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Senate’s NDAA Language Sparks State, Pentagon Turf Battle

House lawmakers vow to push back against bill modifications

Washington Rep. Adam Smith says he wants the State Department and USAID to have more of a leadership role in U.S. development policies. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Washington Rep. Adam Smith says he wants the State Department and USAID to have more of a leadership role in U.S. development policies. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An effort by the Senate Armed Services Committee to consolidate and streamline post-9/11 Pentagon rules for providing security assistance to foreign countries has unleashed long-simmering State Department concerns over how its oversight of those programs is handled.  

As part of committee Chairman John McCain’s ambitious effort to craft a legacy-shaping fiscal 2017 defense policy measure (S 2943), the decision was made to tackle the plethora of authorities that the Defense Department was granted over the past 15 years to partner with dozens of nations in improving not only their militaries but also their police, coast guard, border guards, counterterrorism forces and counternarcotics capabilities.  

The goal was to streamline and consolidate these authorities, making them both permanent but also more nimble in responding to the rapidly evolving global threat climate.  

“Right now, the security assistance programs are completely clogged up in the most bureaucratic morass that I have ever observed,” McCain, an Arizona Republican, told Roll Call. “It needs to be streamlined.”  

However, the changes that the Senate Armed Services bill seeks to enact have sparked a much wider interagency, congressional and think-tank community debate about the appropriateness and effectiveness, so many years into the war on terrorism, of continuing to have the Pentagon play a leading role in policy areas that were once the primary domain of Foggy Bottom.  

“The Iraq and Afghanistan wars basically were a huge breakthrough for DOD,” said Gordon Adams, who worked for the Office of Management and Budget on national security and foreign affairs budgets during the Bill Clinton administration. “That threw DOD and the services into the game of security assistance directly in a huge way. They then sought to expand what they were doing with authorities around the world.”  

While McCain and committee staff defend the modifications their bill would make to Pentagon authorities, both Democratic and Republican House conferees to the defense authorization conference have promised to push back against the changes, which do not line up with what is in their own annual policy bill (HR 4909). The Obama administration has also said it has concerns with the proposals, which go further than ones it requested.  

Rep. Adam Smith, ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, in an interview said he is concerned with a trend he sees of broad security development and stabilization activities being undertaken by the U.S. military even though it’s “not their area of expertise.”  

“I definitely want the secretary of state’s office and USAID to have more of a leadership role in our development policies,” the Washington Democrat said. “I think an unfortunate byproduct of Iraq and Afghanistan is the greater role that DOD has played in those things. They have the money and it was an insecure environment, so they were needed to play a greater role, but ultimately I think we’re better off if we beef up diplomacy and development to be more important parts of our foreign policy.”  

Likewise, Rep. Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — who, because the bill touches on his panel’s jurisdiction, has been named a conferee — says he will resist any changes that would weaken the State Department’s involvement in international security programs.  

“Security assistance is an essential U.S. foreign policy tool that, when used effectively, strengthens partnerships and helps keep America safe,” the California Republican said in a written statement. “I will be advocating for the House’s reform approach, which ensures accountability and collaboration at the State and Defense departments, and at every other level.”

Strong views abound 

As staff from the House and Senate Armed Services panels prepare for another long summer session of hashing out policy differences between their respective policy bills, strong opinions abound throughout Washington as to what level of coordination, program formulation and concurrence is appropriate for the State Department to have of the Pentagon’s international security assistance programs.  

The Senate bill does give the State Department authority to concur with the Pentagon on some security assistance programs where there now exists only the lower-level requirement to coordinate.  

An effort by Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker and the ranking Democrat, Benjamin L. Cardin, to amend the Senate defense authorization legislation during floor debate last month was unsuccessful, as their measure, like the vast majority of other offered amendments, never received a vote.  

The Corker-Cardin amendment would have made numerous changes to the bill that would, among other things, have required the Pentagon to obtain approval from the State Department for a number of its security cooperation programs that currently do not have that requirement. The amendment would also have required the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees to be included in Pentagon briefings and reports on their security assistance programs.  

Additionally, the amendment changes pushed by Senate Foreign Relations leadership would have affected a wider range of security assistance authorities than those modifications pushed for by McCain.
An example of a bill provision that Corker and Cardin found objectionable was language that would authorize the Defense secretary, with agreement from the State Department’s relevant chief of mission, to spend as much as $100 million each fiscal year “to provide support to foreign forces, irregular forces, groups or individuals” working with U.S. special operations troops on counterterrorism activities.  

The Foreign Relations Committee wants to see the authorization to provide support to irregular forces deleted.  

Despite not getting a vote on the amendment, Cardin told Roll Call he was hopeful his and Corker’s concerns would be worked out in conference committee.  

“I think it’s going to be negotiated,” the Maryland Democrat said. “We had a discussion … with DOD and State. There was more agreement than disagreement, so I’m hoping that we can work out the legal authorization in a way that’s not threatening to the [people] at State and we can have a consensus approach of how we deal with this.”  

By seeking to make permanent the Pentagon’s security cooperation authorities, the Senate bill has opened up a can of worms for those in the State Department, congressional foreign affairs panels and think-tank community who believe the time is long overdue to reassess the entire post-9/11 architecture for doing security development programs.  

Members of this camp point out that one of the biggest reasons the Defense Department was given a primary policy formulation role in the first place was because of constraints on Foggy Bottom’s budget.  

“Do we have the right security sector architecture for how the U.S. government ought to be conducting these activities?” Bill Monahan, deputy assistant secretary of State for political military affairs, asked in an interview.  

Among other things, the State Department has questions about what kind of concurrence with the Pentagon the Senate bill would actually provide, noting there are differences between being brought in at the very beginning of a program’s development and being asked to sign off on it right before it is ready.  

Dustin Walker, communications director for the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the bill does not seek to elevate one department above the other.  

“The debate over the respective roles for State and DOD in security sector assistance is decades old and has produced frustrations on both sides,” Walker said. “But it’s misguided to project those frustrations onto the NDAA, which is designed to deepen the cooperation between State and DOD we all know is essential to meeting our national security needs.”

Calls to keep the big picture in mind

Melissa Dalton, a senior fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security Program, is sympathetic to Pentagon concerns about the length of time and cumbersome bureaucratic hurdles involved in having their security assistance programs approved.  

“DOD does a fine job of planning and asking whether it is appropriate to conduct an exercise,” she said. “But DOD looks at issue sets through primarily a DOD strategic lens but not necessarily considering broader issues that might be at stake in the country that certainly the ambassador might be more cognizant of. The risk is if there is an exercise or some type of security cooperation that takes place that is uncoordinated with State that might have second- or third-order effects that occur politically.”  

Dalton notes there have been instances of Pentagon-run programs involving Middle Eastern, African and South Asian partner forces that have sparked unintended consequences.  

Adams, who is not shy about his views that the Pentagon has had a very weak performance record with its security assistance programs, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan, says that while the State Department has its own bureaucratic failings, it still does a better job than the U.S. military of keeping the big picture in mind when it comes to long-term foreign policy objectives.  

“If you are single-mindedly focused on building up the security of another country, ostensibly to make it safer, what you in fact have done is empowered the most powerful institution in most Third World countries, which is their military,” said Adams, a professor emeritus at American University. “The consequence of doing that is high-risk. There is risk internally of a coup … repression of domestic populations.”  

While the White House has issued a veto threat to the Senate defense bill, that warning is seen as aimed at other provisions in the legislation. Still, the security cooperation changes were highlighted by the Office of Management and Budget as a point of concern.  

“Any reforms ultimately must ensure that no harm is done to … the State Department’s lead role in foreign policy and security sector assistance, including by inappropriately codifying, expanding, limiting, or eliminating current authorities, resources, or mechanisms necessary to ensure that the United States pursues a coherent and consistent foreign policy through all assistance activities,” the Statement of Administration Policy on the bill reads.  

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Eric Badger said the department stands behind the administration’s statement of concern on security assistance changes.  

“We are grateful for the hard work senators have put into this piece of legislation,” Badger said. “But as the secretary and the White House have made clear, we still have significant concerns with this legislation as it now stands.”

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