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Kelsey Atherton, who blogs at Plastic Manzikert, writes in to examine the tradeoff between the military and diplomatic sources of national power from a historical perspective. Kelsey's opinions are his own.
The essence of a good political intrigue is secrecy
and division of power among people ostensibly working towards the same goal.
This is what made Tyrion's scenes in the second series of Game of Thrones so
engaging, as he adroitly maneuvered around the shortsighted plots of others in
an attempt to save his city. As fiction, it is hard to do better. When it comes
to operating a foreign policy from abroad, however, such divisions both in
purpose and shared intelligence lead instead to counterproductive power
Before WWII, there was little institutional conflict in how the US executed foreign policy, as the State Department was the only executive branch agency with a significant presence outside our borders, except for U.S. military units that were in Latin America from the 1880s until World War II, and in the Philippines from 1898. After the war, and during the Cold War, the presence of other agencies abroad expanded significantly, with more than 30 agencies currently having some representation overseas. As can perhaps be expected, a plethora of agencies pursuing different agendas without clear coordination can be chaotic and counterproductive. To minimize these conflicts, the modern system was based on a clear line of command. Or, a pair of clear lines: in a country at peace, the Chief of Mission (always the Ambassador) would have the authority and ability to coordinate all US executive branch agencies operating in their country. In warzones, the Combatant Commander would fulfill this role. This is a division that works, provided warzones like to be clear-cut, and conflicts never spill over in strange ways or through irregular war. Which is funny, given the origin story of the present order.
At the beginning of the current system is America’s involvement by proxy in the Greek Civil War. Following an awkward post-war realization that maybe arming every faction fighting against the Nazi occupation was not the wisest run in the long term, the Allied powers (initially the United Kingdom) decided to disarm as many partisans as they could in the immediate outbreak of peace, while shoring up support for the royalist government. Not all partisans were agreeable to being disarmed or towards the ancien regime, and Greece developed a communist insurgency. In 1947, the UK decided they could no longer afford their investment in the Greek government, and in their stead Truman decided to shoulder the task of providing military assistance in their stead. He did this through the American Mission for Aid to Greece "outside and independent of the embassy at Athens and of Ambassador Lincoln MacVeagh.” Inevitably, the Greeks observed that Griswold controlled the resources, so they bypassed the Ambassador and dealt directly with him. The Ambassador’s authority diminished, and a conflict within the Embassy emerged.
This aid mission was quasi-military in nature, but it fell into that grey nexus between clean-cut military operations and usual peacetime intelligence operations, and in the ensuing confusion both the ambassador and the chief of the aid mission were recalled for ineffectiveness. Following this frustration, Truman began the long process of clarifying how embassies coordinate foreign policy, first in the Clay Paper memorandum from 1951, later under Eisenhower through executive orders, by Kennedy in his “Leadership and Supervisory Responsibility of the Ambassador” memorandum, and finally by Congress in the Foreign Service Act of 1980. While there have been occasional challenges to the unity of command under a Chief of Mission, it is important to remember the reason for their existence: “to ensure that the political objectives took precedence over those of the military.”
During the Greek Civil War, the problem was not that we had an Aid Mission, or that it was supporting a military objective; the problem was that the Greek government sidestepped the ambassador to go straight to the chief of the aid mission, and in doing so undermined American policy. When our strongest relationship with a foreign government is through the coordinator specifically supplying them with arms, it is in that government’s interest to make sure the money & gun spigot never runs dry. Our relationship with Greece risked being one where we sponsoring a praetorian state against their own insurgents indefinitely in the name of a broad ideological war. Subordinating the aid mission to the overall mission of the Ambassador to Greece allowed us to control the dynamic of the relationship, and let the aid mission be a temporary project in service of our greater mission, which was a reliable & stable non-communist Greek ally.
If the parallels in that last paragraph were
heavy-handed, it is because I keep seeing 1947 Greece in 2012 Pakistan. As the Washington Post reported on
June 20th, the US Ambassador to
Pakistan has been recalled after losing a debate over “whether the ambassador,
as chief of mission, had the authority to veto CIA operations he thought would
harm long-term relations.” Regardless of agreement with his views on signature
strikes, it is of primary importance that the ambassador be allowed to act in
the interest of long-term relations. The administration, of course, is free to
recall ambassadors executing policy differently than intended, but given that
there are stories highlighting the rift between Munter and the CIA station chief from throughout their cohabitation in
Pakistan, it’s clear that this was a problem not of disagreement with the
administration but of confusion on the ground.
The Chief of Mission’s supremacy in coordinating policy is not designed as a hindrance on other agencies, but is instead about making sure that our intelligence and military actions are productive in the long run for American interests in the country. As Adam Elkus frequently points out, this is simple Clausewitz: our military objectives are not separate from but are instead in service of our political aims. The Chief of Mission’s focus on the long-term political is what enables them to eliminate the kind of confusion that Truman encountered in 1947, that our Chief of Mission struggled with in South Vietnam, that Munter faced in Pakistan, and that Game of Thrones so expertly depicts. This is a confusion we should confine to history and fiction.