Monday, September 7, 2009

That Three-Legged Stool of American Foreign Policy

Musings on the 3Ds, 3D+ and those legs …

Secretary Clinton upon her initial arrival at the State Department said that “There are three legs to the stool of American foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development. And we are responsible for two of the three legs.” When I heard it at that time I thought there was a nice ring to it.

During the confirmation hearing of the Director General of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Nancy Powell talked about the increase in diplomatic staffing by 25% over the next four years as one of Secretary Clinton’s highest priorities. She called this hiring increase “Diplomacy 3.0: Diplomacy, Development, and Defense,” reflecting the need to develop State Department personnel’s skills to support an integrated approach to foreign policy goals.”

Defense, Diplomacy, Development – they come three-in-one now, the 3Ds - like triads, triplets, wise men, the tres amigos, the musketeers (also blind mice, ring circus, Donald Duck’s nephews, but let’s not go there); you get the point.

The more I hear it, the more I feel a growing itch that won’t go away. There’s something about this metaphor that bothers me.

The three-legged stool as a metaphor

The three-legged stool is a wonderful metaphor because this stool is guaranteed not to wobble. Guaranteed. Even in an uneven floor, in a barn, in a cow shed -- the ends of its legs will always form a plane (see Dr. Math’s basic explanation). Blackfoot Physics says that “No matter if the lengths of the legs differ, the stool will always rest on the floor without rocking.”

Transpose this to the 3Ds -- no matter if the funding for State and USAID are dwarfed by Defense, American foreign policy will rest on the floor of a complicated world without rocking; it will not wobble, it will not tip over – that’s the beauty of the three-legged stool.

George W. Bush’s defense budget for Fiscal Year 2009 provided $515.4 billion in discretionary authority for the Department of Defense (DoD), a $35.9 billion or 7.5 percent increase over the enacted level for Fiscal Year 2008. President Obama’s FY 2010 defense budget was $663.8 billion. This request for the Department of Defense (DoD) includes $533.8 billion in discretionary budget authority to fund base defense programs and $130 billion to support overseas contingency operations, primarily in Iraq and Afghanistan.

George W. Bush’s International Budget Affairs request for the Department of State, USAID and other foreign affairs agencies totaled approximately $39.5 billion in FY2009 (*Foreign Operations and Related Agencies–$ 26.1 billion; *Department of State–$ 11.2 billion, *Other International Affairs–$ 2.2 billion).

President Obama’s FY 2010 Function 150 International Affairs request totals $53.9 billion, an increase of 9 percent over the FY 2009 total, which includes both enacted and requested emergency supplemental funding. (* Foreign Operations and Related Agencies (including food aid): $36.7 billion; * Department of State: $16.3 billion; * Other International Affairs: $0.9 billion).

Although some folks still think of State and USAID as two separate legs in this three-legged stool, please note how that budget request has been bundled together under a single leg. “No matter if the lengths of the legs differ …" I don’t think the writer anticipated an overwhelming difference in the length of these legs.

State/USAID in FY2010 gets $53.9 billion, DOD gets $663.8 billion; the Defense leg obviously is 12 times longer than diplomacy and development combined. That’s some leg. Awkward, perhaps but it will not wobble; that is a basic mathematical fact. But is this really the most fitting metaphor?

The three-legged stool misses a fourth leg

I think the beauty of the three-legged stool comes from balance and stability, that’s why it is an attractive metaphor. But isn’t there a missing leg?

Even when our government officials talk about smart power, the 3Ds, and the whole-of- government approach, there is one additional leg that is hidden in the shadows. It would make this whole formulation a DDDC or a 3D+, or in the world of stools - a four legged one I’d like to call a chair.

In 2007, Scott Shane and Ron Nixon wrote a piece for the International Herald Tribune on contractors. It was titled U.S. contractors becoming a fourth branch of government: “[…]Spending on federal contracts has soared during the Bush administration, to about $400 billion last year from $207 billion in 2000, fueled by the war in Iraq, domestic security and Hurricane Katrina, but also by a philosophy that encourages outsourcing almost everything government does.” indicates that total federal contracts in FY2008 had reached over $500 billion (check out the contracts section). That’s over 75% of the FY2010 DOD budget. Yep. So -- if we stick to our three-legged stool metaphor –this would be one ugly stool: one exceptionally long leg, two short, short legs and one magical leg (contracts have less public scrutiny and are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act; so now you see it, if they want you to, now you don’t, if they don’t – magic!). And the beauty of balance goes puff!

Contractors as the fourth leg of our foreign policy chair?

I know you’re laughing loud out there – cut that out! I’m not saying that’s what it should be, only that this is what ours appear to be. The excellent thing about a four-legged chair is that four legs can take more weight due to load distribution. But of course, it won’t sound nice if we put down for-profit corporations as a fourth leg, would it? So we pretend like it doesn’t exist. If pushed – we can always call this the new marketplace of the 21st century.

Two years ago, this report says that the State Department paid more than $2 million a year to BearingPoint, the consulting giant, to provide support for Iraq policy making, running software, preparing meeting agendas and keeping minutes. Agency officials reportedly insisted that “the company's workers, who hold security clearances, merely relieve diplomats of administrative tasks and never influence policy.” The reporters concluded that the presence of contractors inside closed discussions on war strategy is a notable example of what officials call the "blended work force." Welcome to the new marketplace.

The light footprint is a dream

There is no such thing as a “light footprint” whether we’re going to war or staffing an embassy in a bomb-prone place. If our footprint appears light, that's because we’re seeing a sanitized version of the full picture.

Jeremy Scahill recently writes that private forces continue to constitute about half of the total US force deployed in our two wars. But – just imagine for a moment if the Federal Government would drop even just the contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan for the 3Ds. That would mean no base, transportation or life-support personnel for the military, no life-support and protective detail for the diplomats and development officers, no 3161 employees doing reconstruction work, no USAID consultants, and no local guards at our embassies in both Baghdad and Kabul. Just for DOD alone, the number would be 132,610 contractors in Iraq and 68,197 contractors in Afghanistan (where they now outnumbered our uniformed personnel).

So –

If going to war means sending 400,000 of our young men and women instead of sending 150,000 (because we’ve outsourced the rest), would we still go to war?

If it means more American sons and daughters in the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, and consequently, more casualties, would we still be in Afghanistan marking our ninth anniversary or for that matter, in Iraq marking our seventh anniversary after the invasion?

If it means sending 50,000 more to Kabul and another 50,000 to Baghdad working as protective detail for our diplomats and development officials and perimeter guards for our diplomatic missions, would we still insist on “normalizing” diplomatic and consular relations in warzones?

When the next conflict breaks out in Africa or South Asia, would we send US troops for protective detail and perimeter security for our missions in faraway places so expeditionary diplomacy will get an opportunity to sprout?

There are five more countries ahead of Iraq and Afghanistan in the index of failed states. When the next nation building project presents itself would we send all our Corps of Engineers (USACE has 34,600 civilian and 650 military personnel), to build dams, bridges, electrical power, distribution systems, etc. etc. into a hostile place across the globe in need of reconstruction?

The answer is “probably not.”

But -- we’re here now with two wars sitting at the top of this stool. And one more Marine died bravely in the battlefield and controversy has flared up whether the public should see this shocking side of war. And officials are going back and forth about how many more uniform and civilian personnel should be sent over to fight and reconstruct a warzone or how fast the military drawdown should occur in Iraq. And here I am. Talking about a stool.

Yes, it is rather silly isn’t it?

But no more silly than talking about the three-legged stool of foreign policy as if it were true. Just because we can’t see the fourth leg clearly doesn't mean it’s not there. Just look at the impact rims. Not facing up to this reality puts us in danger of repeating the same mistakes that got us here in the first place.


gloriousbach said...

You host a most helpful blog, thanks.

Re: the topic today -- metaphors. In politics, domestic or international, metaphors obfuscate rather than illuminate truths. They allow you to waste time playing with a metaphor's meaning instead of analyzing real things.

"Private contractors are like politically unaccountable mercenaries," might clarify the reality. In fact, though, mercenaries from the 15th to the
19th centuries were at least accountable to their paymasters.

T. Greer said...


Very good post. Very good post indeed.

I will be linking to it shortly, guaranteed.