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November 16, 2009

The Pentagon's Got Your Back - Ish
Posted by Michael Cohen

After interviewing Anne Marie-Slaughter, the head of policy planning at the State Department, about the growing diminishment of USAID's effectiveness and influence Matt Yglesias make the correct point that part of the development agency's problem is that it doesn't have the prestige or resources of the armed forces. But in looking for a glimmer of hope, he makes this argument:

One promising sign, however, has been that figures like Robert Gates and others from the Pentagon side have increasingly shown some indication to use some of their clout to help build up AID capabilities as they more and more find themselves convinced that more robust civilian partners are what they’re looking for.

This is true - the Pentagon wants AID to work as an effective partner in national security operations. And that's the problem.

As I noted a few weeks ago in the pages of Dissent, While Secretary of Defense Gates caused a buzz in 2007 when he declared the need for a “dramatic increase in spending on the civilian instruments of national security" nowhere did he call  or the Pentagon to shed any responsibilities. Indeed, in his next breath, Gates made clear “I’ll be asking for yet more money for Defense this year.” 

It's not that the Pentagon doesn't want to see a strong AID - it's that they want to see a strong AID that helps the Pentagon carry out its responsibilities, i.e military operations. The idea of an independent AID that is focused on the long-term goal of development and democracy promotion in non-kinetic environments is perhaps a bit less pressing of an agenda item. This is one of the reasons, by the way, why Stuart Bowen's notion of creating an independent agency for post-conflict operations is so inspired.

Frankly, I don't blame the Pentagon for wanting to see a strong AID; it will make it easier for the military to focus on its core responsibilities as a national security agency and not all the post-stabilization, reconstruction, development responsibilities that their civilian overseers have asked them to do.  But what America needs is a strong development agency . . . geared toward long-term development and development; not just an agency dedicated to doing post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.

Part of the problem of what we've seen over the past 8 years - and continue to see today - is the subordination of all other foreign policy interests to "national security." As a result, a disproportionate amount of AID's budget is used in promoting democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan as opposed to helping civil society groups in fragile or emerging democracies where tens of thousands of US troops are not stationed. And it means US assistance is spent to train African armies (to fight the war on terror), instead of African police forces, which if you happen to be a African citizen would likely be much preferred.

The bottom line is that if AID is going to be return to being a truly effective and well-resourced development agency don't look for support from DoD to make it happen - it needs to come from the country's political leadership; from the President and Congress. But considering that it took about 9 months to find someone to run AID - and he's a 36-year old doctor with minimal management experience and likely very little influence on the Hill - I'm not brimming with confidence that that is going to happen.

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