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Ready, Aim, Foreign Policy

A study released at the beginning of last month outlines an imbalance in the administration of American foreign policy during the Bush years. With steady acceleration, it seems, the Department of Defense is running the show abroad. Reconstruction and development tasks that in the past were undertaken by USAID or other branches of the State Department have increasingly been outsourced to the Army Corps of Engineers, and billions of tax dollars have begun streaming from civilian agencies to military ones--neatly skirting any Congressional oversight.

The study focused on Latin America (where?), but the researchers believe the trend maps onto US aid and interventions in other world regions. The Iraq war, though an outlying example, swallows an extraordinary amount of military resources for diplomatic/humanitarian work, while barely involving State. And already, billions of dollars controlled by the Pentagon have been paid out to nations like Uzbekistan, Djibouti and Pakistan, with governments the State Department would (or ought to) have grilled under various rights-oriented provisions in US foreign-aid law. In classic MBA management style, Condoleezza Rice has supported the buck-passing, personally advocating a restructuring that would funnel even more cash toward Defense, and for so-called "combatant commanders" in the War on Terror to have jurisdiction over her regional agencies.

This is primarily a resource allocation question---when the tumescent Defense budget dwarfs that of State by a factor of 20, and foreign-service personnel are diminishing in aptitude and volume, it's easier to shuffle responsibilities to the better-staffed, cash-laden agency. But in the long term, the researchers think the trend will

diminish Congressional, public and even diplomatic control over a substantial lever and symbol of foreign policy. It will undercut human rights values in our relations with the rest of the world, and increase the trend toward a projection of U.S. global power based primarily on military might.

Sure, State is broken, but that's no excuse for allowing Defense to play permanent understudy--cementing the face of America as that of a uniformed gunmen. And as it pertains to 21st century threats, we've been told repeatedly that an escalating military deterrent does not foreclose the role of soft power in defending US interests. In 2005, the Pentagon itself noted that a nonmilitary sphere like religion is "precisely where a Combatant Commander should focus his attention to accomplish his theater objectives in the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT)." Today, light diplomatic work could make a big difference in the newly-unstable horn of Africa, just one of many ways (see also: clean water, electrified rural areas, effective judiciaries) in which State can make a difference.

Update: Djibouti is too a country! This article in Esquire, one of the best pieces of field reporting I've read in ages, proves it. 

--Dayo Olopade