Numerous congressional hearings have been held, and even more reforms enacted since 9/11, to try to improve DOD-DOS coordination on security assistance. But all the debates and tactical fixes have essentially missed the mark. There is no doubt that some improvement in interagency coordination has been made in recent years, and especially since the 2012 Benghazi incident, when terrorists attacked and burned the U.S. mission in Libya, killing Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. nationals. Unlike in the past, there is now legislation —Section 333 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, or FY17 NDAA, is the latest example—calling for synchronization and joint planning between DOS and DOD. A new steering committee has been established to oversee such joint planning. Further, the secretary of defense now must seek the concurrence of the secretary of state before launching some, but not all, security-assistance programs with partner nations (exceptions include Ukraine and counter-ISIS assistance).
However, optimal interagency coordination won’t happen absent a workable policy toward the country receiving such assistance. It also won’t happen if DOS continues to exhibit leadership deficiencies and organizational weaknesses. Today, a major opportunity for DOS to get more involved seems to present itself: both the Congress and DOD affirm that they have provided DOS with the necessary resources and authorities to lead this process (although DOS still assesses that section 333 of the FY17 NDAA consolidates DOD’s security-assistance “fiefdom” and that Foggy Bottom still lacks the necessary resources and authorities to take the lead as it did in the past). One would also be hard pressed to find a secretary of defense who values and champions interagency coordination more than James Mattis. Yet despite its absolutely crucial role in security assistance, many in the Pentagon and Congress believe that DOS does not appear to be ready yet to assume larger responsibilities in the process. That’s especially damaging for the future of the security-assistance enterprise.
The absence of a viable policy toward the recipient country also explains why we’re less articulate in explaining why we provide security assistance to our Arab partners. Although we do enjoy, as stated previously, a number of political and economic benefits from security assistance, on military matters, however, it is far less clear. Merely inserting the term “building the local capacity” of Arab partners in high-level documents does not answer the question of precisely why we pursue these onerous, expensive and often controversial activities. For example, should we be engaged in developing our Arab partners’ overall military capabilities, or should we help build specific capabilities to achieve well-defined U.S. objectives? The two goals might sound the same, but practically and strategically they are considerably different. The first assumes that such a process would by default contribute to U.S. interests, or it might be indifferent toward that outcome. The second is much more deliberate toward such end results. So far, we have sporadically pursued the second approach and relied much more on the first.
As fundamental as the issue of (lack of) policy is, it is not the only one undermining security assistance. Security assistance hasn’t adjusted to the new U.S. priorities in the Middle East. Also, many of the United States’ laws and procedures are old—the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and Arms Export Control Act of 1976 still govern the security-assistance process—and need to be updated. Its focus seems to be misplaced, too. Born in the Cold War and designed to address conventional threats, U.S. security assistance is still focused on and better suited to deal with external defense rather than a holistic process of security, from intelligence to intervention, and from arrest to rehabilitation. The emphasis on external defense is not necessarily a big problem when it comes to U.S. allies that are stable democracies, with few worries about terrorist armies and insurgencies. But in the case of Arab partners, none of which is a true democracy, one would reason that their chief threats emanate from within.
Even if a coherent policy does exist, which is rare, let’s be perfectly honest: security assistance to politically fragile and militarily weak Arab partners requires a great deal of hard work over a long period of time. It is far easier to transfer a weapons system to Arab partners than it is to commit to helping them build full-spectrum military capabilities, a process that includes education on how to effectively use, maintain and deploy the weapons system in service of a national defense strategy. Arms, no matter how powerful, should not be equated with military capabilities. Indeed, buying a Ferrari will not automatically enhance the owner’s driving skills. There is abundant evidence from the Middle East of U.S. military equipment rusting on tarmacs and in deserts, barely used, stolen or prematurely retired. It is true that Arab militaries have gotten better at handling and servicing imported U.S. arms, but the adage that “Arabs don’t do maintenance” has not entirely lost its credibility .
The process of military education and training on doctrine, strategy, policy, organization and leadership also has a political dimension. Enhancing the effectiveness of law-enforcement and security agencies in authoritarian Arab governments often requires political reengineering, as well as institutional and legal capacity building, which Washington is not good at and decreasingly interested in doing (so as to avoid even the perception of nation building). It is one thing to help an Arab country train and equip its coast guard, for example, but it is another altogether to help that government create legal systems and authorities that are necessary for that military service’s role and jurisdictions.
Personnel is another handicap in the U.S. government when it comes to security assistance for Arab partners. There simply are not enough Arab country specialists in Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon who also have experience in the process of U.S. security assistance. DOS could use more “warrior diplomats” who understand security and the use of force, while DOD could use more “diplomat generals” who are familiar with foreign cultures and history. This is particularly important with regard to U.S. security assistance, because there are cultural and historical reasons, not just competence-related reasons, why security integration with the United States, among and even within the Arab states has not worked well. To make matters worse, a systematic debriefing/lessons-learned process to collect and analyze the experiences of officers when they complete their Middle East assignments does not exist. Such officers tend to “move on to the next assignment” and just disappear into “the system,” along with the things they have learned. Fiscal year 2017’s NDAA mandates a professionalization of the security-cooperation workforce, including developing career paths, but if that’s not treated as a priority to which resources would be allocated, it simply won’t happen.
ALL AMERICAN presidents since Jimmy Carter have sought to fix various elements of U.S. security assistance in one way or another, yet they all diagnosed the problem differently. Carter and Reagan focused on U.S. arms sales and particularly on their size rather than on their effectiveness (Carter believed that less was better, to reduce regional militarization, while Reagan was convinced that more was better, to empower friends and allies to fight communism). Soon after he took office, Obama signaled that he would take a more strategic and requirements-based approach to U.S. weapons transfers. The presumed shift was well received by many in the Pentagon. However, U.S. arms sales to the Middle East soared under Obama, oftentimes with little regard for what the president and his national-security team said they were initially committed to. Moreover, security-assistance coordination between DOS and DOD was lacking partly because Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter did not have the best working relationship and disagreed on various foreign-policy matters (contrary to Tillerson and Mattis, who seem to work well together).
Trump believes that the United States spends too much on foreign aid and that it should sell more arms to boost the U.S. economy. That’s why his idea of fixing security assistance is based on making cuts in some foreign-aid programs and making more megaweapons deals. There certainly is no harm in looking more closely at the numbers of FMF programs to Arab partners to check if waste can be eliminated or reduced. But economic savings is not what should drive American policy, as those can be made via multiple other avenues in the U.S. budget. The ultimate metric of success for U.S. security assistance should be its direct contributions to America’s policy objectives in the region.