Surge Incapacity

Let's face it: America just isn't very good at nation-building.

The United States' first "civilian surge" took place in August 1901, when 500 teachers disembarked from the USS Thomas, a converted cattle ship, in Manila Bay -- "the men wearing straw boaters and blazers," according to journalist and historian Stanley Karnow, "the women in long skirts and large flowery hats. Like vacationers, they carried baseball bats, tennis rackets, musical instruments, cameras and binoculars." America's colonial enterprise was new: Only a few months had passed since the Army had subdued a fierce insurgency and commenced governing the Philippines. The Thomasites, as this proto-Peace Corps came to be known, had responded to an advertisement placed in newspapers across the United States.

The State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) no longer have to put ads in the papers to assemble a civilian force for the state-building effort now under way in Afghanistan, but it's remarkable how haphazard, and almost frantic, the system remains. "It's a numbers game," a USAID official told me, "a body game." Only a few of the 400-odd civilians USAID has hired so far have either language or technical skills; most are either eager youngsters or post-career officials from the military, State, or USAID. Jack Lew, the deputy secretary of state who is overseeing the process, says that "it's proved incredibly difficult to take on such an urgent challenge when you don't have a deep enough bench."

As an American, this is perplexing. Why do we not have a deep enough bench -- or any bench at all to speak of? We used to have one, even after we ceased to be a practicing colonial state. Tens of thousands of civilians -- most of them serving in the Army -- governed Germany and Japan in the aftermath of World War II and left behind effective democratic states. The "strategic hamlet" program in Vietnam -- the core of the effort to win "hearts and minds" -- involved more than 1,000 civilians, most from USAID. But after the Vietnam War, both the military and the political leadership recoiled from the idea of counterinsurgency and "small wars." The Powell Doctrine stipulated that the United States would fight big wars or none at all, thus effectively eclipsing the space between "war" and "peace" where in the past it had deployed a civilian force.

The Powell Doctrine became received wisdom at precisely the moment it was being superseded by events, for the end of the Cold War produced a set of "complex emergencies" in Somalia, Haiti, Kurdistan, and the Balkans that required a combination of force and large-scale civilian presence. In 1997, Bill Clinton's administration issued a presidential directive designed to systematize the civilian-military response to such emergencies. The reserve civilian force envisioned by the plan was never brought into being. And George W. Bush's administration arrived in office ideologically opposed to state-building; Bush's first national security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, sneeringly declared, "We don't need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten."

And then reality reared its ugly head. The fiasco in Iraq demonstrated even to the ideologues that you couldn't win the war unless you won the postwar as well; and the postwar required civilian capacity. In April 2004, the National Security Council established the Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to orchestrate postwar operations. Carlos Pascual, the first director (and now ambassador to Mexico) drew up a plan to field a rapid deployment force of civilian specialists backed by a pool of 3,000 reservists. The cost of building the quick force and deploying it for three months would be a paltry $350 million a year. The money was put in the State Department's budget, and then cut by the White House. As Pascual explained to me several years later, the Pentagon believed in the new force, but the civilian agencies, ironically, did not. The civilian force died yet another death.

The Pentagon under Robert Gates has continued to be an advocate for an "expeditionary" civilian capacity. In a 2007 speech, Gates pointed out that the 6,600 professional Foreign Service officers couldn't quite man a single aircraft carrier strike group. Gates called for "a permanent, sizeable cadre of immediately deployable experts with disparate skills" -- a remarkable proposal coming from a defense secretary. The Army already has thousands of its own such experts, but recognizes that the fundamentally political questions raised by state-building, or even disaster relief, require civilian authority and a civilian perspective.

The office of reconstruction and stabilization was finally funded in fiscal year 2009; its Response Readiness Corps has now recruited 78 officials, plus 554 on standby. This will not take you far in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the office is not expected to play an important role in staffing either theater. Even the thousand-odd civilians now being thrown into the breach in Afghanistan are spread very thin on the ground: A "district support team" may have half a dozen civilians quartered with, and escorted by, 300 Marines -- this in a country of more than 28 million spread across an area about the size of Texas. The civilians, while no longer carrying tennis rackets, are scarcely as well grounded in their jobs as the Marines. A 2009 report by the National Defense University (NDU) notes, "Stabilization has to be led by teams of professionals who specialize in that work, train for it, and develop plans and doctrines for expeditionary operations in the same way that the military plans for crisis interventions."

The distribution of resources is just as skewed as the distribution of manpower and preparedness. A State Department official told me that in Kunar province, in the east, the military commander had $150 million to spend on local initiatives, while his USAID counterpart had just $10,000. A military officer is, of course, going to spend that money to support military objectives: If the local warlord makes himself useful, he's probably going to get his share of that money no matter how much the locals hate him.

Officials in the Obama administration suffer none of their predecessors' hostility or ambivalence toward the tools of soft power, very much including the civilian force. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has been adamant about reclaiming some of the capacities, and some of the authority, that in recent years have migrated to the Pentagon; and her belief in the centrality of development to American national security dictates a far more prominent role for USAID. There has been a slew of studies in recent years advocating enhanced civilian capacity; most of the authors recommend situating that capacity not in State, which is a policy rather than an operation agency, but in some expanded and fortified version of USAID. The NDU study proposed the establishment of a cabinet-level Agency for Development and Reconstruction.

The administration is now seriously contemplating such questions in its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. Lew, who is running the review, says that before officials figure out where to locate the new corps, they have to ask themselves, "What capabilities do we need?" One operation may require 100 agronomists, but if the next demands 100 hydrologists, do you really want to hire all those experts instead of knowing where to find them? What "core capacities" must the government retain? If you need to be able to both rapidly deploy and sustain a presence over time, so that public health experts don't go home after three months -- as they do now -- does that require two different forces?

The searing experience of Iraq and Afghanistan has made many Americans doubt the U.S. capacity to do much good at all abroad. That skepticism is a necessary corrective to the airy fantasies of a few years ago, but it's also a new kind of hyperbole. The Thomasites, four-fifths of whom, by the way, had prior teaching experience and thus more or less knew what they were doing, not only established a national school system in the Philippines, but offered the most benevolent possible face to America's colonial enterprise. They didn't leave a working democracy in their wake, but that's not what we're asking of the "civilian surge" in Afghanistan either. We are hoping they will help tip the scales of Afghan public opinion toward the government rather than the Taliban. Even that might be too much to ask. But it would be a shame if we failed because we hadn't taken the responsibility seriously.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

What Happened to New York's Moxie?

Trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Manhattan would have showed the terrorists that Americans are not afraid. Eight and a half years after 9/11, we’re not there yet.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder insisted gamely last week that Barack Obama's administration is still considering holding the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed (KSM), the master planner of 9/11, in the federal criminal courthouse in Manhattan; but it cannot be. An immense tide of fear and anger has swamped the judicial -- and moral-- calculations that led Holder to his initial choice, rendering the actual merits immaterial beside the suicidal politics. More than eight years after the bombing of the World Trade Center, that fear, and that anger, still cloud Americans' thoughts about the response to terrorism.

Here is one of the chief ironies of the war on terror: Thanks in part to the Bush administration's aggressive homeland security efforts, we may be objectively safer than we were nine years ago; and yet, thanks to the apocalyptic terms on which Bush and Cheney waged the war on terror, we feel much less safe. We feel terrified. "We're at war in our airports," Scott Brown cried during his Senate campaign in Massachusetts. "We're at war in our shopping malls." We are living in the middle of a monster movie. This is why the politics of the war on terror have reproduced those of the Cold War, making Democrats live in fear of any policy, any gesture, that could be deemed "soft."

After Holder first announced the decision to hold the trial in New York, Obama said, "We have to break ... this fearful notion that somehow our justice system can't handle these guys." It was a notion with no obvious foundation, since nine-tenths of the accused terrorists processed through the criminal-justice system had been found guilty, and no trial had been seriously disrupted. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially agreed, saying, "It is fitting that 9/11 suspects face justice near the World Trade Center site, where so many New Yorkers were murdered." As a New Yorker who had emerged from the subway that morning to see the first flames leap from the towers, I felt -- and I foolishly imagined that all New Yorkers would feel -- that holding the trial here offered us a chance to demonstrate our imperturbable urban mettle, to make sure that we, not they, got the last word.

It's true, says Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies in Stockholm, that a public trial could turn KSM "into a superhuman for those terrorists who are his followers." But Ranstorp nevertheless strongly favors such a trial, which, he says, "de-dramatizes the mythology around terrorism." And of course it sends a message about us: That our strength inheres in our democratic principles and practices more than in our military might, that we do not have to annul or sideline our system of criminal justice in order to deal with this new threat, that calling people "terrorists" does not make them either subhuman or superhuman.

The message, however, fell victim to the politics, and to the psychic atmosphere. City officials at first estimated that security for the trial would cost $75 million a year. But on Jan. 6, Bloomberg delivered a letter to the White House putting the cost at $200 million a year, over five years. Two weeks later, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly publicly outlined the plans, which entailed cordoning off several blocks around the courthouse and establishing a wider security zone within which drivers and pedestrians would be subjected to random checks. The trial, Kelly warned, "will raise the threat level of this city," adding, "We will have to look at the entire city as a potential target."

What happened to urban mettle? The city's top security official was saying that the cost of holding the trial in New York was paralyzing Lower Manhattan and exposing the metropolitan area to the threat of terrorist attack. Of course that was too high a price to pay -- in every sense. The Real Estate Board of New York established movethetrial.com, a website whose central proposition was that the trial "will strangle the already weakened local economy." The effective imprisonment of Lower Manhattan would, in the supreme nightmare scenario, bring co-op and condo sales to a halt. New York's business and civic elite began to close ranks against the trial. On Jan. 27, Bloomberg reversed himself, suggesting the Justice Department move the trial to a military base somewhere.

But was it, in fact, necessary to choose between the trial and the city's security, and economy, and daily life? In other parts of the world, high-security terrorism trials are accepted as a fact of modern life. Irish terrorists used to be routinely tried in Belfast's Crumlin Road courthouse on the ethnic dividing line of a city seething with terrorist sympathizers. The Old Bailey, the setting for many such trials, sits in the middle of London. The trial of the 29 men accused of masterminding the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, which killed 191 people, featured a bomb-proof chamber for the defendants; but the intense security did not make city life grind to a halt. (I cannot say what happened to condo sales.) Peter Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism for Scotland Yard and now a fellow at New York University's Center on Law and Security, told me, "You have to accept that it is virtually impossible to exclude risk. And then you have to decide who owns that risk." Political leaders must be willing to take responsibility. (But Clarke also noted that the British have moved the most notorious trials to the high-security court at Belmarsh, at the edge of London -- a solution worth considering for the future.)

So why wouldn't the famously pugnacious Bloomberg own that risk? Or rather, why didn't he push back when Kelly presented his asphyxiating plan? I don't know the mayor's motivation; given the police commissioner's own sterling record as a public servant and the growing opposition of the business community, Bloomberg would have had to believe very deeply in holding the trial in the shadow of the World Trade Center. Perhaps he didn't. An avowed pragmatist, the mayor might well have concluded that this was scarcely a battle worth taking up.

Could Bloomberg have succeeded by reminding New Yorkers of their native moxie? I suspect not. One of the hallmarks of our era is that when security is placed in balance with some other principle, security almost always wins. Look at the outcry over moving prisoners from Guantánamo to the U.S. mainland. When the Justice Department tried last fall to resettle two (likely harmless) Chinese Uighurs in Virginia, the hysterical reaction led Congress to bar the government from moving any detainees to U.S. soil, save for trial. The proposal to move others to supermax prisons in this country led to a nationwide NIMBY backlash. A few dozen craggly detainees had been endowed with a kind of radioactive menace.

New York's mayor and police commissioner thus put the president and the attorney general in the impossible position of advocating core democratic principles in the face of security concerns. That's a loser. Last week, Obama ruefully acknowledged that "if you have a city that is saying no, and a police department that is saying no, and a mayor that is saying no, that makes it difficult." But you can't just blame them: All of us are running scared.