Washington’s Latest Run at Conflict Management and “Stabilization”

This past week, the Obama Administration announced its intention to nominate Rick Barton as the nation’s first ever Assistant Secretary of State for Conflict and Stabilization Operations.  The announcement marks Washington’s latest run at creating a serious civilian “surge capacity” for managing instability and conflict in fragile states.

Rick Barton, if the Senate chooses to confirm him, would bring impeccable credentials to the job.  Former U.S. Representative to the UN’s Economic and Social Council, first Director of the highly regarded Office of Transition Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), former UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, and Senior Advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ambassador Barton appears to have spent his life preparing for this job.  The question is whether the U.S. government, after repeated failures to build a comprehensive civilian crisis management entity, will allow him to do the job.

Regrettably, for much of the past several decades, the U.S. government’s ability to generate a credible civilian surge in crisis situations has been a bit of a farce.  In an almost unbelievable period of sustained underperformance since 2004, Washington – both the last Administration and this one; both the State Department and USAID; aided and abetted by both houses of Congress – have systematically undercut attempts to create a serious surge capacity on the civilian side of the U.S. government.  The competent civilian reconstruction partner that the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and coalition fighting forces have been requesting for a decade remains – perhaps to be overly generous – a “work in progress.”

A quick review of how we got to this point:  The U.S. government learned quickly in the wake of the Afghanistan and Iraq interventions that it lacked the ability to locate and dispatch adequate numbers of competent, highly trained, language proficient reconstruction specialists from State and USAID to help rebuild after coalition forces had initially defeated the opposition.  This is not surprising given that State and USAID together have less than 1 percent – yes, that’s one percent — of DoD’s uniformed and civilian personnel levels.  You will recall the numerous exposes about civilians with only shreds of international experience appearing in Baghdad to “advise” the post-Saddam Hussein Iraqi government in the immediate aftermath of Baghdad’s fall.

In 2004, the Bush Administration – in what some might consider a rare moment of introspection – recognized the gap in U.S. civilian capacity, and pushed through the National Security Council a new concept:  the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) at the State Department.  This new entity, located in the Secretary’s front office to ensure high impact and visibility, was to serve as the centerpiece of a reinvigorated “civilian surge” capacity, recruiting a “Civilian Response Corps” of stand-by reconstruction experts, ready to deploy on short notice, from across all federal departments.  CRS was also to serve as a focal point for enhanced partnership with multi-lateral and bilateral partners, as a number of TransAtlantic governments were building similar conflict management units.  Befitting the importance of the concept, Secretary Clinton once referred to this new U.S. capability as “an army of peace-builders.”

In reality, it is not much of an “army.”  After seven years, the number of full-time Civilian Response Corps members remains under 200 – not exactly the force envisaged in 2004; not the force likely to encourage military colleagues; and certainly not the kind of force that will have serious impact in one or more major conflict and stabilization crises.

Not only is the civilian surge “army” tiny, it basically doesn’t have any bullets.  Despite repeated requests by both the Bush and Obama Administrations for a modest contingency fund to allow the Civilian Response Corps to act quickly in a crisis, the Congress has not appropriated one penny of operational funding to CRS.  With a few notable successes – observer teams in South Sudan, for example – actual deployments by the Civilian Response Corps have been minimal, mostly consisting of two-week “assessment missions” to U.S. embassies in relatively peaceful countries.  Despite Secretary Clinton’s words of praise for her “army,” she chose not to deploy it to Haiti, despite a major crisis just miles from America’s shore.

U.S. Ambassadors, by and large, have viewed this new organization as a bureaucratic threat, rather than as an asset.  USAID, with its own history of crisis response, feels slighted, as well, by CRS, and has offered only grudging support.  Last year, the Treasury Department – a founding partner in the Civilian Response Corps, and a critical player in economically rebuilding failed states – simply dropped out of the “army,” its first major defection.  Meanwhile, the U.S. military, viewing this farce from across the Potomac River, has, understandably, begun organizing its own version of a civilian response corps, made up of DoD civilian employees.

Now, fast forward to the present.  The Administration’s recent Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), stated boldly that “embracing” conflict prevention and response in fragile states is a “core civilian mission.”  The QDDR proposed the creation of a new Bureau of Crisis and Stabilization Operations – the outfit Ambassador Barton has been tapped to head – to serve as the “locus for policy and operational solutions for crisis, conflict, and instability.”  The question remains whether the new surge in rhetoric, enthusiasm, and bureaucratic structures will – given the tepid performance of the past decade – translate into a capable civilian surge capacity on the ground when the world decides it needs to manage the next conflictive crisis.

It is not too late to rescue a great idea:  The United States, as well as its transatlantic partners, needs  a civilian surge capacity more than ever, both when confronted with instability in fragile states or when transitional opportunities arise, as in the birth of “Arab Spring” democracy movements in the Middle East.  It is past time to end the timidity and half-measures of the past several decades, and build a serious cadre of highly trained, on-call, conflict and stabilization technical specialists.  Before we have another repeat of the post-invasion Iraq fiasco, the Administration and Congress need to reach an agreement fully to staff, fund, and empower the new Bureau for Conflict and Stabilization Operations and the still-nascent Civilian Response Corps.

James Kunder is a Senior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

Image by Lafayette University.