Despite its lower status on the org chart, S/CRS has now become operational. The office runs the Civilian Response Corps, which consists of an active force, ready to be dispatched abroad within 48 hours, and a standby force, employed elsewhere in the federal government and available to S/CRS for one year out of four. The office now has more than 100 of the former and about 800 of the latter, though its authorized strength is 260 and 2,000, respectively. Todd Calongne, the office's spokesman, describes S/CRS as "the Special Forces of the civilian U.S. government." In a warehouse in Springfield, Virginia, the office has established what Calongne calls "an embassy in a suitcase," with satellite-linked communications equipment, armored vehicles, tents, and so on.
But the response corps is not ready for prime time. Herbst says that Richard Holbrooke asked to meet with him the day Holbrooke was sworn in as special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "He wanted to know what we could do," recalls Herbst, who had to explain that "we could not be a major part of staffing the operation." The office just didn't have the manpower. It did, however, draw up the plans that govern ties between civilians and the military in Afghanistan's regional commands and on provincial reconstruction teams; Calongne says that it has sent to Afghanistan and Pakistan more than 75 experts in communications, planning, conflict assessment, and the rule of law. A member of Holbrooke's team told me, "They've played a substantial role, but within the guidance and policy articulated by this office." Officials speak of Sudan, which might split in half after a referendum next January, as the first crisis S/CRS will address from the outset. The office now has five officials in the country and four more working with special envoy Scott Gration in Washington.
Given its modest size and political position, S/CRS can constitute only one part of a potential response. The obvious candidate for properly taking responsibility is USAID. But the agency today, halved to just 8,000 staff members worldwide from its Vietnam War peak, does little beyond administer contracts carried out by private firms. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, acknowledging the need for an operational civilian force, have vowed to revitalize the agency. USAID's new administrator, Rajiv Shah, will be authorized to hire 1,000 new employees and might even get an occasional seat at National Security Council meetings. Still, the agency is widely viewed as a cautious and lumbering relic, ill-fitted to the turbulent world of failing states; USAID's culture might take a lot longer to change than its structure. And, as Perito says, "It's very hard to have a policy towards fragile states if you don't have a development entity which functions."
Failed states matter. That is perhaps the most decisive change since the first George Bush sent the Marines to Somalia or Bill Clinton agonized over acting in the Balkans, where, as former Secretary of State James Baker famously said, "We have no dog in that fight." U.S. interests can no longer be extricated from those of faraway countries. But America's stake in the well-being of Somalia does not make Somalia's problems any easier to cure. The remarkable fixity of the Failed States Index stands as a reproach to America's nonchalant faith in progress and its own capacity to solve the world's woes. The Obama administration, which specializes in thinking hard about hard problems, is still a long way from getting its arms around this one.
NEXT: Mogadishu Was a Blast