How the Pentagon’s role in foreign policy is growing, and why Congress—and the American public—should be worried
In a little-noticed but disturbing transformation, U.S. foreign policy decision-making is moving from the Department of State to the Department of Defense. A report released today shows that this shift of authority is on the verge of becoming permanent even as the Department of State and Congress sit passively on the sidelines.
The report, entitled “Ready, Aim, Foreign Policy,” is a publication of the Just the Facts Project, a ten-year collaboration on security issues between the Washington Office on Latin America, the Center for International Policy, and the Latin America Working Group Education Fund. The report was released as the Senate held hearings on the Southern Command’s annual report to Congress on Thursday, March 6.
The shift toward Pentagon control over large areas of foreign assistance “will have a crucial bearing on how U.S. power is exercised and projected around the world,” says the new report.
The trend will “diminish congressional, public and even diplomatic control over a substantial lever and symbol of foreign policy. It will undercut human rights values in our relations with the rest of the world, and increase the trend toward a projection of U.S. global power based primarily on military might,” adds the report.
Recent developments reflecting this shift in responsibilities from State to Defense include:
- The Pentagon’s attempt to expand authority for a pilot foreign military aid program into a permanent and global Defense Department fund.
- The State Department’s call for a restructuring of foreign aid that would cede its management of military aid to the Defense Department and reduce congressional oversight.
- Southcom’s implementation of its “Command Strategy 2016,” which would allow it to coordinate U.S. agencies, including non-military ones, operating in Latin America.
There is a general belief that the State Department process by which foreign military aid and training is provided is cumbersome and inefficient. The report’s authors argue that is not reason enough to turn authority over to the Pentagon.
“It is not acceptable to say ‘State is broken,’ and shift responsibilities to the Defense Department; if State is broken, fix it,” said Joy Olson, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America.
“Military aid is one of the riskiest tools in the U.S. foreign policy toolbox. It requires careful diplomatic management and close congressional oversight,” said Adam Isacson, Program Director at the Center for International Policy. “Moving aid into the Defense budget is weakening a 45-year-old legal framework that sought to guarantee both of those.”
The report’s authors stress that the drift toward Pentagon authority over assistance could quickly undermine key human-rights safeguards in U.S. foreign policy, as almost all human rights conditions on foreign assistance are limited to programs funded through State.
“If the Pentagon takes charge of all military aid decisions, we’ll lose the few human rights tools at our disposal. U.S. aid and training will become even more an entitlement program for the world’s militaries,” said Lisa Haugaard, Director of the Latin America Working Group Education Fund.