More Power to State

The New York Times reports on Hillary Clinton’s efforts to reassert the State Department’s power over US foreign policy. This is, in one sense, good news. A bloated budget and far flung combatant commanders have allowed the Pentagon to trample over Foggy Bottom in recent years. That is bad not because diplomats are inherently wiser than generals, but because the competition of relatively balanced bureaucratic powers is generally conducive to wise policy.

The trouble here is the idea, hinted at in the Times story, that increased State Department capacity will bring success in state-building missions. A peculiar hubris of Democratic foreign policy analysts is their confidence that they have discovered a science of nation-building by watching the Bush Administration screw up. They see errors on the road to chaos during the occupation of Iraq and assume causality.  They read a little about counter-insurgency and the Small Wars Journal blog. Avoid the errors, apply the best practices, and you are gold, they say. So: more troops, better plans, more interagency coordination, more reconstruction, and so on – and, presto, you can “fix” failed states that you occupy, like Afghanistan, or even states you don’t occupy, like Pakistan.

As I wrote here and said last week, this would-be science provides leaders with confidence they should not have to undertake dumb wars or to establish excessive goals for sensible wars. Hopefully, I will be proved wrong in Afghanistan, where we are about to test this kind of thinking.