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Ground Hog Day- The oft-repeated and attended conference

February 25, 2009

I recently attended a conference on the topic of the U.S. Government’s (USG) approach to Conflict Prevention (CP). The term of art used was “Whole of Government,” referring to U.S. interagency efforts at stopping conflict (and in truth, in working together during conflict/war). The conference explored the importance of Conflict Prevention, offered a working definition of conflict, introduced a framework for assessing CP environments and efforts, and ended with a panel discussion that covered the day’s events.

Now a conference like this is important. It brings together people who should be working together (but most often are not). The topic is timely too and -with luck- all interested parties can start a dialogue that can continue well after the gathering concludes.

The problem is that I have been to a metric ton of these in the past few years, to the point that I could probably write the after action review (or the conference summary) even before the conference even begins.

This conference began with a presentation by former senior leaders from both the Department of Defense and the Department of State. Both discussed Whole of Government efforts but from decidedly different angles. The DoD person stated that the USG is in crisis because interagency (IA) efforts are not integrated (or taking place) and that there is no relief in sight for the DoD, an entity that is engaged in over 50 non-DoD Lines of Operation (LOOs) in Iraq (such as energy fusion cells and literacy issues). But he also said that no one else could do it right now or in the foreseeable future. The Department of State (DoS) does not have the money, capacity or planning capability to take over responsibilities (even though this former officer believes that the military should not be doing all of these tasks).

The Department of State person gave a short history of the Whole of Government effort with regards to Iraq and concluded that the interagency is not broken, it’s just not used. He stated that to strengthen the IA process, the USG needed to bring senior officers back from their posts as Combatant Commanders and include them in the DC dialogue. He said that it is time to move the programmatic functions of our policy into USAID, rebuild USAID, and bring an ethos and capacity to State to enable them to surge during contingencies.

That was the broad brush. Now for some of the details:

  • DoD has all of the money
  • State appropriators will not fund DoS or USAID to accomplish conflict prevention related tasks
  • State cannot train its professionals because they do not have the surplus personnel that DoD has
  • State lacks planning capacity
  • DoD needs to expand its aperture to see the conflict as a whole – as State does.

And much, much more.

The Project on National Security Reform (PNSR) has done much to forward the way decision makers see the US interagency; and yet out it seems that the message is not getting out to the fringes, or perhaps the solutions are still being worked out or both.

Regardless, more work needs to be done in DC, the United States writ large, and conflict environments overseas. I hunger for the day when I can go to a conference and no longer predict what I am going to learn that day.

-Roger D. Carstens

Roger D. Carstens is a non-resident fellow at the Center for a New American Security.



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