Obama Plans to Rebalance Military Power With Stronger Civilian Role In Conflicts     Print Email
Tuesday, 02 December 2008

Clear indications are emerging about a radical shift in the Obama administration that intends to make a change in U.S. strategy dealing with global stability.

Essentially, the new plan calls for Washington to shift resources away from the military power in order to enhance U.S. capabilities in nation-building, development, diplomacy and other approaches designed to cope with the threats of asymmetric warfare, terrorism and failed states that can undermine global stability and U.S. security.

The new strategy breaks sharply with Bush administration policies that relied heavily on overwhelming military strength to impose an often-unilateral view in meeting security challenges.

Articulating the new approach as he announced his nominees for the top national security jobs, Obama said this week: “To succeed, we must pursue a new strategy that skillfully uses, balances and integrates all elements of American power: our military and diplomacy; our intelligence and law enforcement; our economy and the power of our moral example.” (Wall Street Journal).

The theme – of using all the assets of U.S. soft power to extend the American approach beyond military means – was often stated in the electoral campaign and seems to reflect an emerging consensus in many political circles in Washington. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a Bush appointee who is being kept on by Obama at the Pentagon’s head, said last year in a widely noticed speech that he felt U.S. policy needed to be overhauled to rely more on joint civilian-military action. That iconoclastic view – which drew no comment from the White House – has now been adopted as policy by the incoming administration.

“This is not an experiment, but a pragmatic solution to a long-acknowledged problem,” Dennis McDonough, a senior Obama foreign policy adviser, told the New York Times. “During the campaign the then-senator invested a lot of time reaching out to retired military and also young officers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan to draw on lessons learned. There wasn’t a meeting that didn’t include a discussion of the need to strengthen and integrate the other tools of national power to succeed against unconventional threats. It is critical to a long-term successful and sustainable national security strategy in the 21st century.”

Gates, a former CIA leader who oversaw the “surge” strategy in Iraq, said in his lecture last year that it might seem like “blasphemy” for “a sitting secretary of defense to travel halfway across the country to make a pitch to increase the budget of other agencies” in the civilian sector. But, he said, the new approach was necessary to meet contemporary challenges that differ radically from the problems of the cold war era. (The upcoming issue of European Affairs reviews a timely RAND Corporation report, “Integrating instruments of Power and Influence: Lessons Learned and Best Practices,” that outlines the reasons and the necessary steps for success behind this shift in U.S. policy toward something more closely resembling a counter-insurgency doctrine.) As that report notes, Gates stated that current U.S. spending ratio on military versus non-military aid is 17:1” – statistics that reflect a gross imbalance for any U.S. strategy that can succeed in settling most conflicts of the sort that threaten Western security today.

The argument between congress and the Obama administration will likely be where the funding comes from. Many senior officials at the Pentagon have conceded that the defense budget will be cut drastically, but it has not yet been heard if those funds will be re-appropriated toward non-military aid.

The plan would also establish “ready to fly” teams of diplomats and other civilian officials who can quickly and effortlessly be deployed overseas to aid in natural disasters or political upheavals and help with fragile countries trying to get back on the ground. In the ongoing Transatlantic debate about burden sharing, European governments have sought recognition in the form of their continued civilian reconstruction efforts to make up for their growing lack of military forces.