Shadow Government

How to update U.S.-South American defense agreements

Defense cooperation agreements are a good thing, and the United States has many with friendly nations around the globe. They enable mutual undertakings such as disaster response and counternarcotics efforts, they define limits, and specify rights and obligations for signatories. Sometimes they attract controversy, as did the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement (DCA) signed in October of 2009. But generally they won't if they are in step with each party's needs and adequately explained.

Unfortunately, when the U.S.-Colombia DCA was announced, South America's regional bully, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, was quick with a hysterical response. He deftly mischaracterized its counternarcotics theme as a threat to his government during a South American leaders' summit in order to distract attention from his outlandish multi-billion dollar arms purchases. These include long-range Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bombers, Mi-35 combat helicopters, plans for advanced Su-35 fighters, submarines, and seaborne missile attack platforms.

Whereas Chávez signs all manner of troubling pacts with Russia and Iran without restraint, it's comforting to know that Colombia's Constitutional Court decided that the DCA required legislative approval. That's the difference separation of powers and rule of law make. The Court's decision deserves respect and newly inaugurated President Juan Manuel Santos did the right thing by setting the issue aside.

As other commentators have pointed out, both countries can continue cooperating under a patchwork of existing arrangements. However, that's not the end of the story. As security assistance to Colombia winds down because of successful efforts to reign in its internal terror threat, drug and arms trafficking remain an ongoing menace in the region. In Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, remnants of Colombia's FARC guerrillas are now so involved in trafficking that people in rural areas refer to them as "FARCOs" instead of "narcos."

Although illicit drug consumption has stabilized in North America, it is still growing worldwide, ripe for expansion into India and China, both with burgeoning middle classes. Efforts to control and contain this phenomenon in our hemisphere -- with all its related ills -- will be useless unless the United States (which can afford it) is able to contribute to the fight by monitoring suspicious air and sea movements and passing that information to partner countries. Cooperation agreements will always be needed to facilitate this.

In negotiating them, we might keep in mind three principles. First, be flexible. A pact made with one government may not be acceptable to a successor. For 10 years, cooperation with Ecuador meant access to an airfield that we had improved for large, military planes and support crews to detect airborne and maritime drug shipments. When its footprint became politically sensitive, President Rafael Correa declined to renew the accord. Yet, cooperation continues in other ways as the United States helps Ecuador strengthen its own interdiction capabilities.

Next, embrace new methods. While we might need to continue tracking using conspicuous 1950s-vintage planes for now, flexible staging locations using smaller, less noticeable, civilian sensor platforms should become the model. With help from Congress, we might update our technology to do more tracking from ships or remote radar locations. These steps could help shrink our military footprint, reducing the need for facilities upkeep and status of forces agreements that take forever to negotiate and create headaches for partner countries.

Finally, work closely with partners and keep an eye on the political football. If an agreement begins to look out of step or wanders from its original purpose, then back up, take a deep breath, and start over. Negotiators sometimes try to pack as much as they can into an accord, which can invite speculation and raise unexpected complications. When satisfied all is ready for public discussion, accompany it with a comprehensive bilateral public affairs plan.

With accountability and such principles in mind, formal cooperation agreements trump a handshake and a smile any day. Perhaps at a later date, the U.S.-Colombia DCA might be rethought and renegotiated -- if for no other reason than to consolidate previous agreements and update the responsibilities assigned to each party in light of the evolving nature of our cooperation. But when and if is up to Colombia.

In the meantime, regional leaders would do well to cast a more critical eye on pacts enabling Hugo Chávez's arms buildup as well as all the extra-hemispheric help pouring into Venezuela to challenge the existence of its democratic neighbors.

EITAN ABRAMOVICH/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The disconnect in Obama's plan for Iraq

The president is commemorating "the end of the combat operations in Iraq." Except that U.S. military forces remaining in Iraq will continue to have combat responsibilities, both in support of Iraqi forces for internal security, and to protect Iraq from external threats, through at least the end of 2011. There is a serious disconnect between military missions and the statements coming out of the White House. However, this disconnect is not even the most egregious problem with administration's policy on Iraq. Far from being the "responsible drawdown" mantra the Obama administration keeps chanting, its transition to a completely civilian mission puts at risk the gains the military force has achieved thus far.

President Obama declared that "our commitment in Iraq is changing -- from a military effort led by our troops to a civilian effort led by our diplomats." To the State Department's credit, it is dramatically increasing their numbers in Iraq. Iraq has the largest U.S. embassy in the world, and projections are for further increases to nearly 7,000 personnel. But more than half that number will be providing security, and the vast majority of them will be contractors, empowered to use deadly force. Every inspector general and GAO report on operations has criticized oversight of contractors; this has the potential for catastrophe.

Despite the increase in people, as the military has drawn down, the State Department has also consolidated, from 16 provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) to what will be only five locations: the Embassy in Baghdad, consulates in Basra and Erbil, and temporary consulates planned to last a few years in Kirkuk and Mosul. Security concerns drove the consolidation. PRTs were the beginning of a successful model of integrated civil-military activity, with the military providing security for the political and development work. Instead of compensating for reduced military presence by increased civilian activity, the State Department has made the transition more brittle by eliminating PRTs. 

Part of the problem in fully civilianizing the mission in Iraq is that the State Department is deficient in its planning and programming efforts. They have not valued the skills that build Congressional confidence in budgetary rigor, such as producing a several year budget like DOD's Future Year's Defense Program, or the Quadrennial Defense Review (State has its first such review underway now) or a Program Analysis and Evaluation office that red-teams funding requests. Long-term underfunding of State operations has created a culture of doing the best you can with whatever money is available, which has been evident in planning for the transition in Iraq. 

As the dimensions of responsibility that State would assume became clear, the department remained in denial. Hundreds of tasks the military had identified as important to sustaining security and governance gains in Iraq were simply set aside as more than Congress would fund.  Instead of determining their requirements and building support for funding, State reduced the requirements to what they believed would be funded. 

State has now produced an extensive list of essential equipment: helicopters, mine resistant vehicles, armored cars, heavy cargo trucks, sophisticated surveillance systems. But these are nowhere near the actual needs of the mission. And State only recently scoped their requirements, when the drawdown has been policy since November of 2008. It almost goes without saying they did not include funding in either their baseline budget or the emergency supplemental; they are now asking for DOD to provide the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment at no cost to the State Department.

Congress has nonetheless supported the unprecedented civilian effort. It fully funded State's fiscal year 2010 supplemental request of $1.8 billion for Iraq, with the exception of $527 million to build consulates, which Congress understandably did not consider "emergency" funding and instructed State to include in their baseline budget. The administration made no threat to veto the bill. Congress even provided $305 million more than asked for in operations money, demonstrating a greater than expected willingness to support the civilian transition. 

When President Obama speaks to the country about the end of combat operations, he needs to make clear why civilians will be performing inherently military tasks, why the State Department has reduced its presence throughout Iraq even as its numbers have increased five-fold, what steps are being taken to ensure State has the resources it needs and has adequate oversight of spending and contractors, and, most importantly, prepare Americans for the continued risks our diplomats and development professionals will be running.

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images