senior Development Adviser at the US European Command.

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