Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Why "drafting the U.S. civil service for counterinsurgencies" is either a really dumb idea or an awesome piece of satire

Yesterday Small Wars Journal published a piece by one Michael A. Clauser entitled "Not Just a Job, an Adventure: Drafting the U.S. Civil Service for Counterinsurgencies." In it, the author -- a Congressional staffer -- demonstrates a staggering misunderstanding of the fundamental roles and missions of the U.S. government, draws mistaken conclusions about the commitment made by and compensation provided to U.S. civil servants, and offers an ineffective "cure" that would carry with it side effects far more damaging than the imagined "disease." Viewed as a piece of Swiftian satire, it is excellent. Considered as a serious policy proposal, it is colossally, catastrophically bad.

Clauser kicks off his modest proposal with the curiously-punctuated truism "[i]t's become trite to state that the solution for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is 'political,' and not solely 'military,' in nature." If that's the case, we're meant to wonder, why has the approach of successive administrations focused on the infusion of more combat troops? Well, it's the fault of those diplomats and engineers and urban planners and food safety experts safely ensconsed in comfortable D.C. offices and lavish embassies abroad, obviously: "neither President [sic] could find adequate numbers of willing foreign and civil servants to accompany our men and women in uniform." And this, quite obviously, is a problem. Michael Clauser thinks it's basically a supply problem -- not, apparently, that America lacks sufficient supply of qualified civilian experts, but rather that our system of laws and the general fecklessness, laziness, and/or cowardice of our non-DoD civilians combine to sabotage the government's efforts to apply this ready supply of expertise to important missions in combat zones and post-conflict environments. So our man has a drastic solution:
If the U.S. is serious about winning the war in Afghanistan through a political solution, Congress should change current law and begin to draft civil servants with the right skill sets and training for national objectives abroad.
Serious indeed.

There are a number of very significant problems with both Clauser's assessment of the situation and his proposed solution. The most troubling of these is that he seems to misunderstand the very purpose of the United States government and the fundamental roles and missions of its various component parts. Simply put, the organizing principle of the USG is not overseas warfighting, or even war-winning. The Departments of Justice, Transportation, and Agriculture do not base their organizational priorities on those of the Pentagon (or even State), and those departments do not plan, organize, hire, train, educate, or incentivize personnel to support foreign contingencies. Simply put, it's not their job, and it's not what their people signed up for.

One can reasonably argue that our national security apparatus ought to be reformed and restructured to better operate in a world where "defense" and "security" cannot be so cleanly separated from the other functions of the state. Many have made this case, and the current Secretaries of State and Defense have both indicated support for a proposal to pool resources and authorities so as to streamline U.S. efforts to build the security and governance capacity of foreign partners. One may go even further and assert that the work of those departments and agencies not traditionally understood to be focused on international concerns -- the USDOTs, the USDAs, the DOJs -- should by dint of philosophical fealty to some Constitutionally-derived idea of the "proper role of government" be suborned to the imperatives of national security. That the Department of Agriculture should first and foremost understand its mission as one of support to the defense of the American people, subject to the judgments and determinations of the Commander-in-Chief. One can certainly offer these arguments, which span from the reasonable but somewhat frought to the frankly absurd, and discussion of the consequences of which would expand this post beyond all get-out and really just kill the rhetorical force of the whole thing. But let's be clear: that's not the argument Michael Clauser is making.

(As an aside, Clauser works for a guy who has been reasonably forward-thinking on this issue; Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-TX) introduced legislation (pdf) in March of 2001 that expressed the following in its findings section:
(1) The security of the United States homeland from nontraditional and emerging threats must be a primary national security mission of the United States Government. Attacks against United States citizens on United States soil, possibly causing heavy casualties, are likely during the next quarter century, as both the technical means for carrying out such attacks, and the array of actors who might use such means, are proliferating despite the best efforts of United States diplomacy.

(2) Attacks on United States soil may involve weapons of mass destruction and weapons of mass disruption. As porous as United States physical borders are in an age of burgeoning trade and travel, its cyber borders are even more vulnerable, and the critical infrastructure upon which so much of the United States economy depends can now be targeted by governments as well as individuals. The preeminence of the United States makes it more appealing as a target, while its openness and freedoms make it more vulnerable.
The bill would have united the various agencies dedicated to border security, infrastructure protection, and emergency management under a new Homeland Security Agency; it would provide the broad outlines, several months later, for the establishment of DHS. If Michael Clauser wants to make a thoughtful argument about the way the government can be reorganized or repurposed to deal with a nontraditional threat environment, he should have a conversation with his boss.)

Back to the main effort here: the argument that Clauser is making is that the government does have the personnel, resources, and expertise to perform the necessary mission -- which he sums up by writing that "the U.S. must make it the top priority to train, advise, and equip Afghan officials to build their capacity to govern effectively and honestly" -- but that it merely lacks the authority to compel those people to show up and do the job. And that's simply just not true. The USG's efforts to build Afghan civilian governance capacity, which Clauser describes as "at best haphazard and improvised," are summed up like this:
Currently, undertrained Foreign Service officers and uniformed military personnel are left as the principal advisors to Afghan officials across all sectors of government such as education, transportation, public works, law enforcement, environmental protection, and agriculture. These U.S. personnel are supported by a host of contractors to augment their expertise--but at great taxpayer expense.
He goes on to assert that
[t]he U.S. needs to leverage the taxpayer-funded expertise of civil servants resident in federal departments like Education, Justice, Commerce, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and Health and Human Services. It takes a U.S. Department of Agriculture employee to effectively train his counterpart at the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock, not a diplomat and certainly not a soldier.
Seems simple enough, right? After all, we've heard plenty of people arguing against the inefficient use of military personnel to perform inherently civilian functions, criticism of the inappropriate militarization of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so on. And it may be correct to say that it's not a soldier's job, nor even a diplomat's. But here's a news flash: the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn't have a massive, ready supply of ministerial trainers on hand. They have a whole bunch of ag-oriented bureaucrats. They don't have a whole bunch of people whose day job involves teaching other people how to be ag-oriented bureaucrats.

We're really talking about two different things here: 1) performing quick-win, high-visibility development functions as part of a campaign plan to secure control of territory in a counterinsurgency effort; and 2) building ministerial and institutional capacity in the host-nation government to take care of longer-term sustained development and governance activities. The first of those mission sets can be performed by military personnel, and in many (even most) cases the security situation will demand it. (I'm reminded of what Dag Hammarskjold said about peacekeeping: "it's not a soldier's job, but only a soldier can do it." There's some other content directly related to this subject at that link, too.) The second task is the one that ought not be done by folks in uniform, but the dirty little secret is that this expertise just simply does not exist in the quantity most people talking about a "civilian surge" imagine it to. Here's an even dirtier little secret to illustrate the difficulty of what we're talking about here: the military, which is experienced operating overseas, trained to support civil authorities, and operationally organized -- that is, set up to do stuff, not just as a staff -- basically has no idea how to support the requirement to provide ministerial and flag-level training and mentoring... to foreign DEFENSE ESTABLISHMENTS. Let me make this more clear: the Defense Department is not good at teaching foreign ministries of defense how to perform the same functions that the DoD accomplishes for the U.S. It's just not something we're set up to do. So you shouldn't be surprised if you find out that there aren't a whole bunch of people sitting in the HHS building over on the Mall with the necessary expertise to help a foreign government set up a health system. There is a difference between knowing how to do something and knowing how to establish, train, staff, and incentivize an organization in another country to do that same thing.

Now that we've established that the government isn't really set up to do this, that the necessary expertise may not exist, and that the stuff Clauser wants civil servants to do isn't really their job at all, let's forget about all that for a minute. Imagine we decide this is the number one national priority, that this is absolutely necessary, that we have the people to do it and we just need to get them there. How about this draft idea? Well, it's a really, really bad one. Put simply, Clauser makes the dubious argument that the extant legal requirement for U.S. males to register for Selective Service upon turning 18 somehow grants Congress the moral authority and justifying precedent to enact legislation impressing into involuntary foreign duty all U.S. civil servants who aspire to senior (non-political) leadership in government. I'll let him elaborate:
In the absence of adequate volunteers at time of war, this legal requirement provides a massive recruitment pool of U.S. citizens who either felt it their duty to make themselves available for uniformed service to their nation in dangerous places or sought some public benefit from the government and must make themselves available to the needs of the State accordingly.
The same principal [sic] can and should be transferred to the civil service. Title 5 of U.S. Code should be amended to require that career U.S. federal employees, as a pre-requisite for non-political appointment into the Senior Executive Services (SES), “register” with the Civilian Response Corps. Non-political employment within or promotion to the SES should be terminated for those who refuse to register or if having registered and called to service refuse to deploy. The legislation should authorize the Director of the Office of Personnel Management and the Secretary of State to jointly prescribe regulations to carry out this mandate. Waivers should be available for those with disabilities or other appropriate medical or family disqualifications. Not everyone who registers would deploy within their career. The legislation could be less than two pages in length—far shorter than this article.
After all, those in the career SES are the top-earners in federal government. They hold prominent titles that include words like “Administrator,” “Director,” and even “Secretary.” Is it unreasonable to ask that those interested in the highest levels of management, power, and pay in the civil service make themselves available to the full range of national needs?
The reader will note repeated use of words and phrases that suggest an antiquated, statist, borderline un-American view on the relationship of a citizen to his government. Those who fill out a selective service card with their drivers' license renewal form do so, in Clauser's telling, because they "[feel] it [is] their duty to make themselves available for uniformed service to their nation in dangerous places" or because they "[seek] some public benefit from the government" and choose to "make themselves available to the needs of the state." (Never mind the fact that registration for selective service is not precisely the same thing as declaring draft eligibility -- only documenting that one is in a draftable demographic -- and that it's REQUIRED BY LAW.) This is no more true than when Clauser writes of government employees, referencing their "taxpayer-funded expertise" and compensation as if to suggest that civil servants owe some debt to the nation beyond that which they are contracted and compensated to provide. If you get a government paycheck, it's apparently not enough to provide fair value for money, to do the work that's expected of you, to be a professional. One must "make [him or herself] available to the full range of national needs."

Needs of the state. Full range of national needs. Why not just put all federal employees on orders and deploy them as befits the "needs of the service"? After all, "America needs its best and brightest today to win the wars we're in." Leave aside the fact that the "best and brightest" that "America needs" in this context are the people most capable of going abroad to perform a teaching and mentoring function with international partners, and that those best suited for this job will almost certainly not hold SES rank (and many, if not most, will not care to pursue it). Leave aside the fact that aspirants for SES rank or departmental leadership in HHS, for example, may never have been abroad, may have absolutely no international component to their jobs, may not serve in a teaching or mentoring role at any point in their careers, and may find the suggestion that they ought to involuntarily serve abroad in wartime to earn their spurs in a government agency dedicated to American public health to be flatly ludicrous and insulting enough to force their resignation and departure from government. Leave aside the fact that many of these people, if they were to go, would perform the job no more effectively than the soldiers or diplomats or contractors that have been doing it in their stead, and the consideration that perhaps the "best and brightest" in our nation's public health system should be performing jobs that are dedicated to the public health mission, not national security.

Now: Just think for a moment about this one question: do we want to undertake the sort of philosophical reimagining of what we are as a country that's implied by our granting the state explicit authority to assign each and every citizen who aspires to leadership in public service -- oh! Except political appointees! -- to whatever corner of the globe it chooses, in order to perform whatever function the state deems that person best suited for? Because I know what I'd say to that question: GFY.

There's nothing I'd like more than for Michael Clauser to show up and say "nyah nyah! Gotcha! The original title of this essay was A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Civil Servants of America From Being a Burden to Their Government or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Nation, but then I thought it would be too obvious! Thanks for taking the bait!" But I don't think that's going to happen. (But if it does: Dude, brilliant!)


  1. Touche!

    By the way, you neglected to mention the physical challenges of the job. Not all US civil servants in mid-and senior level capacities can even obtain a worldwide medical clearance to allow the excursion. Imagine when the first ADA challenge comes when a wheel chair employee demands the right to go (especially if tied to promotional criteria). Make that god forsaken FOB, halfway up a hillside wheelchair accessible because federal law requires it for ADA-limited employees.

    Who makes up this stuff?

  2. Wait, what the hell? Since when could we consider the entire everything of the United States to mobilize for Afghanistan?

    You didn't even consider the fact that if the best people in HHS, DOT, or whatever else in the government go to Afghanistan, the United States is going to fall to shit.

    I'm not remotely close to an America-Firster, but considering our infrastructure is thisclose to falling apart, I'm not sure we're the best model for Afghanistan.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. Stilicho -- At the risk of seeming like a heavy-handed a-hole, I deleted your last so as not to have irrelevant and peripheral biographical details clouding the argument here. (But yeah, I was aware of that.)

  5. Gulliver, sorry to get you riled up. I published the essay as an initial start to the conversation on what SecState's QDDR means as far as our indirect, civilian led approach. We've got some other essays coming on that topic, but it's going to need a serious discussion on ways, means, and ends.

    BTW, Happy New Years Inkspots. Even though I don't comment to much anymore (my on-line time is consumed with editing for SWJ), I still enjoy y'alls blog.

  6. Mike -- I'm not criticizing you for running the piece. The guy ended up being really effective, but not in advancing the policy approach he was advocating. Rather he highlighted many important issues and pressing questions about appropriate roles and missions as we reconceive what "security" means (even a reconception as simple as the generally-accepted 3Ds construct). There's plenty of fodder for useful dialogue in there, there's just not a whole lot to commend the author's particular position.

  7. Gulliver,

    No worries and I did not consider it a criticizism. Let me know if you and Jason would like to write an Op-Ed for SWJ on SecState's Civilian Approach. Y'all certainly have the perspective of working with both the military and civilian sectors. The broader question is- how do we implement, resource, and recruit such an effort.

  8. Michael isn't volunteering himself, now, is he?

    I have no idea how a person with Religion and Philosophy majors comes through thinking the same ridiculous way he did in high school.

  9. Apparently, MC has got the ear of Sec. Clinton.


  10. Apparently, MC has got the ear of Sec. Clinton.

    Um, I'm not sure the QDDR and its digressions on "civilian power" do anything to even remotely confirm that suggestion. Everybody knows that State and AID, among others, want to send civilians overseas; it's Clauser's particular route to accomplish this objective that I take issue with.

  11. Great piece. I especially loved your point about DOD's inability to capacity build in ministries. I worked for CSTC-A/NTM-A with the MOI. There were many fine officers, but almost none with previous SFA experience, and none at ministerial level. The contractors were rarely better--an ex lieutenant from the Chicago PD mentoring the chief of strategy at ministerial level?
    And for many of them the default setting became "how we do it". Making the MOI do their budget planning through PPBES, for example, while ignoring what it takes to make that happen--the personnel capabilities from the zone/district level on up, the computer and network infrastructure (hey, the only place there was constant electricity was the Minister's building), the staffing capacity, etc.

  12. Gulliver,
    I appreciate you taking the time to read my article and provide feedback. I assure you my intentions were pure and patriotic. I started off on the premise that America wants to be successful in Afghanistan. Consensus is now that to be successful it must strengthen traditional governance structures (national and local) and security in Afghanistan. USD(P) Flournoy has said as much during hearings. Coalition military personnel and military trainers are present in Afghanistan in large numbers to buttress security. But how to improve governance? The QDDR reaffirms "civilian power." It seems that the State Department and/or USAID do not currently have the resident expertise in enough numbers, doctrine, culture (etc) sufficient to deploy in a critical mass to transform the civilian governance situation--which is in part why they created S/CRS in the first place. But should they? I think they should. Regrettably, that does not seem to be in the 150 budget's cards. So from there, I was left wondering, how do we do this? How does America find an enduring capacity to improve governance given these limiting parameters? I appreciate that you're not a fan of my solution. But I want to make sure you understand my vision. I'm not calling for a mass "mobilization" and deployment of 100,000 untrained mid-rank civil servants. What I envisioned (and looking back could have done a better job articulating) is a single resume database. The database would be filled with the professional details of civil servants who have registered under the legal requirement for which I advocate in the article. When our national security leadership determine they need a certain expertise, background, education, they could turn to a database of millions to find the right government employee "needle" in a haystack of 3 million. So I advocate a scalpel solution--not an axe. Not something that would utterly disrupt the day-to-day or manning of USG's domestic agencies. I should have gone into more detail (but didn't) on what happens from there. From there the employee would go through an intensive training to prepare him/her for their temporary assignment. Such training doesn't presently exist. It could. I know Chairman Skelton introduced the "INSPEAD Act of 2010" just before the end of the 111th Congress that could serve as one training model. PNSR has recently written a report on another. It was just an idea. I would hope you agree that's high time to get creative. And PS: I have volunteered repeatedly to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan as a civilian. Still willing. And about to join the Reserves.

    I appreciate what y'all do on this blog. I look forward to more dialogue with everyone. Thanks for being discriminating on my bio. I also ask that you leave my former boss out of it. All the views were and are my own. Let me know if you find an idea or post on my blog you don't think is "colossally, catastrophically bad." Happy to team with you. VR/ Mike

  13. Mike -- Thanks for weighing in. I'll respond in greater depth later, but for the time being I just want to say that I appreciate the ballsiness and character that it takes to respond to pseudonymous internet criticism at the source.

    As an aside, I stumbled across your (reasonably new?) blog last night and I'm pleasantly surprised to say that I like what you're doing there. The whole issue of executive/legislative tension in the foreign and security policy sphere is a subject that I find really interesting and important, and that I actually deal with a lot here (though perhaps it's not explained as such).

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by.


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