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by Frances Duffy

Since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, fifteen years ago this spring, many scholars and practitioners have written post-mortem “lessons learned” based on the shortcomings of the Bush administration’s war planning and coordination. Calls for greater interagency cooperation, particularly between the U.S. Department of State (DOS) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) have led to some bureaucratic restructuring, but much work remains to be done in order to balance the effectiveness of both U.S. military and soft power capabilities. What problems does the current system still face, and what are the implications for the future of intervention policy?

The U.S. invasion in Iraq was a military-centric effort characterized by weak post-war planning and fractured interagency dynamics. The White House favored DOD plans, despite a 2000-page study produced from a DOS “Future of Iraq” project in which U.S. experts and Iraqi stakeholders foresaw the difficulties of Iraqi regime change. DOS efforts nonetheless failed to provide concrete proposals for action that could compete with those of DOD. An atmosphere of contention between the two agencies further inhibited collaborative efforts during the war’s early stages.1

The Obama administration was determined not to repeat the mistakes of its predecessors. In early 2011, U.S. and NATO intervened in Libya to prevent violence against civilians by the regime of Moammar Gaddafi, leading to the ultimate overthrow the longstanding dictator. This time, DOS largely led the planning effort by meeting regularly with members of the Libyan opposition and passing guidance to DOD, which implemented a no-fly zone over Libyan airspace alongside NATO partners. Both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stressed the importance of collaboration and “unity of effort.” Some of their integrative efforts were successful; cooperation between DOS and U.S. Africa Command (USAFRICOM) and U.S. European Command (USEUCOM) led to building international coalition support for the military operations.2 Interagency weapons destruction teams also successfully dismantled Gaddafi’s legacy surface-to-air weapons stockpiles.

Unfortunately, overall coordination was still generally weak, with poor guidance from the upper levels leading to confusion and a lack of clear chains of command at the implementation levels.3 Further, despite a greater role for an empowered DOS, the Obama administration still did not adequately assess the political and social conditions on the ground in Libya and did not create a long-term plan for post-war stability. The resulting instability has led to an on-going civil war and the proliferation of illegal trafficking and terrorist activity in ungoverned areas of the country.

One may argue that the failures in Iraq and Libya expose the limits of military intervention and nation building altogether. However, global threats to U.S. national security may continue to tempt administration officials with an interventionist response.Fortunately, the tools at the disposal of the U.S. government are not limited to those of military force. A complete toolkit that also includes diplomacy, economic aid, and sanctions is better suited for the careful management of overseas problems. The Bush administration, the Obama administration, and now the Trump administration have all leveraged a combination of these tools to effectively advance global stability and U.S. interests in other circumstances. An intervention policy that makes greater use of soft power, alongside improved information-gathering and planning, may have more success.

Taking a more multipronged approach necessitates improvement in interagency cooperation, yet the U.S. bureaucratic system faces considerable challenges to doing so. The importance of “unity of effort” is not lost on DOS and DOD, who engage in cooperative work through Liaison Officers and departments such as the DOS Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. However, a growing threat to the relationship now rests in the vast disparity of capabilities between the two agencies. Some argue that a “mission creep” phenomenon has resulted in the military overtaking traditionally civilian political roles as the military gains influence through increases in funding and its strong domestic constituency.4 Greater capability in the form of spending, weapons, and troops on-hand increases the frequency with which the administration calls upon its military.5 An enlarged military presence also serves to “crowd out” civilian bureaucrats.6 Critics argue that this problem has been caused not by the purposeful expansion of DOD but by the weaknesses of civilian agencies; despite an overall increase in funding of 155% since the Iraq War, DOS remains weak in mission focus, education, and programming, leaving a vacuum that the military must then fill.7 To make matters worse, the most recent Congressional spending bill threatens to decrease the DOS budget, further limiting DOS capability and widening the funding gap with DOD.

The Trump administration’s admiration of the military, as well as its prioritization of loyalty and like-mindedness amongst its ranks, may increase the risk of military primacy and groupthink effects harkening back to the Bush administration. This could set the conditions for forceful options to reach the planning table more readily than diplomatic ones, and for factual political and social conditions to weigh less heavily in the process. However, the preponderance of experienced military brass who occupy highly influential positions within the Trump administration may also have the opposite effect. According to civil-military relations scholars, policymakers with military experience may be less likely to advocate the use of force and more likely to support a cautious escalation of soft power options beforehand.8 Further, the military rank-and-file have adopted much greater appreciation for interagency counterparts since the Iraq War and have made major strides in incorporating political considerations into their training and practices. Unfortunately, vast capability disparities between DOS and DOD still threaten to steer the administration towards its military options, despite an often reluctant DOD. Further, although interagency collaboration appears to have improved on the surface, the rallying cry for “unity-of-effort” and the creation of liaison positions and offices has done little to substantially alter the bureaucratic flow of information and function. The two agencies’ strongly separate command structures complicate communication and make coordination at the lower levels more cumbersome in times of crisis.

Maintaining separation between DOS and DOD is necessary for preserving institutional effectiveness and culture. However, greater bureaucratic integration is required for coordinating the implementation of both soft power and military tools. The Trump administration should evaluate how the National Security Council (NSC) and interagency bureaus can be reformed in order for supervision, coordination and reporting to take place more smoothly throughout the ranks. The planning process itself must allow time for gathering sufficient facts about a conflict environment and the potential political and social ramifications of different intervention tools. Further, the overall disparity between the agencies should be lessened, rather than increased as it has in the most recent Congressional budget. During 2013 remarks before members of Congress, now-Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated “if you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.”9 Not only does a weakened DOS inhibit the Department’s ability to perform its job, but it also increases demands on DOD resources.

The future of intervention policy rests in the ability of the U.S. government to effectively leverage the tools at its disposal. In order to increase the likelihood of strategic success, substantial gains in interagency cooperation are necessary in order to merge the total capabilities of the separate agencies.bluestar

1. Daalder, Ivo H, and James M Lindsay. 2003. America unbound: The Bush revolution in foreign policy: Brookings Institution Press. Rumsfeld, Donald. 2011. Known and unknown: a memoir: Penguin.
2. Quartararo Sr, Joe, Michael Rovenolt, and Randy White. 2012. “Libya’s Operation Odyssey Dawn: Command and Control.”  Prism: a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations 3 (2):141.
3. Ibid
4. Adams, Gordon, and Shoon Murray. 2014. Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy?: Georgetown University Press.
5. Fordham, B. O. 2004. “A very sharp sword—The influence of military capabilities on American decisions to use force.”  Journal of Conflict Resolution 48 (5):632-656. doi: 10.1177/0022002704267935.
6. Brooks, Rosa. 2017. How everything became war and the military became everything: Tales from the Pentagon: Simon and Schuster.
7. Schake, Kori N. 2013. State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practices of the State Department: Hoover Press.
8. See Feaver, Peter D, and Christopher Gelpi. 2011. Choosing your battles: American civil-military relations and the use of force: Princeton University Press.
9. Lamothe, Dan. “Retired generals cite past comments from Mattis while opposing Trump’s proposed foreign aid cuts.” The Washington Post. February 27, 2017.


Author Frances Duffy is a Ph.D. student of Public Policy at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a Board member of the American Diplomacy Journal. Her research examines U.S. intervention in foreign conflict and the role of interagency cooperation. She previously served as a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Department of State, serving most recently as the Staff Assistant to the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union. She also worked with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security in Tunisia and South Africa, traveling to nineteen U.S. missions on the continent of Africa.


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