Pinstripe Generals

Share Button

Everyone’s worried about the “militarization of foreign policy.” But a program aimed at “civilianizing the military” might be just as important in the long run.

By David Jones

It has been one year since Barack Obama replaced George W. Bush in the White House, but there is one worry the change in power has done little to quell: our widespread anxiety over the “militarization of foreign policy.” The issue is more than the twittering of those who tweet for a living. During Bush’s last year in office, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned that it was “creeping.” A month after Obama’s inauguration, we heard Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sound the same alarm. 

The underlying fear is that the U.S. Armed Forces—with their floods of funding and endless personnel resources—are using their proverbial “can do” spirit to intrude into areas that have traditionally been left to diplomats. Our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan have seemed to furnish proof. The job of restructuring and revitalizing political and economic life in both countries has fallen to military teams, even though those tasks were previously the province of the U.S. Agency for International Development. Meanwhile, the bureaucrats at the impoverished Department of State—which has fewer diplomats than the Department of Defense has lawyers—were viewed as being consigned to delivering “stiff notes of protest” in their pinstripe suits.

But there is an obverse of the coin. Though it is less well known, the United States has a powerful instrument for what you might call “civilianizing military policy,” and the current moment offers an excellent opportunity to expand its reach. The State Department’s longstanding POLADS (policy advisor) program, which provides foreign-policy advisors for senior military commanders and service chiefs, is an undervalued currency of its own.

Ever since World War II, when senior diplomat Robert Murphy was a whisper-in-your-ear political advisor to General Dwight Eisenhower, State has provided a “civilianizing” presence throughout the armed forces. These POLADS were not deployed in battalions. Rather, they were the equivalent of a handful of “Lamborghinis” made available for those senior military leaders most able to use and appreciate sophisticated foreign policy insights and advice.

The post-9/11 resumption of history has focused on the need for more extensive and intensive State/Defense coordination. It is not an easy challenge. There are major cultural and attitudinal differences at play. The Armed Forces see problems and assume that they are to be solved; State assumes they must be managed, because actually solving a problem is relatively rare in diplomacy. (Iran, North Korea, Cyprus, the Middle East, and Kashmir are just a few examples of problems that resist diplomatic resolution.) 

There is a joint recognition that the Armed Forces need a larger cadre of State Department foreign-policy advisors to provide “stiletto” insights to complement military “broad swords.” The result has been funding to more than quadruple the number of POLADS between 2005 and 2010, raising the total from the mid-teens to about 90. 

To be sure, not all of these new POLADS will be super-specialized “Lamborghinis.” The hope is that they’ll function like “muscle cars” capable of adapting to a wider range of deployments. Now the Department of State is faced with that classic caution: Be careful about what you wish for, because you may get it.

Integrating this surge of POLAD diplomats presents a challenge in its own right. As part of an effort to make sure we get it right, early last year the Washington-based Una Chapman Cox Foundation awarded me a grant to study the future of POLADS in the 21st century. The study has the cooperation and support of the State Department, but State has no control over the analysis—and no obligation to implement the resulting advice. Nevertheless, I believe my conclusions merit consideration. They are based on an extended survey of current and former POLADS as well as State Department diplomats assigned as instructors and students at military schools. I followed up with telephone and in-person interviews, including a range of visits to POLADS in the United States and Europe. Taken together, their observations are well worth heeding.

They begin with the recognition that the protracted “global war on terror”—or whatever we choose to call it—comprises an array of complex and multifaceted challenges that require nontraditional military and diplomatic responses. Consequently, there is an appreciation that the State/Defense cultural divide needs bridging. This effort should begin at the earliest career stages—from the bottom ranks up, so to speak. Fortunately, we are well-positioned to implement such a program. The substantially increased recruitment of junior diplomats (doubled from 2008 in both 2009 and 2010) offers an unprecedented opportunity to know “the other” as something beyond a caricature.

There is also a need to keep near-term expectations realistic while prioritizing long-term strategy. These newbie diplomats will require considerable seasoning before they qualify as foreign-policy advisors to military commanders. Currently, they are the equivalent of “seed corn” requiring systematic, career-long interaction with the Armed Forces to emerge as full-fledged POLADS to senior commanders. Therefore, the State Department must think broadly about how to build their core competencies. Several political/military assignments deserve special attention, including: foreign base negotiations, military arms sales, Pentagon staff exchanges, and direct counsel on foreign-policy issues for military commanders. 

An expanded POLADS corps also begs the question of whether structural modifications to the program are prudent. I recommend creating a formal “reserve” of officers who can “surge” for special requirements—for example, as advisors to a relief force for a tsunami-level natural disaster, or in a Bosnia-style military intervention. Such a reserve will require mundane organizational efforts (and costs) but will provide good value for the price.

Finally, the State Department must bear in mind that it has the proverbial “one chance to make a good first impression.” Thus it should leave prospective positions unfilled rather than putting otherwise unassigned “turkeys” into advisory roles. Every diplomat POLAD may not be a luminary of the first order, but it is better to leave the light socket empty than screw in a dim bulb. 

The United States is currently experiencing a period of military and diplomatic organizational creativity. Traditional bureaucratic structures are being re-examined. It is not just a circumstance of former generals becoming ambassadors, as in Afghanistan. Diplomats are also serving as “civilian deputy to the commander” in several combatant commands. The prospect of a civilian “commander” is not beyond the pale.

The State Department’s cadre of foreign-policy advisors has a chance to rewrite the definition of diplomat. If they get it right, it could be invaluable for civilian foreign-policy experts and military leaders alike. 

David T. Jones C’63 is a retired U.S. Department of State Senior Foreign Service Officer.  He served as POLAD for two Army Chiefs of Staff.

Share Button

    Related Posts

    Beyond Boot Camp
    Confidence Game
    The Pipeline Versus the Pioneers

    Leave a Reply