The State Department is seen by many in the military-industrial complex as a relatively weak entity to be circumvented, not included on the level of national security. There’s a cultural divide between State and the military. However, the State Department is a part of the IC and is a very real and relevant part of foreign policy. The State Department does the negotiating that enables the military to conduct counter-terror and national intelligence operations in various nations. The role of the State Department cannot be downplayed.
But there’s a contrast between those in the fight and those in the State Department. Many who I’ve met personally were somewhat idealistic and didn’t seem to view me as an exact equal. There’s a wholly different culture at the State Department and at every government agency, for that matter. Much of the culture is about safeguarding their sense of purpose and maintaining their culture. Bureaucracies are not designed to be challenged from within.
I think, in many ways, I got to experience real people in the Middle East, and their foremost problems are dangerous ones. Living at the tip, arguably the most important aspect, of foreign policy allows you to tap into the real hardships of people. They’re fighting for something.
I remember on a return trip, a van came around and took people home. You could be with the Department of State, USAID, or just congressional staff on a congressional delegation. They were all in the vehicle. Luckily, over the years, I got good enough at Arabic and dealing with the locals that I felt very comfortable in virtually any situation. The State Department guy gave the driver a prolonged and dramatic goodbye accompanied by too many cheek kisses.
The driver saw my look and looked at me like “WTF,” then just laughed it off and left. Meanwhile, the diplomat thought he’d really connected with the driver. He didn’t assess the situation. His behavior might have been appropriate with someone you know, but not a driver you just met. They obviously didn’t know each other, and the driver looked like he felt put upon. The folks who work for the embassy are very modern, somewhat Western, and you do not have to do the song and dance you might have to do with a local leader in a rural area. In fact, the average Arab doesn’t do any of that. It was just bizarre to watch. The official thought he was doing the right thing with his idea, an academic one, of the culture and environment. He looked like an idiot. Also, his Arabic was terrible.
It just seems like everything is polarized and every agency and department is in a secret feud to prove one is better than the other. In Iraq, it was obvious that the State Department did not have a strong regard for members of the military. In fact, during a base security brief, the State Department RSO mentioned that those in the military aren’t always the sharpest tools in the shed. Except, this guy messed up that analogy in a way I do not remember now. He went on to say that the Army engineers placed the T-walls in a spot that didn’t make sense with annual rainfall. Whenever it rains in Iraq, it floods; it’s not a new phenomenon. Also, the T-walls were moved after the Air Base no longer existed and it became a diplomatic post. Thus, the T-walls were moved by the State Department. Why can’t it be one team, one fight? Why does high-level drama permeate the service of any institution? Look at Congress; our culture lacks civility, and we are not behaving as we were told adults should when we were children.
When you talk to a Green Beret who served before 9/11, it’s different. They were concerned with unconventional warfare and working by, with, and through local populations. Somewhere along the line, we became obsessed with gunslinging. But SOF’s adventures in direct action often made the battlefield complicated and dangerous for conventional coalition forces, who had to patrol in whatever village was raided the following day. An article in Foreign Policy outlines a Marine’s sense that spec ops was a distant force fighting another war.
The problem is that the young officers who felt slighted by the SOF community might eventually take leadership in the Pentagon. Offices in the Pentagon aren’t filled like the billets on a team are filled. A conventionally trained general officer can have significance influence over special operations in many ways. It’s best if they have a positive view of special operations. Instead, some do not believe special operations does a job that’s different or more challenging. There’s an educational barrier. When new recruits come from the conventional military, they’re often hoping to become gunslingers and get back into the thick of war.
But, at its heart, SOF can be a lot of things, including diplomat warriors and quiet professionals. A fascination with special operations in popular culture has reinforced the image of the gunslinging warrior who performs in drawn-out and insane firefights. But the other 90 percent of the work in SOF is performed with counterparts. We are only as safe as other nation states’ abilities to secure themselves. Then, our relationship with the state is vital.
A lack of global security and a reluctance by nation states to get their hands dirty has both granted us global leadership and made the world a more dangerous place. The solution requires a joint effort. We might share intelligence today, but our cultures are different. I was told by a USAID worker that the surge was a genocide. That’s a stark contrast from the narrative of anyone I’ve ever met in government service before. There’s a real problem here.
In response, we need the same tough people who want to do the right thing in the military and IC to step up in politics and the foreign service. The capability we’ve created in the IC and the military is incredible; it can’t be undone. But we can backfill many of these new strongholds with people in the foreign service. Most importantly, we need the right kind of people—not just idealists. People who are pragmatic, know to do what’s best, and are willing to negotiate to get it. People who put their own ideas and drive to the side to make way for mutually beneficial policy to be enacted.
The State Department has been shielded at the national level at their own embassies. The ambassador should know what’s going on in his own country; forgot deniable plausibility, they should enter into some ownership. We should have a shared vision that doesn’t make someone’s stomach turn. The silos and confirmation bias many possess in the civilian world are reflected in the government. It is, after all, filled with the same people.
Featured image courtesy of www.weforum.org.