Voice

Where is the outrage?

Responding to six months of DOD clamor that the Budget Control Act would decimate our national defense, this week the House of Representatives moved forward with a budget that would allow the Department of Defense to escape the strictures of sequestration, giving DOD a $519 billion baseline budget and $88.5 billion operations fund. Sequestration would have imposed a roughly 12 percent cut to Defense across ten years. The same House budget imposes a 12 percent reduction this year on the State Department budget requested by the White House. Yet where is the leadership of the Department -- and the Obama administration, who championed civilian power?

Where is the full-throated objection that we will cease to be a global power if our diplomacy is gutted? Where is the president's veto threat? Where is the detailed departmental projection of what essential functions will be impossible to perform? Where is the orchestrated White House strategy of business leaders and civil society groups and average Americans who stand to be negatively affected by the cuts? State has only rolled out assistant secretaries to defend specific programs (like the $700 million in aid for democratization); a threat of this magnitude requires a high-level full-court press. All this has been done by and for Defense.

I agree with Peter that, sadly, an even wider swath of civilian activity will be shifted into the military as national security spending is reduced. However, I think his contention that the State Department and other civilian agencies cannot perform these functions merits further examination. In particular, it is not necessarily true that organizations cannot perform additional functions without additional resources or without shedding other functions. They can rethink their business model to make it more cost-effective, and they can reinvent how they perform their functions. The State Department is long overdue for a serious assessment of how it performs the crucial work of American diplomacy. 

Why do we accept that money is always the answer in the State Department? It is an important input, certainly, but money is not determinative. The best funded militaries do not always win their wars. The best funded companies are not always market leaders, and they are rarely market innovators. When a sympathetic reporter suggested to Steve Jobs in the 1980s that it had lost the competition with Microsoft because Apple didn't have the resources, Jobs memorably said "innovation has nothing to do with how many R&D dollars you have. When Apple came up with the Mac, IBM was spending at least 100 times more on R&D. It's not about money. It's about the people you have, how you're led, and how much you get it." The American military will likely have to shoulder an even greater proportion of what needs doing, but not because of money. More civilian functions will move into the military realm because of the people they have, how they're led, and how much they get it.

State still has an institutional culture defined by reporting -- describing what is happening rather than affecting change. It has barely changed its practices despite an explosion of information sources in the past twenty years. It continues a professional development model that invests nothing in our diplomats, producing generalist foreign service officers in an age when detailed knowledge is at a premium. Almost the entirety of its training budget goes to language, yet it typically does not produce diplomats proficient enough to debate American policies in the language of the country they are stationed. It considers "public diplomacy" somehow separate from the fundamental tasks of diplomacy. Despite a renaissance of private philanthropy and emergence of remittances, USAID still has not answered the fundamental question of what functions in foreign assistance need to be undertaken by governments. These are problems of institutional culture, not problems of funding.

But if the problem is money, why isn't the State Department fighting for it? Why isn't the leadership contesting the spending levels and priorities in advance of the bill passing? The president has often said in the context of the wars that we can't care more about building democracy than they -- the country affected -- does. The same holds true for budgeting: The Obama administration shouldn't expect us to care more about building civilian capacity than they do.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Shadow Government

Isolated from reality on Iran

Earlier this week, Vice President Joseph Biden misspoke. Normally, this would not be news. But unlike using obscene language, or confusing which Supreme Court Justice administered his oath of office, or talking about the president's "big stick," this time it matters.

The vice president said:

"When we took office, let me remind you, there was virtually no international pressure on Iran. We were the problem. We were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region, in Europe."

Beyond the obvious point that "we" were not the problem, that Iran's longstanding and repeated violations of its IAEA Safeguards Agreement, multiple IAEA Board of Governors Resolutions, and multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions were and are the problem, the vice president ignores history and distorts the present.

The United States was not isolated on Iran when the Obama administration took office. U.S. diplomacy had succeeded in passing, with Russian, Chinese, and European support, four United Nations Security Council Resolutions from 2006-2008, tightening the web of sanctions on Iran. Moreover, the Bush administration began innovative use of financial sanctions in cooperation with U.S. allies -- a policy the Obama administration has succeeded in continuing and expanding. Russia and China have always favored an incremental approach, so it is to be expected that over time, sanctions efforts would grow more forceful and the Obama administration has succeeded in making them so.

More disturbing is the isolation from reality implied by the vice president's remarks. Touting the success of the administration's Iran policy, he went on to say, "today it is starkly, starkly different." Well, yes, the situation is starkly different. In 2009, Iran had about 4,000 centrifuges enriching uranium; today, its production capacity is more than double that. Iran's declared stocks of low enriched uranium are five times what they they were in 2009. Two years ago, Iran began enriching to the much higher level of 20 percent, and can do so in a new, deep, underground facility near Qom.

Despite sanctions, Iran's nuclear program is expanding and accelerating. Iran is to blame for that, not the United States, but whatever can be said for the administration's policy on Iran, it is not halting the nuclear program.

Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images