2008 Looking to Be a Bountiful Harvest of Dumb Foreign Policy Ideas

It’s only the day after Valentine’s Day, but we’re already looking at a pretty solid year in terms of dumb foreign policy ideas emanating from the renowned Foreign Policy Community. The newest entry, coming on the heels of the announcement of our ginormous, wasteful defense budget is the new push to expand the nation-building office in the State Department. Robin Wright gives us a peek through the keyhole in the WaPo, opening the article with her tongue appropriately in cheek:

Are you a road engineer who speaks Urdu? A city planner fluent in Arabic? Maybe a former judge who happens to know Pashto and seeks foreign adventure?

Right. It’s really a shame, because all of the former judges I know familiar with Islamic jurisprudence are actually speakers of Turkic languages. (Kidding.) The point here is that for a federal government that can only scrape together 50 Arabic speakers to work as FBI agents, it’s a little nutty to think we have the requisite skill-sets to staff a nation-building office. (Maybe we should just take people off translating suspected terrorist documents to do some work on irrigation and urban planning? Please.)

Wright then turns to the unfortunate substance of the (non-)debate over the new policy:

The 2009 budget calls for $248 million for the program, up from $7.2 million in the 2007, he said.

The idea of an emergency civilian corps has had mixed congressional reception since State’s Office of the Coordinator of Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) was created in 2004. Herbst so far has fewer than 90 people who have been deployed in small teams to Afghanistan, Chad, Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

Under the new budget proposal, the CRS nucleus would grow to a 250-person Active Response Corps pulled from U.S. agencies, including Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and Treasury. It would include city planners, economists, port operators and correction officials, Herbst said. They would undergo months of training. Their mission would be to deploy within the first 72 hours of a U.S. military landing. As much as 80 percent of the team would be dispatched for as much as one year.

“We are proposing shifts across our civilian agencies that will bring all elements of national power to bear in the defense of America’s vital interests,” Herbst told Congress.

The second group would be a roughly 2,000-strong Standby Response Corps, again pulled from all branches of government and having the same diverse skills. They would train for two or three weeks a year and would be the second group to deploy in a crisis. Between 200 and 500 would deploy within 45 to 60 days of a crisis onset, Herbst said in an interview.

The third group is the Civilian Reserve Corps of about 2,000 that would be pulled from the private sector and state or local governments, much like the military reserve. Its members would sign up for a four-year commitment, which would include training for several weeks a year and an obligation to deploy for as much as one of the four years, Herbst said.

This is a recipe for disaster. As Chris Preble and I pointed out more than two years ago, “the overwhelming majority of failed states have posed no security threat to the United States.” Further, we argued, “attacking a threat rarely involves paving roads or establishing new judicial standards.” Accordingly, as Ben Friedman, Harvey Sapolsky, and Chris (the guy’s a busy man!) pointed out in a paper released Wednesday, the best policy response to this reality is “a wise and masterly inactivity in the face of most foreign disorder.”

As usual, the U.S. government finds itself running, not walking, in the opposite direction from reality.