The Best Defense

I can't stand by and watch Peter Van Buren's account of the PRTs stand

By Stephen Donnelly
Best Defense guest respondent

I was surprised to see Foreign Policy providing so high a soapbox for Peter Van Buren, a State Department Foreign Service Officer who, by his own admission, "meant well" during his brief and unproductive jaunt as an Embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team (EPRT) leader in Iraq in 2009, but, according to him, caused more damage there than most any other individual I have ever heard of or witnessed.

Two articles and a blog spotlight in just a few days.

Obviously, Van Buren never got the drift of PRTs, a decisive and controversial 2007 effort by the State Department's Office of Provincial Affairs' Director Ambassador Henry Clarke to break through the failed bureaucracy of top-down US colonial administration programs by forcing decision-making out to committed civilian reconstruction staff on the ground. Clarke always knew that the Achilles Heel of PRTs was poor assignments of unqualified individuals, and that the only defense against the Peter van Burens was to have many PRTs so that the failures did not pull down the whole mission.

The real Iraq PRT story is not pretty, fraught with bureaucratic snafus, and involved much waste, fraud, abuse, and war wreckage: the best laid plans of mice and men seldom survive a powerful IED, regardless of bravery or the best of intentions! But it is not the story that Peter van Buren tells which inaccurately paints a very bad light on the entire Foreign Service, with which he seems very dissatisfied.

The military, as Clarke often explained, had a "do it now" attitude that compelled each new brigade to launch one "quick hit" program after another to have Iraqis pick up the trash. The PRTs had to break that mold by focusing on the real problem: the Iraqis had no system, post-2003, to pick up their own trash. PRTs had to work across the rotational boundary with Iraqi counterparties, down to the local and provincial levels, to create permanent solutions for Iraqis' technical, resource, and administrative problems or we would be locked in Iraq forever. The real conflict was the damaging one between U.S. bureaucracy (the Embassy and agencies) and the field, where localized Iraqi solutions had to be found and nourished.

Read the rest of the post here.

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The Best Defense

The defense budget implosion (IX): The end of U.S. policy since WWII?

I don't automatically blog about every new report from CNAS, but I am particularly struck by one being issued this week about what future defense budget cuts might be and what their effects might be. Bottom line: They say that if the cuts go beyond about $550 billion, it will be difficult to carry out the basic American policy since World War II of being engaged internationally.

Lotsa people are rattling on these days about defense in an age of austerity, but the report's authors -- retired Army Lt. Gen. David Barno, Nora Bensahel, and Travis Sharp -- do a good job of doing more and showing how the meat will come off the bones. They look at four levels of budget cuts: About $350 billion, about $500 billion, about $650 billion, and about $800 billion.

They don't quite say so, but they seem to favor the first two -- which is significant, because they (at "the Obama Administration's favorite think tank") are saying they could live with $500 billion in cuts. Go much deeper than that, they say, and we start creeping toward isolationism.

The report bursts with provocative thoughts and suggestions. Surprisingly for a study whose lead writer is a retired Army general, it favors the Air Force and Navy over the Army and Marines. It wants to cut both ground forces back to their pre-9/11 sizes. In the deeper cut scenarios, it basically wants the Marines to get out of fixed-wing aviation, both lift and strike. It also wants the Marines out of tanks, and wants the Army to reduce its number of tanks, and to move a lot of the heavy Army force into the Reserves. It wants to radically cut back on buying new weapons, but instead to keep alive R&D until a new threat emerges.

The report also says we will be focusing less on the Middle East in the coming years and more on the Asia/Pacific rim.   

I asked Barno about how the report is going down at the Pentagon. "We did find the Army's reaction a bit more sparky than the other services'," he said. No word yet on whether they are cutting off his pension. Barno also said that operationally, the services are joint, but in budgeting, they have failed to become so.  

Travis Sharp, who reminds me of John Hamre maybe 15 years ago -- someone who really understands the interaction of budget and strategy -- commented that "the services are in a full defensive crouch" right now.

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