Allison Stanger’s well researched book, One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy (Yale University Press 2009) could not have appeared at a better time. In a nutshell, Stanger uses publicly available data to demonstrate concisely the seismic shift towards privatization of American foreign policy, America’s foreign policy apparatus and foreign policy implementation since the end of the Cold War - but particularly during the tsunami known as George W. Bush.
During those eight years, the size of the
The two are related.
The outsourcing of U.S. government functions and the extravagant spending that accompanied it was particularly pronounced in the foreign affairs arena – as Stanger demonstrates.
Why it’s just fine to engorge the US military and its constellation of contractors that began with the Republicans but refuse to spend a penny on basic domestic infrastructure and improving the lot of the less fortunate to make this country more internationally competitive and a better place to live for us all is beyond me.
But that’s what’s happened and where we now are.
I watched the creeping privatization (and ever larger deficits) of the federal government that began under President run-against-the federal-government-Ronald Reagan while I was in a Foreign Service Officer with the US Information Agency. But George W. Bush’s administration made Reagan look like a veritable socialist. Then, under Bill Clinton, the goal was to trim the number of federal government employees and to reduce the Reagan deficit in the Cold War’s wake.
Both happened, but the substantial reduction of federal employees primarily resulted in the expanding midriffs of "beltway bandits" as well as any number of other private sector contractors, particularly those with Congressional connections, including those who lived and worked far from I-495 - the circular corridor of power that surrounds the capital and its near suburbs.
Guns and butter never work - political science 101
When the Bush II administration decided to pursue one, if
not two, unnecessary wars simultaneously post 9/11 it was just dandy – according to the
Republicans then in charge – to undo the parsimony of the
Large chunks of these war chest funds went to private contractors through the Pentagon. Often the money went to defense firms that were founded and run by former military officers and enlisted personnel. They then employed and recruited others. Their expertise – originally gained as uniformed military at the expense of the
amounts were parceled out through the State Department and other civilian
foreign affairs entities. The civilians officials were told that although funds were
available, government positions to administer the programs or to oversee the contractors
needed to do the jobs were not. Meanwhile oversight of government employees went out the window as well.
The most recent Bush administration Inspector General at the State Department, for instance – Cookie Krongard a political appointee with brotherly ties to Blackwater – departed the position and the building under a thunder cloud. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton still needs to fill the political appointee IG position with a competent, experienced and unbiased lawyer who can restore order, justice, fairness and transparency in a struggling department.
Meanwhile, contracting out is, in my view, not a “win-win”
situation for anyone except contractors.
Data abounds that shows contractors cost more than federal employees
whether civilian or military: and this includes the pensions. So if budgetary constraint is the goal of
contracting out, forget it. That’s
simply a partisan canard.
Furthermore, there is little if any accountability (contractors do as contractors wont) in terms of the quality or quantity of their work. But more perniciously, they then turn around and lobby the government – both Executive and Congressional branches – for funding for projects that represent the contractors’ own interests. If these special interest projects benefit the public good – so much the better – but in reality the greater good is simply a byproduct of what has become an all too troubling system of wasting the government's resources. Been there, seen some of it happen and have also dealt with contracting consequences – time and time again.
Sometimes contracting firms twist themselves around to
qualify for government contracts in areas that they have no – repeat – no prior
experience. An example:
I think that too many no-accountability sweet-heart deals to
the tune of millions of dollars spent on questionable contracts and contractors
simply would not have happened if many of those same programs had remained in-house.
But that was when we had sufficient qualified
staff to handle them. For certain types of programs like youth exchange and
university-to-university exchanges that can only be run by the private sector - the contracts at least must be monitored and evaluated by experienced federal employees.
Then there’s the closely related issue of
over-militarization of the entire
The dismemberment of USIA and the slow, painful death of USAID
That’s why the US Information Agency and
USAID, the two civilian program agencies that did, were created as separate
entities from the Department early in President Eisenhower’s tenure. Consolidation and dismemberment of USIA in 1999 which had handled US
public diplomacy since 1953 has largely resulted in a dysfunctional, bifurcated
operation plagued with problems. A similar
problem has befallen USAID tortuously, stealthfully and painfully slurped up thereafter by
the State Department under the Bush administration.
Stanger presents the USAID problems well in a must read chapter
entitled “The Slow Death of AID” but since she doesn’t have as good as grasp of
public diplomacy, she misses and mischaracterizes that sad story almost
entirely (one of the few mistakes in another wise thoroughly researched
By 2003, the remnants of neither of these two former civilian
foreign affairs program agencies could perform the post 9/11 tasks assigned
under the cumbersome State Department bureaucracy. The situation has not improved.
It’s no surprise, therefore,
that the “can do,” well funded Pentagon stepped in. Today, the Pentagon’s budget and staff for
strategic communications (the closest military equivalent to public diplomacy)
is multiple times that of State’s public diplomacy operation plus the
International Board of Broadcasting which oversees the Voice of America and
other international broadcasting elements combined.
Can the clock be reversed?
Stanger pessimistically doesn’t think so but
she thinks the situation can be improved.
I think more can be accomplished than she does, but I agree - the political will
is lacking and the clock is ticking.
Of her recommendations for improvement - several far too utopian for my tastes - the
most insightful are those that relate to deep systemic problems with Congressional
oversight bound up in a tortuous, fractionalized committee structure.
As Stanger points out, the budgets, appropriations for and
operations of the State Department are handled by eight different Congressional
committees in both Houses of Congress.
But to make matters worse, State and Defense Departments are reviewed by two entirely different sets
of Congressional committees. They begin with Senate Foreign Relations for State and Armed Services for the
Pentagon. This kind of parallel compartmentalization
means, in short, that a meaningful review of
Note: See Matt Armstrong's follow-up review on Mountainrunner.