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Dumb and Dumber

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Posted on Sep 6, 2012
oschene (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

By John Feffer, TomDispatch

(Page 3)

Hillary Clinton did indeed move quickly to increase the size of the State Department budget to hire more people and implement more programs to beef up diplomacy. That budget grew by more than 7% in 2009-2010. But that didn’t bring the department of diplomacy up to even $50 billion. In fact, it is still plagued by a serious shortage of diplomats and, as State Department whistleblower Peter van Buren has written, “The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier.” Meanwhile, despite a persistent recession, the Pentagon budget continued to rise during the Obama years—a roughly 3% increase in 2010 to about $700 billion.  (And Mitt Romney promises to hike it even more drastically.)

Like most Democratic politicians, Obama has been acutely aware that hard power is a way of establishing political invulnerability in the face of Republican attacks. But the use of hard power to gain political points at home is a risky affair. It is the nature of this “dumb power” to make the United States into a bigger target, alienate allies, and jeopardize authentic efforts at multilateralism.

A Kinder, Gentler Empire

Despite its rhetorical flexibility, “smart power” has several inherent flaws. First, it focuses on the means of exercising power without questioning the ends toward which power is deployed. The State Department and the Pentagon will tussle over which agency can more effectively win the hearts and minds of Afghans. But neither agency is willing to rethink the U.S. presence in the country or acknowledge how few hearts and minds have been won.


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As with Afghanistan, so with the rest of the world. For all his talk of power “with” rather than “over,” Joseph Nye has largely been concerned with different methods by which the United States can maintain dominion. “Smart power” is not about the inherent value of diplomacy, the virtues of collective decision-making, or the imperatives of peace, justice, or environmental sustainability. Rather it is a way of calculating how best to get others to do what America wants them to do, with the threat of a drone strike or a Special Forces incursion always present in the background.

The Pentagon, at least, has been clear about this point. In 2007, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates argued for “strengthening our capacity to use soft power and for better integrating it with hard power.” The Pentagon has long realized that a toolbox with only a single hammer in it handicaps the handyman, but it still persists in seeing a world full of nails.

At a more practical level, “smart power” encounters problems because in this “integration,” the Pentagon always turns out to be the primary partner.  As a result, the work of diplomats, dispensers of humanitarian aid, and all the other “do-gooders” who attempt to distinguish their work from soldiers is compromised. After decades of trying to persuade their overseas partners that they are not simply civilian adjuncts to the Pentagon, the staff of the State Department has now jumped into bed with the military. They might as well put big bull’s eyes on their backs, and there’s nothing smart about that.

“Smart power” also provides a lifeline for a military that might face significant cuts if Congress’s sequestration plan goes through. NATO has already shown the way. Its embrace of “smart defense” is a direct response to military cutbacks by European governments. The Pentagon is deeply worried that budget-cutters will follow the European example, so it is doing what corporations everywhere attempt during a crisis. It is trying to rebrand its services.

Always in search of a mission, the Pentagon now has its fingers in just about every pie in the bakery. The Marines are doing drug interdiction in Guatemala. Special Operations forces are constructing cyclone shelters in Bangladesh. The U.S. Navy provided post-disaster relief in Japan after the Fukushima nuclear meltdown, while the U.S. Army did the same in Haiti. In 2011, the Africa Command budgeted $150 million for development and health care.

The Pentagon, in other words, has turned itself into an all-purpose agency, even attempting “reconstruction” along with State and various crony corporations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is preparing for the impact of climate change, pouring R & D dollars into alternative energy, and running operations in cyberspace. The Pentagon has been smart about its power by spreading it everywhere.

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