The War on Soft Power

Even the U.S. military doesn't want to cut the State Department and foreign aid budget. So why is Congress playing a dangerous game with America's global influence?

Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress struggled until the 11th hour to agree on budget cuts that would avert a government shutdown. The United States' budget deficit is a serious problem, and there have been serious proposals to deal with it, such as those by the bipartisan Bowles-Simpson Commission. But last week's efforts were not a serious solution. They were focused solely on the 12 percent of the budget that is non-military discretionary expenditure, rather than the big-ticket items of entitlements, military expenditure, and tax changes that increase revenue. Yet while last week's cuts failed to do much about the deficit, they could do serious damage to U.S. foreign policy. On Tuesday, the axe fell: The State Department and foreign operations budget was slashed by $8.5 billion -- a pittance when compared to military spending, but one that could put a serious dent in the United States' ability to positively influence events abroad.

The sad irony is that the Obama administration had been moving things in the right direction. When Hillary Clinton became secretary of state, she spoke of the importance of a "smart power" strategy, combining the United States' hard and soft-power resources. Her Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, and her efforts (along with USAID chief Rajiv Shah) to revamp the United States' aid bureaucracy and budget were important steps in that direction. Now, in the name of an illusory contribution to deficit reduction (when you're talking about deficits in the trillions, $38 billion in savings is a drop in the bucket), those efforts have been set back. Polls consistently show a popular misconception that aid is a significant part of the U.S. federal budget, when in fact it amounts to less than 1 percent. Thus, congressional cuts to aid in the name of deficit reduction are an easy vote, but a cheap shot.

In 2007, Richard Armitage and I co-chaired a bipartisan Smart Power Commission of members of Congress, former ambassadors, retired military officers, and heads of non-profit organizations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. We concluded that America's image and influence had declined in recent years and that the United States had to move from exporting fear to inspiring optimism and hope.

The Smart Power Commission was not alone in this conclusion. Even when he was in the George W. Bush administration, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called on Congress to commit more money and effort to soft-power tools including diplomacy, economic assistance, and communications because the military alone cannot defend America's interests around the world. He pointed out that military spending then totaled nearly half a trillion dollars annually, compared with a State Department budget of just $36 billion. In his words, "I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power." He acknowledged that for the secretary of defense to plead for more resources for the State Department was as odd as a man biting a dog, but these are not normal times. Since then, the ratio of the budgets has become even more unbalanced.

This is not to belittle the Pentagon, where I once served as an assistant secretary. Military force is obviously a source of hard power, but the same resource can sometimes contribute to soft-power behavior. A well-run military can be a source of prestige, and military-to-military cooperation and training programs, for example, can establish transnational networks that enhance a country's soft power. The U.S. military's impressive performance in providing humanitarian relief after the Indian Ocean tsunami and the South Asian earthquake in 2005 helped restore the attractiveness of the United States; the military's role in the aftermath of the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami is having a similar effect.

Of course, misusing military resources can also undercut soft power. The Soviet Union had a great deal of soft power in the years after World War II, but destroyed it by using hard power against Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Brutality and indifference to just-war principles of discrimination and proportionality can also eviscerate legitimacy. Whatever admiration the crisp efficiency of the Iraq invasion inspired in the eyes of some foreigners, it was undercut by the subsequent inefficiency of the occupation and the scenes of mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Smart power is the ability to combine the hard power of coercion or payment with the soft power of attraction into a successful strategy. U.S. foreign policy has tended to over-rely on hard power in recent years because it is the most direct and visible source of American strength. The Pentagon is the best-trained and best-resourced arm of the U.S. government, but there are limits to what hard power can achieve on its own. Democracy, human rights, and civil society are not best promoted with the barrel of a gun.

It is true that the U.S. military has an impressive operational capacity, but the practice of turning to the Pentagon because it can get things done leads to the image of an over-militarized foreign policy. Moreover, it can create a destructive cycle, as the capacity of civilian agencies and tools gets hollowed out to feed the military budget. Today, the United States spends about 500 times more on its military than it does on broadcasting and exchanges combined. Congress cuts shortwave broadcasts to save the equivalent of one hour of the defense budget. Is that smart?

It sounds like common sense, but smart power is not so easy to carry out in practice. Diplomacy and foreign assistance are often underfunded and neglected, in part because of the difficulty of demonstrating their short-term impact on critical challenges. The payoffs for exchange and assistance programs is often measured in decades, not weeks or months. American foreign-policy institutions and personnel, moreover, are fractured and compartmentalized, and there is not an adequate interagency process for developing and funding a smart-power strategy. Many official instruments of soft or attractive power -- public diplomacy, broadcasting, exchange programs, development assistance, disaster relief, military-to-military contacts -- are scattered around the government, and there is no overarching strategy or budget that even tries to integrate them.

The obstacles to integrating America's soft- and hard-power tool kit have deep roots, and the Obama administration is only beginning to overcome them, by creating a second deputy at State, reinvigorating USAID, and working with the Office of Management and Budget. Increasing the size of the Foreign Service, for instance, would cost less than the price of one C-17 transport aircraft, yet there are no good ways to assess such a tradeoff in the current form of budgeting. Now, that progress may be halted.

Leadership in a global information age is less about being the king of the mountain issuing commands that cascade down a hierarchy than being the person in the center of a circle or network who attracts and persuades others to come help. Both the hard power of coercion and the soft power of attraction and persuasion are crucial to success in such situations. Americans need better to understand both these dimensions of smart power.

Nowhere is this more true than on Capitol Hill. While Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have spoken about the importance of soft power, they do not have to face the American electorate. As a friend in Congress once told me, "You are right about the importance of combining soft power with hard power, but I cannot talk about soft power and hope to get re-elected." The defense budget affects almost all congressional constituencies in the United States; the budgets for State and USAID do not. The result is a foreign policy that rests on a defense giant and a number of pygmy departments. For example, when Gates and Clinton recently agreed to transfer an aid program from the Pentagon to the State Department, the program's budget was cut in half. And now, Foggy Bottom faces cuts across the board.

Congress needs to be serious about deficit reduction, and it also needs to be serious about foreign policy. The events of the past week suggest it is serious about neither.

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Punching Above Its Weight

Could tiny Qatar send ground forces to Libya?

In recent years, Qatar has become something of a mecca for international conferences, attracting a wide and diverse variety of global events to the small Arab state. It is therefore not surprising to see that this week, shortly before both the Pipeline Integrity Management Forum and the Underground Infrastructure and Deep Foundations Conference, the Libya contact group -- the gaggle of countries and international entities set up to provide "political direction" for the war effort -- will meet in Doha to discuss the evolving confrontation.

The only surprising thing about Qatar hosting this event is that it does so as one of the key protagonists in the conflict with Libya. Qatar has been unusually vocal for an Arab country of late, eschewing the typically conservative foreign policies of Gulf states. For example, after the international opprobrium died down in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead, which forced Qatar to cut its ties to Israel, it has since tried to re-establish relations with the country, only to be rebuffed. Yet no one expected Qatar to send what probably amounts to the majority of its operational Air Force fighter wing -- four French-made Mirage jets -- to join in maintaining the no-fly zone over Libya.

So what on Earth is a tiny country the size of Connecticut doing waging war on a much bigger fellow Arab state thousands of miles away? Has Qatar gone crazy?

Hardly. In the minds of Doha's worldly leadership, Qatar's intervention makes perfect sense, for three broad reasons.

First, Qatar loves the limelight. Many of its policies over the past decade have been specifically designed to thrust the little-known country onto the international stage to publicize not only Qatar in and of itself, but a particular modern, business-savvy, and erudite brand thereof. The 1990 invasion of Kuwait (another small, rich country surrounded by far larger states) likely convinced Qatar that anonymity is not a desirable quality in the event of such a catastrophe. Any number of subsequent policies -- from funding Al Jazeera, the pan-Arab satellite channel, to mediating in Lebanon to winning the 2022 World Cup hosting rights -- can be seen through this lens as promoting brand Qatar™.

Before the United Arab Emirates was, as some believe, pressured into deploying a section of its Air Force, Qatar was the sole literal and physical embodiment of tangible Arab support for the Libyan rebels. The Qatari emir drew genuflecting praise from the French, a nod from the British, and a warm thank-you call from U.S. President Barack Obama. Being owed a favor by some of the world's most powerful states is a good position to be in. As Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani, Qatar's dual-hatted foreign minister and prime minister, noted when a U.S. dignitary thanked him for Qatar's $100 million gift in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, "We [Qatar] might have our own Katrina [one day]."

Second, and as unfashionable as it may be to say so, there are genuine humanitarian concerns afoot. The elite in Doha, through a smorgasbord of munificent and enlightened policies, such as the "Reach Out to Asia" program and various conflict-management gambits from Yemen to Sudan to the Levant, genuinely appear to try to imbue Qatar's national policies with an element of humanitarianism, often under the mantra that Arabs should solve Arab problems.

We can't dismiss a certain element of realpolitik in some of these initiatives, yet one must not forget that Qatar is institutionally set up to allow personal directives from the elite to come to fruition. Were Obama or his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, to try to adopt a similarly risky and surprising foreign policy, it would be institutionally emasculated by the State Department, stripping out risk under the pragmatist rubric of strict self-interest and a bureaucratic aversion to change. This is not to mention serious and abiding domestic, political, economic, and military constraints.

Yet the same does not apply in Qatar to anything like the same degree. When decisions are made at the highest levels, they are resolutely not questioned or altered as they are carried out. Moreover, not only is Qatar militarily secured by the presence of U.S. forces at the enormous al-Udeid Air Base and Camp as-Sayliyah south of Doha, leaving its forces available for such missions, but Qatar's financial largesse and its relatively apolitical population do not present significant obstacles to foreign adventures. The Qatari elite, therefore, find themselves in the somewhat unique position of being able to turn personal conviction into policy.

Third and crucially, on this occasion a number of unusual international factors coalesced, including Western and -- most importantly -- Arab support for action. The Arab League's call for a no-fly zone effectively allowed Qatar to send its Mirage jets. Without this explicit political cover, had Qatar intervened unilaterally, breaking one of the key tenets of international relations -- noninterference in the domestic affairs of other states -- it would have been deeply isolated and unpopular at a governmental level.

Given that no one thought it remotely likely Qatar would win the right to host the 2022 World Cup or that the country would contribute militarily to the Libya intervention, one must ask: What's next? What will Qatar do now that seems highly unlikely if not impossible, that breaks regional taboos and traditional conservative tendencies? How about: sending in ground forces?

While the notion of the 8,500-man Qatari army charging into Libya is a leap too far, the use of a smaller detachment or Qatar's elite special-operations forces in a more limited manner is more of a possibility. By either training the rebels in situ, operating with a limited "civilian protection" mandate, or securing the oil fields in the south and east, the oil from which Qatar is already marketing for the rebels, Qatar would further establish itself as a leader in the Arab world. Indeed, Qatar clearly thinks that such a role is currently vacant. Gen. Mubarak al-Khayanin, the Qatari Air Force chief of staff, recently noted that traditional leaders of the region "like Saudi Arabia and Egypt haven't taken leadership for the last three years" -- a comment that no doubt raised a few eyebrows in Riyadh.

The risks involved in such a deployment would be huge, not only in terms of the unprecedented notion of body bags returning to Doha or the difficulties of planning such an operation amid the highly fluid situation on the ground in Libya, but also in terms of how the likely reaction of traditional regional powers to yet another example of Qatar seeking to "rise above its station" could severely complicate intraregional relations.

Still, Qatar is by now used to taking these kinds of risks. And Qatar's elite are certainly not afraid to enter intractable conflicts with no clear exit strategy; witness Qatar's repeated mediation efforts in Yemen and Sudan and around the Horn of Africa. The unique blend of attributes that Qatar possesses -- a small population, huge natural gas reserves, a hard-power military guarantee from Uncle Sam, and an enlightened, relatively young leadership -- means that it is unusually isolated from the traditional torpor and caution that characterizes the rule of many Arab countries. Given a conducive international atmosphere, using its military forces in Libya or elsewhere in a humanitarian context would be -- while unusual, risky, and bold -- just another potential boost for the brand.

Geoff Caddick/AFP/Getty Images