Small Wars Journal

Getting Diplomats to Lie Down with Devil Dogs

Tue, 05/14/2013 - 3:30am

No one would dispute the need for the United States to have a coherent foreign policy.  However, such a policy requires that the United States speak with one voice; currently, it speaks in a cacophony.  The primary pillars of American foreign policy, the Departments of State and Defense, have never worked well together.  Even when the relationship between Secretaries was amicable, the multiple factions within each organization have often placed their own parochial concerns above the common good.  Often, they are not even aware of each other’s activities and frequently work at cross purposes.  In recent years, this confusion has led foreign policy to increasingly become dominated by the Department of Defense.  While often unsuited for these tasks, its massive budget and expeditionary capacity have left it as the tallest pygmy.  This creeping militarization has naturally led to concern, but not, it seems, at the State Department, which has done almost nothing to oppose its traditional rival.  In recent years the loudest and most public advocate for a larger State Department has not been any of its Secretaries, but Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense.  When bureaucratic rivals advocate more loudly for expanding your budget than you do, something is clearly amiss. 

The modern world clearly requires the full integration of military and civilian efforts, but how is that to be achieved? Fortunately, this is not the first time that a changed world has required the unification of diverse organizations.  A substantial precedent exists in the post-World War Two effort to create a unified Department of Defense out of the Departments of War and Navy.  The National Security Act of 1947 officially unified the Army, Navy, and newly independent Air Force under a single Department of Defense.  But below that level the separate services remained highly independent, often jealously so, and utterly failed to integrate.  The prestige and collegiality of the World War Two era generals managed to paper over the system’s flaws during the Korean War, but by the time of Vietnam the rot had begun to cripple the armed forces.

Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV) was battered in bureaucratic battles from literally the moment it was conceived.  Its predecessor, the Military Assistance Advisory Group, had been largely an Army organization.  General Paul Harkins initially tried to keep MACV under army control as a specified command[1] but the other services insisted on a unified command; that is, one where no service was subordinated to any other and each had “equitable representation and equal rank in key staff positions.”[2]  Having forced MACV to adopt a unified command and ensured their services’ representation in it, the Navy and Air Force immediately proceeded to run as much of the war as possible without it.  MACV was officially subordinated to Pacific Command (CINPAC), and that organization, long dominated by naval officers, first insisted on the continual involvement of substantial naval forces in the conflict, then insisted that said forces remain under the command of the 7th fleet, not MACV.   Pacific Command also managed to secure much independence for the III Marines (and their air component) despite their nominally being under MACV.[3]  CINPAC also provided most of MAVC’s logistical tail, which gave CINCPAC great influence in any question concerning planning or troop deployments.[4]  The Air Force, always keen to limit Army control of air assets, managed to restrict MACV to direct authority only over the 2nd Air Division (later 7th Air Force), and only for those operations directly over South Vietnam.  Strategic Air Command’s bombers and most of the Pacific Command’s other air assets remained outside MACV’s control.  Were this not enough, MACV lacked complete control even over the units officially assigned to it.  A unified commander had control over the operations of his units, but his component commanders, which ultimately meant the service chiefs, were responsible for administrative issues, substantially diluting MACV’s authority.  Over time, things only grew more complicated, as MACV repeatedly became a battleground for doctrinal and policy disputes that had nothing to do with Vietnam.[5]  Even before considering the enemy, it is hard to see how this Kafkaesque construct could do anything but fail.

Unfortunately, the politics surrounding the war made an honest assessment of that failure impossible.  It would take the dramatic failures on the much smaller battlefields of the early 1980s to make clear the need for organizational reform.  Of these, the most well-known is undoubtedly the failed rescue attempt of the US hostages in Iran.  Operation Eagle Claw repeated all of the problems of Vietnam in miniature.  Again, each service insisted on its own role, leading to the plan to have Marine helicopters fly off of Navy ships for a rendezvous with Air Force planes and Army Rangers.  Again, a titular “unified” command proved anything but.  Unable to agree on a single mission commander, the services placed a Naval officer in charge of the helicopters, an Air Force officer the landing at Desert One, and an Army officer the ground assault.[6]  And again, these complications led directly to an embarrassing catastrophe.  The services together were adding up to considerably less than the sum of their parts. 

These and other failures led to realization that the military’s perpetual problems were structural, and the response was the Goldwater-Nichols Defense Reorganization Act of 1986(GWN). Under this act, the Departments of Army, Navy, and Air Force and their service chiefs were stripped of all authority over actively deployed forces.  Their job would be restricted to training and equipping combat units to be deployed under the command of regional or functional Combatant Commanders (CCs).  These CCs (then called Commanders in Chief) existed prior to GWN, but the act considerably strengthened their authority.  Additionally, promotion systems were reshuffled to require the cross posting of senior officers between services.  The virtues of this new system were clearly demonstrated by the overwhelming victory in the Gulf War.  The CC for the Central Command, Army general Norman Schwarzkopf, was able to exercise complete command of Army, Navy, and Air Force assets under his control with a minimum of squabbling from either within his own command or from the Service Chiefs. 

The Defense Department’s relationship to the State Department today bears a striking resemblance to that between the military services before the passage of GWN.  As with the military services, there is a clear need to unify State’s and Defense’s efforts, despite their very different cultures and competing world views.  As with the services, it is clear that those different perspectives are valuable, so this unification must be achieved without damaging the identity or esprit de corps of either department.  And as with the services, the initial solution of unification only at the very highest levels, the National Security Council, has largely failed to integrate the departments.  Considering the similarity of the problem, and the success of GWN, does it not make sense to apply the lessons learned from of defense unification more broadly?

The first lesson of defense unification was that clear chains of command are essential at all levels.  The military, after much toil, has managed to achieve these.  The State Department, however, has not, and thus requires some specific reforms.  The heart of State has always been the Ambassador and the national mission, organized on a country by country basis, with direct access to the Secretary of State and the President.  The modern world, however, often requires multilateral perspectives and action, for which this structure is ill suited.  Previous secretaries realized this problem, and created a number of bureaus with authority over either geographic regions or specific areas of foreign policy (e.g. arms control).  Unfortunately, these bureaus failed to achieve the desired results.  Already in the 1930s, Dean Acheson’s description of the Department reads like a list of bureaucratic clichés.  He complains that “obscurity in the line of command of the Assistant Secretaries permitted division chiefs to circumvent them at will” and that “the greater part of the day was devoted to meetings…which gave the illusion of action, but often frustrated it by attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable.”[7]  Acheson would devote much effort to establishing clearer lines of command, as would some of his successors, but the problem has only gotten worse.  In 2001, the Hart-Rudman Commission, a review of national security policy conducted by the Clinton Administration, concluded that:

The Department of State, in particular, is a crippled institution, starved for resources by Congress because of its inadequacies, and thereby weakened further. The Department suffers in particular from an ineffective organizational structure in which regional and functional policies do not serve integrated goals, and in which sound management, accountability, and leadership are lacking. [8]

The need for the coordination of diplomatic efforts above the national level is clear, but the current structure simply does not provide it.  However, what the military accomplished through strong CCs, the Department of State could accomplish in similar fashion.  Instead of more than a hundred national missions weakly overseen by dozens of competing bureaus, primary responsibility for representing America abroad could be vested in a small number of powerful Regional Ambassadors (RAs).  Unlike the current Assistant Secretaries who run regional bureaus, these RAs would need ambassadorial status, exclusive authority over the national missions in their region, and direct reports to the Secretary of State and President.  These RAs could absorb both the existing regional bureaus and the various functional bureaus at the Assistant and Under Secretary levels, which would shorten and clarify the chain of command as well as give the RAs the large and coherent staff they would need to be capable of both directing the national missions in their region and conducting projects independent of those missions.  These RAs and their staffs could be posted in their regions, leaving the Department at home free to focus on longer range planning, training, and general administration, much as the military service chiefs now do. 

While clear chains of command at State would be a great boon to the practice of American foreign policy, they would do little to integrate military and diplomatic efforts.  Defense unification has taught that true integration requires unity at the operational level.  Since RAs would resemble civilian CCs, it would be natural to have one RA for each geographic military command.  This would allow the RA’s bureau and CC’s staff for a given region to work together, ideally even in the same building, to issue a joint budget (subject, of course to approval by the National Security Council(NSC)), and to make recommendations to the NSC when requested to do so.  Cross posting between bureau and staff should be strongly encouraged even at low levels and mandatory for senior postings, with as many senior postings as practical open to both military and civilian appointees. There could even be a special combined military and civilian promotion board responsible for staff and bureau postings.

Some might fear that such reform would lead to even greater military influence over foreign policy, especially considering State’s apparent disinterest in protecting its turf in recent years.  However, these changes are likely to enhance, not diminish, State’s influence.  While State’s attitude seems to fly in the face of the traditional Weberian model of bureaucratic behavior, James Q. Wilson has shown that the impulse towards budget maximization is powerfully moderated by institutional culture and sense of identity. Confronted with missions that lie outside their sense of self, the desire to say “not my job” is stronger than the impulse towards budget maximization.  The State Department, and especially the Foreign Service Officers that dominate it, have a very strong, but also very narrow, sense of mission focused on the Embassy and maintaining relationships.[9]  Thus we have a department that actively opposed being given control of national intelligence in the 40s,[10] but which in the 80s would devote immense efforts to fighting to preserve its practice of having embassies built by foreign nationals instead of the Army Corps of Engineers, despite repeated security failures.  The embassies were theirs; spycraft was someone else’s business.

This culture, however, emerges out of State’s structure. A system where national ambassadorships are the dominant position is bound to focus attention too narrowly, just as a military dominated by service chiefs focused efforts on service disputes.  A department centered around powerful RAs, however, would naturally tend towards a broader view, as increased influence of the CCs did in the military.  Genuine authority over and involvement in activities other than traditional diplomacy cannot help but attract interest in such activities.  USAID, for example, employs a great many Foreign Service Officers, and reports to the Secretary of State but has long been shunned by the department.  Were that aid money flowing through the hands of RAs, there would be considerably more interest in bringing it into the department proper, perhaps as a 6th career cone for FSOs.  Joining the RAs and CCs at the hip only furthers this broadening.   Simply working together on a daily basis cannot help but broaden perspectives, but there is more to it than that.  Giving each some authority over the other’s budget gives an RA and CC a great deal of incentive to work together and help each other.  Even were they to disagree on every point, they would nonetheless be forced to cooperate at least enough to protect their own rice bowls, and their great authority would ensure that their subordinates share their motivation. 

Of course, the existence of dual chains requires some entity to assign tasks between them, a responsibility that would naturally fall to the NSC.  Currently responsible for both long range planning and daily management of the interagency process, the NSC does neither job well.  It does not have the authority to compel the agencies to cooperate, and is too battered by short term issues to focus on the long term.  However, were operational control handled at RA/CC level, the NSC would be free to focus on its primary duty, “to assess and appraise the objectives, commitments, and risks of the United States.”[11]  Its task would be to look at the big picture and set broad policy goals and resource levels, as well as to resolve any disputes between regions or RAs and CCs.  Of course, the exact delineation between military and civilian responsibilities is an enormously complicated issue that cannot be fully addressed here, but there are some basic principles that follow naturally from this structure. First, maintaining clear chains of command requires that operations be under the exclusive authority of either the RA or CC.  Civilians assigned to military operations or vice versa, like FSOs assigned to Provincial Reconstruction Teams or Marine Security Guards at embassies, must remain under the exclusive control of their temporary master.  AA and RA might share dual control over some staff agencies, but any interaction between Americans and the outside world ought to be under a single executive agent.  Second, there should be a basic presumption in favor of civilian control.  Stamping camouflage paint on all of the United States’ interactions abroad would do little for its image, and without such bias the Defense Department’s massive budget might tend towards excessive influence.  Third, authority should be given on the broadest practical level.  The entire purpose of these reforms is to enable and encourage the State Department and the Defense Department to work together on a large scale, not to divide the world into tiny fiefdoms.  Taken in total, these changes hold the promise of a foreign policy establishment that is more unified, more streamlined, and better able to carry out its duties.

[1]    Luttwak, The Pentagon and the Art of War, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985, 27.

[2]    Luttwak, 28.

[3]    Graham Cosmas, MACV: The Joint Command  in the Years of Escalation, 1962-1967, Washington D.C.: Center of Military History, 2006, 312

[4]    Cosmas, 308.

[5]    Cosmas, 62.

[6]    Luttwak, 45.

[7]    Acheson, Dean. Present at the Creation, New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 15-17

[8]    U.S. Commission on National Security/21st Century, Road Map for National Security:

Imperative for Change, Washington: GPO, 2001, 47

[9]    Wilson, James Q., Bureaucracy:  What Government Agencies Do and Why They Do It, USA: Basic Books Inc, 1989, 40

[10]  Acheson, 158

[11]  50 U.S.C. § 402 (b)(1) (2012)


About the Author(s)

Michael Tint holds a degree in political science from Haverford College specializing in organizational politics and foreign affairs.  He is a former congressional campaign staffer who has just returned to the US after more than a year spent teaching English and learning Spanish in Mexico.


The Ambassador is always in charge ! An embassy is a huge fishbowl with no one sprinkling food on the surface. The goldfish are starving for credit and the too often embellished awards doled out with every turnover of minions. In two years the average soldier moves on and the average junior political officer? Ah, let’s leave that one alone!

We can’t even control two completely separate military offices under one Senior Defense Representative. You can’t have a spy (Defense Attaché) and candy man (SAO) under one hat. Didn’t work, even as far back as 84 and lately has been a real PITA.

Ironically, when the Ambassador is a political appointee the shop runs like a well-oiled business. But when the Ambassador, in most cases, is a career SFSO, politics takes front seat and the Administration pulls at your hamstrings and the embassy turns into a fiasco. All the decisions are made based on what Foggy Bottom and the Administration wants to see on paper. The local situation is not relevant as it does not jibe with POTUS babble.

The military does not belong in the diplomatic kit bag. The common political or economics officer has not a clue what the military do for a living and has no business even trying to comprehend what is up.

Working in an embassy as a soldier is a waste of time and energy. We show up when they evacuate and clean up their mess. That, actually works well.

Diplomacy is not in the soldier's manual and we suck at it !

We do not belong in an embassy just as much as a State political officer does not belong on an Army base.

Furthermore, I have never seen Post One function as more than wallpaper. The annual Marine Ball with all the diplomats and senior military officers telling the rest of us how great we are. What a bunch of Bravo Sierra as they pass the canapes at the behest of the Ambassador at parties in their dress blues !


Tue, 05/14/2013 - 5:12pm

Having worked in both agencies at the HQ level, my instinct is to scoff at any suggested merger. Perhaps the very existence of such an instinct is in fact a symptom of the problem. But all considered, I had the following initial thoughts:

1. What you are proposing is 1 step away from a "Viceroy" type model. At the moment, the CC's, by their nature, have become the regional extension of American power. The regional bureaus within State are in fact focused on country-mission support. At the end of the day you will have 2 senior leaders with a direct line to their secretary and the President. Whom do you privilege in decision making? Who has the authority to decide how and when anything happens? Eventually you may advocate that 1 regional leader be in-fact in charge, in the interests of unity of command.

2. The CC's are organized along a geographic logic. That logic has little to do with anything else. US foreign policy, however, deals with distinct entities, the other countries. By adding this rather ahistorical/nontraditional layer of leadership you will signal clearly that the country-missions are little more than over-staffed consulates. Remember, the Ambassadors don't actually "take orders" from Washington per se. The most active of them, shape how US policy is implemented with a level of executive authority the CC's would be envy.

3. Diplomacy doesn't always require regional coordination. The regions are our mental constructs for administrative purposes, they aren't entities. While very many programs and efforts may in fact benefit from a regionally coherent strategy and implementation, what defines a region, what defines the relationships of countries to each other, and what defines a program's regional interest are all concepts that are fundamentally divorced from a notion of a static region. A regional policy may mean 2 countries or 30. It may span several regions. A regional policy on the Red Sea would require coordination between Africom and Centcom...because the region is a mental construct.

A region is not a thing to be influenced. It exists only in our minds. While country-focused myopia does dominate the minds in DoS; a narrow-minded, hardened, geographical region concept dominates DoD. Neither is right, and they won't necessarily compliment each other just by sticking two officials together. This is a geo-political, strategic, and philosophical perspectives issue. It's not a process issue at heart.

Although I do agree that the MACV and similar examples the author examines do demand a high level of complimentarity between DoD and DoS efforts, the issue is scratching at a rather disturbing implication. Foreign Policy is the purview of the President, to execute as he sees fit. DoS is the place of diplomats, a traditional concept that has professionalized along with many other things since Industrialization. DoD is the place of the warriors who too have professionalized since the middle ages.

But neither is an inherent owner of anything except skill sets and delegated authority in their domains. The owner is the President. Those domains cross often, but they do not cross purposes. A military officer has the authority to employ the organization he commands on behalf of the President. A Foreign Service Officer has the authority to speak on official policy on behalf of the President. In other words, one acts, the other speaks. The important part is that they act as they speak. That requires a lot more than a reorg at the CC level.

(PS. I am not a fan of the latest trend of the "operationalized FSO". Additionally, inserting anyone aside from the President and SecDef into the idea of civilian control of the military makes no sense. Civilian control of the military isn't civilian command of military organizations. I find this concept a rather naive misinterpretation of the principle. But that's another post :) ).

dos pesos

Would it make sense to assign a COCOM commander as a regional ambassador (RA)? Or a senior Foreign Service Officer (FSO) as COCOM Cdr? Should the military make postings to DoS a routine part of a career timeline, or create a functional area for "political officer" (in the tradition of the Imperial British model, not the Soviet model) that focuses on political-diplomatic--military issues?

I'm in favor of an organization (created through reorganization of existing organizations, bureaus, & departments, not government expansion) that does more than diplomacy but less than military action.....a synthesis of DoD and DoS. Would something like this achieve the unity of "command" discussed in this article?