Obama's Big, New Counterterrorism Plan Is a Hot Mess

The White House is promising to give allies around the world $5 billion to fight terrorists. But America’s been doing that for years -- and no one seems to know what this new program is.

President Barack Obama defended his foreign policy this week, speaking to the graduating cadets at West Point. For the most part, it was a re-articulation of things he has said before. We can't go to war every time there is a problem around the world, and we can't retreat from the world. But we are still the "indispensible" and "exceptional" nation, with global responsibilities.

The president asserted that "our military has no peer" and "the odds of a direct threat against us by any nation are low and do not come close to the dangers we faced during the Cold War." Despite the acknowledgement that the nation has never been more secure, the president went straight for the tried-and-true theme that "terrorism" is the gravest danger facing the nation.

In fact, the only new, substantive proposal he put forward in the entire speech was to create a "Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund" (CPF) of up to $5 billion to strengthen U.S. partners in what can only be seen as a plan to revive George W. Bush's Global War on Terrorism, a label the Obama administration disavowed when it first came into office. And oddly, the proposal appears to contradict the president's own previous policy views on security assistance programs, in general.

According to my conversations with the executive branch and the Hill, this new fund was sprung on an uninformed nation and an un-consulted Congress without a lot of warning. In fact, it seems neither the Defense Department (DoD) nor the State Department knew much about the idea until very late in the game; the White House and its budget office seem to be doing the work. 

But even more to the point, there are two big problems with this new 600-pound counterterrorism gorilla. First, the CPF is stepping all over previously created authorities and accelerates a decade-long trend toward the militarization of U.S. foreign policy. It asks the military to solve this global security dilemma regardless of existing authorities and programs -- or the military's own competence outside its combat lane.

Apparently, the White House paid scant attention to the past when it came to this new "plan." There are already four existing programs, created over the past decade, for global counterterrorism assistance: Section 1206, Section 1208, Global Lift and Sustain, and the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF). And then there's the large security assistance program called Foreign Military Financing, which the State Department has overseen (and the Pentagon has implemented) for decades.

Section 1206 was created 10 years ago to provide counterterrorism assistance on a global basis, by supporting equipment, training, and services for security forces in other countries. It is funded through the defense budget, but the projects are developed by the "country team" in the embassies and approved by the ambassador and, ultimately by Defense and State together. In fact, it seems to be working well, leading the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) this year to legislate it as a permanent statutory authority, with up to $500 million in resources. 

Section 1208 was created at the same time to allow the Special Operations forces to spend up to $50 million a year (upped to $60 million in the SASC bill) on counterterrorism support globally. (That said, the Pentagon's Special Operations command, according to my conversations, would want even more.)

Global Lift and Sustain emerged in the same time frame as a global authority, capped at $100 million a year, to support using U.S. lift and logistical capabilities to get less-well funded partners come to the counterterrorism party, largely in and around Iraq and Afghanistan.

And the Global Security Contingency Fund (GSCF) was created in 2011 to provide up to $200 million in support to the security sectors of other countries. Projects are to be jointly developed by State and the Pentagon, thus easing the tension between the two departments about who had the lead in security assistance. That tension grew out of expanding DoD involvement in training and equipping security forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. (See this report by the Stimson Center, where my co-author and I discuss this jungle of programs.)

The relationship of the proposed CPF to the rest of this organizational muddle and to the president's existing security assistance policy is entirely unclear. In fact, it seems like that question was not even considered as the CPF proposal was put together. Moreover, there are absolutely no details available in this $5 billion proposal. The "Fact Sheet" on the proposal -- one paragraph long -- makes it clear that this is a DoD effort (it would be part of the Pentagon's budget request for war costs) called the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) budget. (At the last minute and after State objections, the White House fact sheet added that some of the funds could be spent on security and stabilization assistance "together with the State Department.")

Nor are there any details on what the $5 billion will be spent on. Is it anything different from the roughly $1 billion that DoD already spends providing counterterrorism and security sector assistance? Who gets to decide on the projects or pick the partners? Will the CPF seek new legislative authority or simply pour a lot of new money into existing pockets (which would require asking Congress to raise all those funding ceilings noted above or allow transfers from DoD funds for operations into the activities those other funds already support)? I wish I had some answers.

In other words, the CPF proposal smacks of a top-down, half-baked initiative that is unrelated to existing programs. Moreover, it runs directly counter to the president's own policy directive on security assistance (PPD-23) issued only a year ago.

At the risk of unloading a long quote, that directive made it clear that U.S. security assistance programs should: "[F]oster United States Government policy coherence and interagency collaboration. Transparency and coordination across the United States Government are needed to integrate security sector assistance into broader strategies, synchronize agency efforts, reduce redundancies, minimize assistance-delivery timelines, ensure considerations of the full range of policy and operational equities, improve data collection, measure effectiveness, enhance and sustain the United States Government's security sector assistance knowledge and skills, and identify gaps." 

That's a mouthful of Washingtonese. And clearly the administration's new proposal pays no heed to this pile of words. The White House is scrambling now to do the prep work and the interagency coordination they should have done before the proposal was made.

Presidential speechmaking needs seem to have trumped policy in the case of the CPF. The single paragraph in the fact sheet makes it clear that this new fund would dramatically accelerate the trend toward the military becoming a global counterterrorism avenging angel and the hub for security assistance funding, a responsibility that once belonged to the State Department and was slowly making its way back to Foggy Bottom.

But there's an even more serious issue at stake here: the revival of Bush's Global War on Terror. Terror, after all, is a tactic -- not an "ism." It appears for different reasons in different countries. One size does not fit all. Not every terror-using organization, awful as the tactic is, constitutes a threat, directly or indirectly to the United States. But now the administration seems to be stepping out on a global fight. In other words, the White House is dangerously overreaching here, and using the wrong department to execute its overreach.

There are at least three reasons why this poorly conceived blunt instrument is a bad idea. First, it is not clear the U.S. military does this job very well. Seven decades of U.S. security assistance, most of it provided by DoD and the military, have never been subjected to systematic evaluation. So we have no idea, over time, whether any of these programs have accomplished the goals originally set out, whatever they were (and mostly they have not been set out at all). If the performance over the past three years of Iraqi forces and the likely performance of Afghan security forces is any guide, don't expect stability, transparency, effectiveness, and a lack of corruption to spring forth from the barren soil of the CPF's new partners. The track record is not great; now the administration wants to quintuple down on the existing counterterrorism security assistance investment.

Second, announcing a global mission supported by $5 billion in resources could very easily lead to the opposite of what is intended. Instead of strengthening U.S. partners, such programs could drag Washington into the internal affairs of an ever-expanding series of relationships with troubling governments abroad, whose weaknesses and failures could entail further, and deeper, U.S. involvement. This trend is already emerging in the rapid growth of U.S. involvement in the internal security situations of more than 20 African countries.

Third, counterterror, security-sector assistance programs run a strong risk of empowering forces in recipient countries that, in turn, become problems for underpowered civilian governments. History suggests that, all too often, well-armed, somewhat trained security forces in countries with unstable or weak governance become the government themselves, with negative consequences for stability and the health of the population. Just take the case of Mali, where a U.S.-trained captain, Amadou Sanogo, carried out a coup in 2012, leading to the disintegration of the Malian military, a nearly successful Islamic extremist revolt, and the need for foreign intervention.  

The sudden appearance of a new security assistance program that seems to shift U.S. policy and program attention even more toward support for foreign security forces increases the risk of this outcome. In the long run, this is not in the national security interests of the United States. And I can't imagine the Pentagon will be entirely thrilled with the responsibility for executing it either.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Sikorski Is No Savior

Warsaw's liberal diplomat is not the man to take on Russia. And Poland isn't going to save Europe.

Poland has just buried its last communist leader. Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski died in a Warsaw hospital at age 90 on the same day that more than 5 million Poles voted for their representatives in the EU Parliament and in the same year that Poland marks the 25th anniversary of the "Round Table Talks," which paved the way for democracy. As Warsaw's last Moscow-loyal authoritarian ruler passed away peacefully, its neighbor Ukraine elected a pro-European president amid months of ongoing standoffs with Russia following the country's Maidan revolution. In a move laden with symbolism, Ukraine's new president, Petro Poroshenko, announced that his first trip abroad as head of state will be to Poland.

Events in Ukraine have struck a nerve with Polish citizens and the government. When Kiev's Maidan protests began in November 2013, Poles could not resist drawing comparisons to their pro-democracy movement of the 1980s, Solidarity. From slain protesters in the streets to the threat of Russian intervention to prop up a leader loyal to the Kremlin, the scenes in Ukraine felt all too familiar to many in Poland.

Democracy eventually triumphed and Poland broke free from Moscow's rule. Today's Polish parliament is full of Solidarity veterans who have gone separate ways across the political spectrum and are freely elected. Within a mere four years, the country made a rapid and relatively complete transition to electoral democracy and a market economy. And Poland's government has made efforts to push other post-communist countries in similar directions. In the West's eyes, Poland is seen as "Eastern Europe's success story."

And it's because of their similarities that the ongoing Ukraine crisis has thrust Poland to the center of European foreign policy amid the biggest security threat to the continent since the Balkan wars. The Polish success story has become something of a fantasy among Western European liberals who are now arguing that Poland can be a catalyst for reform in Eastern Europe and that the happy outcome of the Polish transition can serve as a reminder to the Euroskeptics in London, Paris, and Berlin of the privileges of European democracy, the importance of having friendly neighbors, and the good fortune of not sharing a border with Russia. One man has been put forward to do this: Radek Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister. Sikorski has been described as "Mr. Perfect from Warsaw" and the man who might "save Europe." That's not only overly optimistic -- it is wrong.

It's not that Sikorski's diplomatic achievements in Ukraine aren't real -- they are. He went to Kiev in February with the foreign ministers of Germany and France to meet with Ukraine's now-ousted President Viktor Yanukovych in a series of negotiations that helped resolve the crisis. His persistent stance with the West in support of Kiev in this time of need should be applauded. But not only is the concept of Poland saving Europe absurd, but Sikorski is not the person for this job.

Poland has announced that it will nominate Sikorski to replace Catherine Ashton as the European Union's top diplomat when she leaves her post in October. But Sikorski seems to belong to a group of people who believe Russia will never be anything but autocratic. Like the thinking of many onetime Solidarity activists, his inability to see Russia as anything other than a continuation of the Soviet Union will blind him to the nuances of the situation.

Furthermore, Sikorski is not the liberal prince that his Western admirers, in awe of his Queen's English, Oxford degree, and impressive career, believe him to be. The Polish foreign minister is much more socially conservative than the "center-right" leanings he himself claims to have. Polish politics can be deceptive. There are few genuinely liberal politicians in Warsaw, and the Polish opposition, under an increasingly nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski (in whose government Sikorski actually served while defense minister between 2005 and 2007), is so far removed from reality that anyone seems liberal by comparison. Sikorski -- a man who once praised a counterfactual history novel by a right-wing amateur historian about how Poland and Nazi Germany could have teamed up to defeat the Soviet Union -- is not the person to lead European diplomacy. And neither is Poland, no matter how far it has come.

When the Eastern Bloc fell in 1989, Poland decided to leave behind the burden of an Eastern European identity and view itself as part of the West, even though Poles remained very much aware of their 20th-century status as a satellite state. The idea of Warsaw assuming a more active role gained new momentum when Poland entered the European Union in 2004 -- "the accomplishment of a century-old Polish dream of belonging to the Western world," as President Bronislaw Komorowski put it during 10th-anniversary celebrations this year. But with membership to the clubs of the West came an uncertain future: Was Poland to be merely a fringe gatekeeper or a dynamic member state and a catalyst for enlargement?

As a relative latecomer to the EU with a communist past, Poland has long felt insecure about its position in the EU. (Its exclusion from the euro area hasn't helped either.) But since joining the European Union, Poland has amply shown its commitment to pro-democracy movements in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Warsaw stood by Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 -- even though now-deceased Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili had little in common beyond their anti-Moscow views.* Poland's then-president endorsed Kiev's (failed) Orange Revolution in 2004, and the current president is assisting Moldovan reforms. Warsaw is the most vocal agitator for change inside the Belarus of Aleksandr Lukashenko, Europe's last remaining dictator. Within the EU, Poland has been a vocal advocate of bringing Ukraine into the European fold going back as far as Poland's accession to the union in 2004.

The Polish commitment to democracy movements and an orientation toward the West come easily to Poles as they reflect on their history. It's in many ways natural that the Ukraine protests would be compared to those that ignited the Solidarity movement. But in the end, they are flawed. The Maidan is not the Gdansk shipyard, and 2014 is not 1984. Solidarity evolved over the course of almost a decade. And by 1989, Poland was not alone; the rest of the Eastern Bloc was also undergoing transformation. By that point, the Soviet Union was weak and on the brink of collapse. The West actually cared about and needed Poland. Europe and the United States were rich, strong, and confident -- there were no recessions in sight, no calls for austerity. In 2014, Ukraine stands alone; the West is divided, weak, and poor; and a self-confident, self-righteous Russia is stronger than it has been since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Despite Warsaw's optimism, the Polish prescription may not work in Ukraine. Warsaw has been so blinded by the successful transformation of its economy and the rise of a functioning democracy that it believes every other corrupt post-communist regime can have an equally fast mend. Efforts to integrate Russia's other neighbors into a wider Europe are unrealistic. The Eastern Partnership, a Polish-initiated EU project intended to promote democracy, grouped six disparate states into one category: post-Soviet. Warsaw's optimism was awe-inspiring for the Ukrainian revolutionaries, who championed closer ties to Europe and less subservience to Moscow. But the goals of the Maidan revolution will fail if EU leaders lack a realistic vision for Kiev's European future.

As Poland buries Jaruzelski, it bids farewell to one chapter of its history. But the past year has also seen the return of national fears with roots in the last century. Russian aggression in Ukraine and Moscow's descent into Putinist authoritarianism revived anxieties Poles had buried for two decades. Warsaw believes its quarter-century-long golden age is threatened. Sikorski sees Europe through this prism of Polish historical misery, but Brussels deserves more than that. There are many things Europe needs. Polish conservatism is not one of them.

*Correction, May 31, 2014: Georgia's Rose Revolution occurred in 2003, not 2012, as originally misstated. (Return to reading.)