By Stewart Patrick
Global Beat Syndicate
WASHINGTON—One of the ironies of the Bush administration is that a crowd that once disdained nation-building is now spending more than $5 billion a month on “post-conflict” operations. Indeed, no sooner had the administration presented its latest budget than it submitted a supplementary request of $82 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan.
With a projected deficit approaching half a trillion dollars, members of congress will try to slash wherever possible. One item they should spare is $141 million earmarked for a little known State Department office: the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization. This modest investment—one-third of one percent of the Pentagon's budget—will pay multiple dividends if it can prevent a repeat of the bungled planning and execution of post-conflict operations in Iraq.
If you have not heard of CRS, you are not alone, and that has been partly by design. The administration resisted publicizing CRS during the presidential campaign, lest critics charge it with closing the barn door after the horses had bolted Iraq or—worse—creating an office of Preemption and Colonial Affairs.
This initial reserve has yielded to a low-key embrace. The White House has designated CRS as a “Presidential Initiative” in the budget, and last month Condoleezza Rice told the Senate she was fully committed to the new office.
Like many institutional innovations, CRS originated from the confluence of three factors: An abject policy failure that discredited old ways of doing business; new beliefs about how to do things better; and well-placed individuals willing to champion the new approach.
The policy disaster was the debacle of postwar planning and resultant problems in stabilizing and reconstructing Iraq. This was most alarming because the problems had been anticipated by knowledgeable outside experts familiar with the experiences of the 1990s. By stumbling “blindly into Baghdad,” in James Fallows' words, the administration ignored hard won lessons—learned in operations from El Salvador to Kosovo, Bosnia to East Timor—about the need to ensure public security and carefully sequence the restoration of essential services.
Iraq has given impetus to actions by Senators [FIRST NAME, RAY] Lugar (R-IN) and his colleague Joseph Biden (D-NJ), the chair and ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, who forced the issue by introducing legislation authorizing the creation of a new post-conflict office at the State Department. The implicit message to the White House: take action or we will impose a legislative solution on you.
Throughout last year, consensus built around the idea that in a world of failed states and terrorist threats, reconstruction and stabilization are now core missions of foreign and national security policy. We cannot continue to throw together ad hoc “pick-up teams” for each new contingency, or to rely on the Pentagon to perform civilian post-conflict tasks.
Last year, the State Department was ordered to create a new office to coordinate U.S. post-conflict operations and develop a civilian surge capacity—a sort of “Peace Corps on steroids”—that could be deployed to war-torn countries. Last August, Secretary of State Colin Powell named Carlos Pascual, a distinguished foreign service officer, to be the first Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization.
In the past six months, Ambassador Pascual has have formed a mini-National Security Council, staffed by 40 experts detailed from a number of government agencies. They are working with the Regional Combatant Commands to improve civilian-military planning and with the National Intelligence Council to identify countries at risk of collapse. The unit is also reaching out to other governments, NATO, the UN, the EU, the G-8 and the World Bank to promote international burden-sharing.
This bold experiment may well fail. The moment of truth will come when President Bush hands CRS responsibility for the next big crisis, whether in a war-torn country like Sudan or some future arena in the global war on terrorism.
To have any chance of success, CRS needs adequate resources to command interagency support and make a difference on the ground. Mr. Bush's bare-bones $141 million budget request includes $100 million for a flexible Conflict Response Fund, so that CRS take action in days, not months, in the next big crisis.
Congress has historically resisted approving such open-ended accounts, regarding them as slush funds without adequate oversight. To ensure things are different in 2005, the administration must persuade budget hawks in congress to focus on dollars rather than pennies. It can start with this startling fact: If CRS permits one U.S. Army division to withdraw even one month early, the United States will save $1.2 billion. As congressional penny-pinchers know, that is real money.