Imagine you are the president of the United States. You have just received word that violent conflict has ended in Somalia, one of the most war-torn states in the world. Your national security advisor believes the newly signed peace agreement will stick. “Great,” you say, “now we can turn to the next crisis.”

“Wait,” your national security advisor says, and then gives you a statistic often cited by conflict analysts: “Half of all peace agreements fail within five years. The Somali state is broken. There is no police force, the government is ineffective, and the cities have been destroyed. We need a comprehensive reconstruction plan to make peace sustainable.” You agree, and order a massive reconstruction package. Your advisor says, “That’s great, but who will coordinate the project? And we need to get aid out the door quickly.”

This is a very plausible dilemma for a U.S. president. U.S. policymakers must respond rapidly and often in an ad-hoc manner to crises. The lack of a civilian corps of experts to rapidly respond to a crisis often prevents the United States from taking advantage of a “golden hour” when reconstruction assistance is most helpful in preventing countries from sliding further into chaos. And while war-torn states require sustained foreign aid and civilian reconstruction assistance, the only U.S. government agency currently capable of rapid deployment is the military. Consequently, U.S. military forces have engaged in seven major stabilization and reconstruction operations since the end of the Cold War. The majority of these operations took place in weak and failing states, with the stated goal of restoring peace in the aftermath of instability and violent conflict.

While the military is able to provide security, it is not suited to perform civilian tasks, such as rebuilding infrastructure, setting up judicial systems, and establishing other government institutions. “It’s like sending police to guard a ruined neighborhood, but not sending the carpenters and the electricians and the plumbers to help residents rebuild it,” said one official regarding U.S. responses to weak and failing states.

After many failed interventions in places like Haiti and Somalia, a bipartisan consensus has emerged that violent conflict in failing states merits an improved civilian response to prevent catastrophes and fill security gaps that provide safe havens for radical violent groups. Some progressive voices disagree, seeing imperial designs behind reconstruction and stabilization efforts. But these critics fail to understand how a civilian response corps can meet human needs and help rehabilitate U.S. reputation abroad.

About-Face on Nation-Building

From the campaign trail in 2000, Governor George W. Bush lambasted the Clinton administration for its grandiose nation-building operations abroad. Yet after 9/11, the Bush administration sanctioned two expansive U.S. military-led nation-building projects in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Catastrophes often give birth to new ideas. The inability of coalition forces to establish a sustainable peace in Iraq and Afghanistan led many U.S. policymakers to question U.S. post-conflict reconstruction capabilities. And they were right. The chaos after the fall of Baghdad can largely be blamed on inefficient U.S. agency coordination, poor decision-making from senior policymakers, and a lack of a cadre of civilian professionals with reconstruction expertise.

To remedy these failures and in response to a legislative initiative from Senate Foreign Relations leaders Richard Lugar (R-IN) and Joseph Biden (D-DE), then-Secretary of State Colin Powell established the State Department’s Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) in 2004. The primary objective of S/CRS is to coordinate all U.S. civilian agencies involved in post-conflict reconstruction efforts.

Due to bureaucratic infighting and congressional reticence to fund a new office, S/CRS had a slow start, surviving on less than $15 million a year. Despite this underfunding, the new department has managed to deploy people all over the world including to Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America. After the war between Israel and Hezbollah last summer, for instance, S/CRS deployed two Foreign Service officers to coordinate U.S. post-conflict reconstruction assistance in Lebanon. In Haiti, a small team of U.S. civilians led by S/CRS has been working with local governments and police to provide development assistance and improve security in Cité-Soleil, one of Haiti’s most impoverished and dangerous neighborhoods.

S/CRS is also working in Sudan and Chad, home to arguably the worst human security crises in the world. Since June 2006, a small team from S/CRS has been working with the UN-African Union hybrid peacekeeping mission in Darfur (UNAMID), and with local government and civil society in El Fasher, the capital of Sudan’s North Darfur state. They provide a U.S. diplomatic presence in the region, report on the implementation of key aspects of the 2006 Darfur Peace Agreement, and help coordinate U.S. diplomatic efforts to bring an end to the fighting in Darfur. In Chad, a smaller team from S/CRS has been monitoring the arrival of refugees and the internally displaced persons from western Darfur and Chad.

Ironically, many of these projects have been funded by the Defense Department, vis-à-vis “Section 1207” authority, a legislative initiative that allows the DoD to transfer money to the State Department for stabilization and reconstruction operations. There are two reasons for this unusual arrangement. The failure to establish a sustainable peace in Iraq has forced many in the Pentagon and administration to come to grips with the fact that military force cannot accomplish many of the challenges of the 21st century. Faced with this scenario, senior officials at the Pentagon have supported a transfer of funds to the State Department. This transfer, while a welcome infusion of cash, highlights grave problems in the U.S. budget, which grossly overfunds DoD while leaving civilian agencies starved for resources.

Increased Funding?

The House of Representatives and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee have both approved bills (HR 1084 and S 613) to authorize the new office and create a cadre of civilian professionals to provide reconstruction assistance in crisis situations. Unfortunately, Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) has placed a legislative hold on the bill, blocking a floor vote in the Senate.

In his budget request for FY 09, President Bush has requested $249 million for the “Civilian Stabilization Initiative,” which would fund S/CRS and a three-tiered civilian response corps comprised of:

  • A 250-person rapidly deployable contingent, pulled primarily from State and USAID, as well as various other civilian agencies (i.e. Agriculture, Commerce, Justice, and Treasury);
  • A 2000-person standby contingent pulled from various federal agencies, but without rapid deployment capabilities;
  • A 2000-person voluntary reserve corps, which would draw U.S. civilians from state and local governments, and the private sector. This corps would give civilians the opportunity to serve and support critical peacebuilding missions abroad.

In a bizarre turn of events, the Bush administration and a number of peace groups have found common ground on S/CRS. Washington based peace and security advocacy groups that strongly opposed the Bush Administration’s pre-emptive war on Iraq have now found themselves lobbying Congress to support the Administration’s funding request for S/CRS and the civilian response corps.

Responding to the Critics

While S/CRS has gained its allies, it has its critics. In an article in The Nation, journalist Naomi Klein criticized S/CRS for its crisis planning agenda, calling it “sophisticated colonialism.” However, Klein fails to acknowledge that planning for crises is critically necessary to save lives and resources. The failure in the U.S. government’s response to Hurricane Katrina is a case in point. The Defense Department invests millions in planning for future military operations. Due to both scant resources and a reaction-prone culture at the State Department, the agency responsible for U.S. diplomatic efforts hasn’t ever aggressively planned for peace. S/CRS is a first attempt to change this dynamic.

Critics from the libertarian Cato Institute snipe at S/CRS for three reasons. First, they claim that failing states do not threaten international security. They also argue that the United States has existing “institutional capacity” to perform stabilization and reconstruction missions. Lastly, they caution that a well-funded S/CRS would “become a vocal advocate of nation building.”

Certainly, not every failing state poses a direct challenge to global stability, nor can U.S. resources be poured into reconstructing every war-torn state. U.S. policymakers should exercise extreme caution before intervening in any country. Yet some volatile states such as Somalia, Chad, and Lebanon do provide safe havens for radical armed groups not to mention put vulnerable populations at risk of serious harm. A civilian response corps would provide policymakers with a more appropriate tool than military or security assistance to shore up these unstable states.

These critics also fail to make the distinction between the foreign policy agenda and the tools available for policymakers. While U.S. military and civilian capabilities help shape the foreign policy agenda, the ultimate responsibility for casting the vote on important foreign policy matters lies with elected public officials. A civilian response corps is a tool that could be used to further U.S. hegemony, or provide assistance to civilians in places like Haiti or Burma. But expanding the U.S. foreign policy toolkit is not a substitute for a more ethical U.S. foreign policy or democratic oversight by an engaged citizenry. One safeguard against executive abuse is a provision in the House authorization bill that requires Congressional notification prior to the deployment of the civilian corps.

Finally, it is disingenuous to claim the United States has sufficient professional civilian capabilities to provide reconstruction assistance and help revive failed states. Since the end of the Cold War, consistent budgeting reductions for USAID— the primary agency responsible for administering foreign assistance—have undercut the U.S. ability to provide effective foreign assistance.

Similar cuts in the State Department’s operating budget have left the U.S. diplomatic agency understaffed and ill-equipped to handle current much less potential challenges. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has highlighted the staffing disparity between the State Department and the military, by noting that the entire U.S. diplomatic corps (roughly 6,600 foreign service officers) could only man one aircraft carrier. Congressional funding of the proposed “Civilian Stabilization Initiative” would help address the effects of these budget cuts by providing new positions at the State Department and USAID.

Toward A Preventive Paradigm

In late July 2003, Senator Biden said, “Instead of a preemption doctrine, what we need is a prevention doctrine which diffuses problems long before they explode in our face.” Past failures to manage and prevent conflict have been problems of will and resources. The U.S. foreign policy infrastructure is designed to respond to conflict in an ad-hoc fashion, not to prevent festering tensions from developing into deadly conflict. This is due in part to the U.S. budget for foreign engagement, which is weighted toward preparation for war, not efforts to prevent deadly conflict.

Approximately 90% of funds for U.S. foreign engagement are spent on the Pentagon, leaving a mere 10% of funds to support diplomacy, foreign aid, and civilian post-conflict reconstruction capabilities. As a result, U.S. policymakers rely heavily on the military to respond to conflict and instability. By default, ad-hoc interventions focus on short-term military security yet often fail to establish the conditions for a sustainable peace. Unsurprisingly, violent conflict resurges just months or years after a conflict ends. Reoccurring conflict in places like Haiti and Sierra Leone demonstrate how international responses fail to address the root causes of conflict.

The civilian response corps is a tool to help resolve this cycle of conflict in war-torn states. In addition to tools like S/CRS, we also need good policies. Like any government agency, S/CRS certainly has its flaws. The office needs to reach out more to international organizations, civil society, and those living in war-torn states.

Yet, congressional authorization and robust funding for S/CRS and the civilian response corps is an important first step to put a non-military face on U.S. engagement in war-torn countries. It would provide U.S. policymakers with an appropriate tool for administering effective reconstruction assistance to stave off an emerging conflict or help support a long-awaited cease-fire. Lastly, it would ensure that the next time a U.S. national security advisor tells the president ”we’ve got an emergency,” the appropriate crisis response structure will be in place, and the president can just say “Go.”

Trevor Keck is a legislative program assistant and Ann Vaughan is the legislative representative for the peaceful prevention of deadly conflict program at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker public interest lobby in Washington DC. They are both contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus (

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