Armed Diplomats? When State and Stability Operations Collide

James Joyner and John Burgess

TCS Daily

May 21, 2007

Army Lieutenant General Douglas E. Lute has been nominated by President Bush to serve as “war tsar” with the unenviable task of coordinating “often disjointed military and civilian operations” for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Aside from the abundant skepticism expressed by military analysts such as Phil Carter about whether a three-star can get four-stars and cabinet secretaries to work together if the President of the United States can’t do it, this once again highlights the difficulties of bringing the expertise that exists in our diplomatic corps to bear in a war zone.

Lawrence Kaplan bemoans the “pitiful contribution civilian agencies,” notably the State Department, have made in Iraq. He contrasts the stillborn efforts to get Foreign Service Officers to volunteer for Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) with their vigorous role in the Vietnam-era Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) program. Similarly, in response to a Thom Shanker report on a DoD-State deal to have more of the latter’s PRT slots filled by the former, military strategist Thomas Barnett wrote, “Casting State as the Department of Everything Else remains a rejectionist tack, offered only by the uninformed and/or cynical.” This is changeable over time but almost certainly right in the near term.

Marine Colonel T.X. Hammes points out that a truism of 4th Generation Warfare is that “if the government is not succeeding, the insurgents are getting stronger.” That means the government and its coalition partners must quickly get a handle on security and ensure that there is a functioning economic infrastructure. In cases like Iraq, where a regime has been toppled, this will mean training and reforming not just police and security forces but also the court and prison system, banking, currency, customs, public health, business regulation, and taxation.

This is all well beyond the capability of even a highly educated military. Much more needs to be done to augment the military force with help from the State Department and other agencies. One model is the PRTs working in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have done this sort of thing on a smaller scale. They combine coalition and local military, indigenous government agencies, and NGOs and deploy them all as a team. By producing concrete improvements, they foster trust which in turn leads to crucial intelligence. As Robert Kaplan puts it in his book Imperial Grunts, they create “influence without the stigma of occupation.”

Unfortunately, soldiers are having to fill most of the slots allocated to the other agencies. There are many dedicated foreign service officers (FSOs) out there eager to do their part, although probably not in situations they view as fundamentally hopeless. But to make something like the PRTs work on a larger scale will require overcoming cultural and bureaucratic hurdles.

On the cultural side, State and Defense are very different. Their officers have, in the main, radically different world views. Making them work together will take something on the order of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, emphasizing Interagency rather than merely Joint operations. It only took about a hundred years to get the Army and Navy to work together as if they were on the same team; we might get State and DoD working together in a mere quarter century using those lessons.

Bureaucratically, we need to rethink how we recruit and develop our FSOs. Already, State works to recruit a diversified workforce. Gender and race aside (those have already been the subject of lawsuits that State has lost), the department seeks a multi-ethnic group to take advantage of pre-existing language and cultural skills.

Contrary to popular conception, it has not been an “Ivy League club” since WWII. The department sends recruiters to universities across the country. Its new, on-line examination procedure makes it as easy as possible for interested applicants to take their first steps in the hiring process. But as much as newly-minted graduates, State looks for those coming from a wide variety of professional backgrounds, including the military, the bar, and law enforcement groups.

One big problem is the issue of self-defense. Accomplishing the mission requires, at bare minimum, staying alive. FSOs (and their unpaid dependents) are willing to accept a certain level of risk to work and live in hostile environments. Those posted to dangerous assignments in the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America already do just that. But they are not soldiers who have volunteered for combat duty.

Soldiers are armed and trained to kill; FSOs are not. To be sure, they could be issued body armor, live in militarily protected installations with the soldiers, and travel in military vehicles. Still, diverting a squad of soldiers to provide security for FSOs making an office call or talking to a university class would be incredibly burdensome.

FSOs, of course, report to ambassadors. On the whole, ambassadors are loath to have their officers armed because of the gravely conflicting message that sends, but not always. In Central America during the 1980s, some ambassadors permitted their officers to carry sidearms. The “solution” used in Iraq, at least into 2004, was to permit FSOs to either bear arms or to be provided with contract bodyguards. This works to some extent but is neither efficient nor cost-effective.

Nor is it practical or necessary to train all FSOs to work in extremely dangerous environments; the vast majority of diplomatic assignments are not like Iraq, after all. Sure, security training can be beefed up, but you’re not going to see Political Officers wearing armor and carrying weapons, walking into diplomatic meetings in Paris, Tokyo, or Buenos Aires.

Conversely, trying to turn soldiers into diplomats beyond a rather low degree would not only amount to “mission creep” but would by necessity compromise their military skills. While our military is indeed the best educated it has ever been, it is not peopled at the enlisted and non-commissioned officer level with experts in development, civil society, economics, trade, languages, etc. Some Special Ops groups have the training and mission to do this, but not the major groups.

The solution will be in a new and very specialized, cross-trained group populated by young, educated, smart, and (mostly) unmarried men and women who will be willing to go into harm’s way with some belief that they will survive it while accomplishing their missions. The issue of incentives to join just a group will be tendentious. The pay scales for combat troops and FSOs are already wide. But uncompensated, there is no logical reason for FSOs to volunteer for jobs that present immediate threats to their lives. Even within State, a cadre that receives supplemental salaries is problematic. This is currently done in special categories such as legal counsel, doctors, etc. Extending the categories, however, is something Congress, the Pentagon, and the unions will want to consider carefully.

Evolving problems call for evolving solutions. Sometimes those solutions need to be non-linear, going “outside the box” to find effective answers to complex problems. Perhaps the “Armed Diplomat,” like the warrior monks of war gaming or medieval Europe, is the answer. Is the United States ready for its own Knights Templar, though?

James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D., a former Army officer and combat veteran of Desert Storm, writes about public policy issues at Outside the Beltway. John Burgess is a retired Foreign Service Officer with 25-years Middle East experience who writes about Saudi Arabia at Crossroads Arabia.

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