The Pentagon is muscling in everywhere. It’s time to stop the mission creep.


By Thomas A. Schweich
Sunday, December 21, 2008

We no longer have a civilian-led government. It is hard for a lifelong Republican and son of a retired Air Force colonel to say this, but the most unnerving legacy of the Bush administration is the encroachment of the Department of Defense into a striking number of aspects of civilian government. Our Constitution is at risk.

President-elect Barack Obama’s selections of James L. Jones, a retired four-star Marine general, to be his national security adviser and, it appears, retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair to be his director of national intelligence present the incoming administration with an important opportunity — and a major risk. These appointments could pave the way for these respected military officers to reverse the current trend of Pentagon encroachment upon civilian government functions, or they could complete the silent military coup d’etat that has been steadily gaining ground below the radar screen of most Americans and the media.

While serving the State Department in several senior capacities over the past four years, I witnessed firsthand the quiet, de facto military takeover of much of the U.S. government. The first assault on civilian government occurred in faraway places — Iraq and Afghanistan — and was, in theory, justified by the exigencies of war.

The White House, which basically let the Defense Department call the budgetary shots, vastly underfunded efforts by the State Department, the Justice Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to train civilian police forces, build functioning judicial systems and provide basic development services to those war-torn countries. For example, after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Justice Department and the State Department said that they needed at least 6,000 police trainers in the country. Pentagon officials told some of my former staffers that they doubted so many would be needed. The civilians’ recommendation “was quickly reduced to 1,500 [trainers] by powers-that-be above our pay grade,” Gerald F. Burke, a retired major in the Massachusetts State Police who trained Iraqi cops from 2003 to 2006, told Congress last April. Just a few hundred trainers ultimately wound up being fielded, according to Burke’s testimony.

Until this year, the State Department received an average of about $40 million a year for rule-of-law programs in Afghanistan, according to the department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs — in stark contrast to the billions that the Pentagon got to train the Afghan army. Under then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the Defense Department failed to provide even basic security for the meager force of civilian police mentors, rule-of-law advisers and aid workers from other U.S. agencies operating in Afghanistan and Iraq, driving policymakers to turn to such contracting firms as Blackwater Worldwide. After having set the rest of the U.S. government up for failure, military authorities then declared that the other agencies’ unsuccessful police-training efforts required military leadership and took them over — after brutal interagency battles at the White House.

The result of letting the Pentagon take such thorough charge of the programs to create local police forces is that these units, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, have been unnecessarily militarized — producing police officers who look more like militia members than ordinary beat cops. These forces now risk becoming paramilitary groups, well armed with U.S. equipment, that could run roughshod over Iraq and Afghanistan’s nascent democracies once we leave.

Or consider another problem with the rising influence of the Pentagon: the failure to address the ongoing plague of poppy farming and heroin production in Afghanistan. This fiasco was in large part the result of the work of non-expert military personnel, who discounted the corrosive effects of the Afghan heroin trade on our efforts to rebuild the country and failed to support civilian-run counter-narcotics programs. During my tenure as the Bush administration’s anti-drug envoy to Afghanistan, I also witnessed JAG officers hiring their own manifestly unqualified Afghan legal “experts,” some of whom even lacked law degrees, to operate outside the internationally agreed-upon, Afghan-led program to bring impartial justice to the people of Afghanistan. This resulted in confusion and contradiction.

One can also see the Pentagon’s growing muscle in the recent creation of the U.S. military command for Africa, known as Africom. This new command supposedly has a joint civilian-military purpose: to coordinate soft power and traditional hard power to stop al-Qaeda and its allies from gaining a foothold on the continent. But Africom has gotten a chilly reception in post-colonial Africa. Meanwhile, U.S. competitors such as China are pursuing large African development projects that are being welcomed with open arms. Since the Bush administration has had real successes with its anti-AIDS and other health programs in Africa, why exactly do we need a military command there running civilian  reconstruction, if not to usurp the efforts led by well-respected U.S. embassies and aid officials?

And, of course, I need not even elaborate on the most notorious effect of the military’s growing reach: the damage that the military tribunals at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and such military prisons as Abu Ghraib have done to U.S. credibility around the world.

But these initial military takeovers of civilian functions all took place a long distance from home. “We are in a war, after all,” Ronald Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, told me by way of explaining the military’s huge role in that country — just before the Pentagon  seemingly had him removed in 2007 because of his admirable efforts to balance military and civilian needs. (I heard angry accounts of the Pentagon’s role in Neumann’s “retirement” at the time from knowledgeable diplomats, one of them very senior.) But our military forces, in a bureaucratic sense, soon marched on Washington itself.

As military officers sought to take over the role played by civilian development experts abroad, Pentagon bureaucrats quietly populated the National Security Council and the State Department with their own personnel (some civilians, some consultants, some retired officers, some officers on “detail” from the Pentagon) to ensure that the Defense Department could keep an eye on its rival agencies. Vice President Cheney, himself a former secretary of defense, and his good friend Rumsfeld ensured the success of this seeding effort by some fairly forceful means. At least twice, I saw Cheney staffers show up unannounced at State Department meetings, and I heard other State Department officials grumble about this habit. The Rumsfeld officials could play hardball, sometimes even leaking to the press the results of classified meetings that did not go their way in order to get the decisions reversed. After I got wind of the Pentagon’s dislike for the approved interagency anti-drug strategy for Afghanistan, details of the plan quickly wound up in the hands of foreign countries sympathetic to the Pentagon view. I’ve heard other, similarly troubling stories about leaks of classified information to the press.

Many of Cheney’s and Rumsfeld’s cronies still work at the Pentagon and elsewhere. Rumsfeld’s successor, Robert M. Gates, has spoken of increasing America’s “soft power,” its ability to attract others by our example, culture and values, but thus far, this push to reestablish civilian leadership has been largely talk and little action. Gates is clearly sincere about chipping away at the military’s expanding role, but many of his  subordinates are not.

The encroachment within America’s borders continued with the military’s increased involvement in domestic surveillance and its attempts to usurp the role of the federal courts in reviewing detainee cases. The Pentagon also resisted ceding any authority over its extensive intelligence operations to the first director of national intelligence, John D. Negroponte — a State Department official who eventually gave up his post to Mike McConnell, a former Navy admiral. The Bush administration also appointed Michael V. Hayden, a four-star Air Force general, to be the director of the CIA. National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley saw much of the responsibility for developing and implementing policy on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — surely the national security adviser’s job — given to Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, Bush’s new “war czar.” By 2008, the military was running much of the national security apparatus.

The Pentagon opened a southern front earlier this year when it attempted to dominate the new Merida Initiative, a promising $400 million program to help Mexico battle drug cartels. Despite the admirable efforts of the federal drug czar, John P. Walters, to keep the White House focused on the civilian law-enforcement purpose of the Merida Initiative, the military runs a big chunk of that program as well.

Now the Pentagon has drawn up plans to deploy 20,000 U.S. soldiers inside our borders by 2011, ostensibly to help state and local officials respond to terrorist attacks or other catastrophes. But that mission could easily spill over from emergency counterterrorism work into border-patrol efforts, intelligence gathering and law enforcement operations — which would run smack into the Posse Comitatus Act, the long-standing law restricting the military’s role in domestic law enforcement. So the generals are not only dominating our government activities abroad, at our borders and in Washington, but they also seem to intend to spread out across the heartland of America.

If President-elect Obama wants to reverse this trend, he must take four steps — and very quickly:

1. Direct — or, better yet, order — Gates, Jones, Blair and the other military leaders in his Cabinet to rid the Pentagon’s lower ranks of Rumsfeld holdovers whose only mission is to increase the power of the Pentagon.

2. Turn Gates’s speeches on the need to promote soft power into reality with a massive transfer of funds from the Pentagon to the State Department, the Justice Department and USAID.

3. Put senior, respected civilians — not retired or active military personnel — into key subsidiary positions in the intelligence community and the National Security Council.

4. Above all, he should let his appointees with military backgrounds know swiftly and firmly that, under the Constitution, he is their commander, and that he will not tolerate the well-rehearsed lip service that the military gave to civilian agencies and even President Bush over the past four years.

In short, he should retake the government before it devours him and us — and return civilian-led government to the people of the United  States.

Thomas A. Schweich served the Bush administration as ambassador for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan and deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement affairs.

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