Hillary Clinton may well be short-sighted when it comes to the implementation of 'smart power,' a policy field that the Pentagon and Robert Gates have undoubtedly stolen a march on [Getty]
In the coming week or so, the Obama administration will release its much-anticipated Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), a new report instituted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to benchmark and frame a new approach to managing international development budgets and objectives.
Behind the scenes, a serious battle has raged between the administration’s development czars – and interestingly, while Hillary Clinton ended up prevailing in most of the key contests, she has yet to put her stamp on a more effective approach to 21st century international development and hasn’t yet upgraded her own department’s growing but mostly ignored nation-stabilizing, smart power team.
Hillary's missed beat
While details of the QDDR are not yet public, we know that Hillary Clinton has stymied efforts to make the US Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator cabinet rank, preempted an effort for the agency to fully break away from state department guidance, and squashed the creation of a high-ranking Development Council in the National Security Council that would have authority to run various bureaus across government on key development, stabilization, and relief missions.
But what Hillary Clinton hasn’t done is elevate the team and personnel committed to international stabilization and development within her own department.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates and others have been out calling for an increase in the state department’s resources and personnel because too much of the international civil society, humanitarian, and stabilization functions of the US government were increasingly flowing into Pentagon budgets and responsibilities.
In making her final decisions on the QDDR, Clinton should focus on taking the various parts of the international development universe inside the state department and create an “Under Secretary for Development.” Furthermore, she should be making her own department’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) as well as her Civilian Response Corps (CRC) the crown jewels of this new position.
Challenging Pentagon primacy
Former government official and Foreign Policy blogger David Rothkopf has suggested that creating such an under secretary level position would focus the state department’s own thinking and deployment of teams and budgets in a way that would have changed the status quo in the administration’s paralyzed, mostly ineffectual development bureaucracies. Rothkopf shared with me that a move like this by Hillary Clinton would change the game and restore confidence that the state department is a viable player rather than conceding this challenge to Pentagon primacy.
During these policy skirmishes, Clinton has yet to embrace her own existing capacity as strongly as she should have rather than treat as an unwanted stepchild her own CRS office and CRC that despite getting little attention from the highest levels of the state department have been the largest growing budget item at the state department and created the largest team of trained, non-military, cohesive, US government (vs. privately contracted) civilian experts that can be quickly deployed as the front wave of US smart power where there is political or natural disaster upheaval.
However, because she herself gave CRS and CRC little attention and because these teams were ignored in assembling the core of the privately contracted teams sent to Afghanistan, Congress is planning to slash these budgets by about 50% in 2011.
Winning the 'development war'
Secretary Clinton did prevail during the 'development wars' inside the Obama administration against efforts to have CRS – which now has more than a thousand deployable civilian experts buttressed by a global initiative of 20 major partners to perform immediate response relief, reconstruction and stabilization missions – placed within the Agency for International Development. But all she did was preserve what the department had; she has yet to upgrade the operation or figure out a way for her department to become the clear mother ship for US smart power deployed in messy international situations.
Creating an Under Secretary of State for Development and building out the state department’s own army of trained, civilians could have been “the big idea” delivered by the QDDR.
Instead, Clinton along with USAID administrator Rajiv Shah, and National Security Council staff Michael Froman and Gayle Smith among others have largely settled on a plan that gives USAID broader mandates over budget coordination in the administration’s diversely situated international development capacities.
In a well-meaning but probably ineffective effort, USAID advocates have been trying to restore the status and capacity of USAID that was gutted from it during a siege led in the 1990s by former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms. But the fact is that USAID has very few of its own people anymore. US-led AID initiatives are mostly privately contracted, and USAID has become more of a Cisco Systems or Dell Computer of international development, essentially a bundler of subcontracted componentry rather than a government enterprise that can easily hire, fire, quickly deploy or withdraw its own forces on quick, time-urgent missions.
Soft power failure
Last year, retired General Anthony Zinni, who acknowledged he had helped member or co-chair nearly every commission or study group on “smart power” that has mattered, declared that he had lost confidence in the “development community” and the ability of any administration – given the structure of the development bureaucracy – to succeed at smart power responses to failed or failing states.
He argued that the international development community was paralyzed and collectively incompetent, stating that only the Pentagon had the capacity to deploy credible teams with well-thought out and simulation-tested plans to try and hold up or build governments abroad that were collapsing or virtually non-existent.
Zinni continued that the only hope to turn this around was for personnel from the state department, USAID and other branches of government tasked with nation-building or post-conflict or natural disaster stabilization to co-habit in offices with Pentagon staff tasked with delivering results. Specifically, Zinni proposed that all of the civil affairs functions in each of the Pentagon’s major commands be taken out and collectively organized as a brand new command in the defense department.
Then when America decided to save failing states or clean up after conflict or deal with earthquake, flood, and tsunami relief – the state department and USAID personnel could watch how the Pentagon did their thing and learn.
Zinni’s idea mostly affirms something the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post author Dana Priest wrote in her important book, The Mission: Waging War and Keeping Peace with America’s Military. Priest argued that the Pentagon was aggrandizing by design and by default most of the key powers of America’s international engagement – from diplomacy to development and that the trend would be tough to stop.
Proving Zinni wrong
Hillary Clinton and others on President Obama’s team had an opportunity to prove General Zinni wrong – that there was indeed an appetite and capacity for a strategic leap in the way America’s non-defense agencies and departments deploy smart power. CRS is the US’s only non-military entity that can do military-like planning and execution, but with expertise that the military doesn’t have and frankly – according to Gates and his deputies – doesn’t want to have.
While creating a new under secretary slot for development can be scoffed at – understandably – for just adding another chef to an already crowded, chaotic kitchen, this would be missing the point. By not moving beyond slight adjustments in the administration’s approach to development other than coordinated budget activity for the most part, Clinton would structurally assure that the Pentagon – more than USAID or state – will continue by default to be the heavyweight political player in overseas development, stabilization, and relief.
Hopefully as the final QDDR decisions are made, the Secretary of State will do more to change the game and secure its own place in the global development equation.
Steve Clemons directs the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation and publishes the political blog, The Washington Note.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.