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November 10, 2009

Stuart Bowen's Inspired Idea
Posted by Michael Cohen

In a statement that may not come as a huge surprise to regular readers of DA I'm a bit of a policy wonk so when I see innovative ideas like the recent one floated by Stuart Bowen, Special Inspector General for Iraqis Reconstruction, I become quite pleased - particularly since I sort of made this recommendation in a report I did last spring. Courtesy of Spencer, here are the goods:

Bowen, acting with the institutional power of his government office, SIGIR, is circulating a draft proposal to create a new civilian office for wars like Afghanistan and Iraq that would report jointly to the Departments of State and Defense. . . Bowen believes that a single agency, which he analogizes to an “international FEMA,” ought to be the single civilian point-of-contact with the military if the United States is to avoid future wartime coordination fiascoes. He calls it, in typical Washington acronym-ese, USOCO –the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations.

Now regular readers of DA are more than familiar with my general view of future wartime fiascoes (even current ones) but in the event of future misadventures (or even current ones) this is a smart management and operational response. As we've seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the military lacks the core competency to do post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction; and the civilian agencies (like State and AID) lack the basic capacity and resources to do the job. Moreover, in Iraq and Afghanistan the lack of communication between different agencies and proper allocation of responsibilities has created all sorts of problems.

But the alluring part of this proposal is not necessarily its impact on post-conflict operations; its the very idea that roles and responsibilities in the national security bureaucracy should be more effectively delineated. Back in the Spring I co-authored a report that pointed out the shambles that is our foreign assistance bureaucracy:

The continued existence of overlapping programs and agendas, as well as the failure to match actors with specific assistance responsibilities, is part of the reason that confusion so regularly defines the foreign assistance bureaucracy.

But the problem runs even deeper. Consistently - and particularly in times of war - short-term U.S. national interests take precedence over more long-term development objectives. In the 1960s and 1970s the lion’s share of development assistance funding went to Vietnam. In the last seven years, Iraq and Afghanistan have received the majority of foreign assistance. As late as 2005, 80 percent of the democracy
promotion budget for the Middle East went to Iraq.  Today, more U.S. foreign aid is going to post-conflict transitions - and other venues in the war on terrorism - than to peaceful and fledgling democracies.

Taking post-conflict stabilization responsibilities away from AID and State would hopefully allow these agencies to focus on the long-term diplomatic and development agendas that are supposed to define their policy agenda (don't get me started on the whole idea of having the civilian response corps housed at State).  If I had my way, I'd create a separate agency for humanitarian and disaster relief - separate from AID - because after all humanitarian assistance is NOT development work. I think even having separate agencies for doling out development assistance and democracy promotion wouldn't be the worst idea either.

Still, specialization - even at risk of fostering nasty turf battles - is a course worthy of consideration. To be sure the proposal is not perfect. For example, the idea of giving the agency dual loyalty to State and DoD seems like a bad idea - not only potentially unworkable but almost certainly destined to be either undermined or usurped by the Pentagon.

Not surprisingly, however, the biggest criticism of the idea comes from those who believe that there isn't much "appetite for creating a new organization.” Of course, they're right. But look, America's civilian agencies are screwed up beyond all recognition; they were created for a different world, a different America and a different set of challenges. They are not pigs on which to apply lipstick. Serious, institutional change is long overdue.  I wouldn't define USOCO as all that radical, but it's a step in the right direction.

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