Barack Obama, Robert Gates, and the Rumsfeld Pentagon-State Relationship

Defense secretary talks big on diplomacy, Stephen Glain writes, but must put money where his mouth is.

Robert Gates

Robert Gates

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They used to make movies about men like Robert Gates, redemptive tales of the quiet hero who is called in to save a desperate situation and, through grit, cunning, and fair play, prevails against impossible odds. Fade to black; roll credits.

But not yet for Citizen Gates. The U.S. secretary of defense, who has spent the past two years cleaning up after his inimical predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, has been asked by President-elect Barack Obama to remain for the new administration's transition period. In many ways, it is an inspired choice. Since his appointment in 2006, Gates has worked assiduously to salve alliances estranged by Bush unilateralism. He has criticized the Pentagon's new weapons systems, including the $65 billion F-22 fighter program, as extravagant and outdated. Most admirably, he has called for a revival of American diplomacy with an expansion of the State Department's foreign service, which, he points out, has fewer diplomats than the Pentagon has lawyers. (With an annual budget of over $500 billion, the Defense Department spends more than 50 times as much as Foggy Bottom.)

Beneath Gates's reaffirming Hollywood narrative, however, is a noir subtext. For the soft-spoken, gray-flanneled defense secretary has defined Pentagon authority more broadly and more aggressively than any of his predecessors. While warning against the militarization of U.S. foreign policy, as he did in a noteworthy July speech, Gates has done less to empower the State Department and more to entrench the concept of civilian-military partnerships in "stability operations"—Pentagon jargon for the rebuilding of failed states before they become incubators of radical Islam. If neglected civilian agencies cannot keep up with the abundantly resourced military, Gates has implied, the Pentagon will take the lead, and often in areas where it was once prohibited from going.

A Rumsfeld legacy that Gates has pointedly not repealed is Pentagon Directive 3000.05. It declares that "U.S. military forces shall be prepared to perform all tasks necessary to establish or maintain order [in unstable or post-conflict areas] when civilians cannot do so." Such tasks, according to the directive, include the rebuilding of security forces, correctional facilities, and judicial systems, as well as reviving private enterprise, constructing or repairing critical infrastructure, and developing representative government. Lest there be any confusion about the chain of command in such operations, Directive 3000.05 states that the Defense Department "shall continue to lead and support the development of military-civilian teams."

Such a sweeping interpretation of Pentagon authority has rattled civilian aid agencies like the United States Agency for International Development and its NGO partners, which are opposed to working closely with the U.S. military on practical grounds as well as moral ones. While the goal of civilian aid workers is to establish sustainable programs aimed at improving people's lives, the military is in the business of winning allies in the war against radical Islam. Civilian groups note how military officers, in an attempt to win over a prominent sheik or warlord in Afghanistan or Iraq, for example, have built schools and healthcare centers in remote areas that quickly fell into disrepair. They also point out that associating with U.S. soldiers and marines exposes their staffs to possible reprisal from hostile regimes. "If we become identified with the military, we become compromised," says George Rupp, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee. "We should stay in our lane, and [the military] should stay in theirs."

The money that supports the Pentagon's nonlethal activity comes largely from its so-called Global Train and Equip budget, another holdover from the Rumsfeld era that has been expanded under Gates. This $300 million fund, established under Section 1206 of the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, was set aside originally to finance counterterrorist activity in Iraq and Afghanistan. Today, 1206 programs flourish from Colombia to Pakistan. Since the launch of 1206, the U.S. military has effectively taken the lead in funding foreign armies, a responsibility that under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 belongs to the State Department. (A related provision under Section 1207 funds humanitarian work carried out in tandem with AID.) Outlays under Section 1206 require the concurrence of the secretary of state, which technically makes them compliant with the FAA. But legal experts in the NGO community and on Capitol Hill say the breadth of 1206 funding is beyond Congress's oversight capacity.