WASHINGTON — Imagine that you're sitting at the table as the National Security Council debates the deteriorating political and security situation in a North African country (take your pick). The president asks how the U.S. can prevent conflict there without sending in the military. Various Cabinet members and agency directors look awkwardly at each other — because nobody has a good answer.
Here lies one of the biggest unresolved problems for U.S. national security planners today: How can America shape events in an unstable world without putting “boots on the ground,” or drones in the air? Does this stabilizing mission belong to the experts at the U.S. Agency for International Development? Or to the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which was created in 2011 to deal with such problems? Or to the facilitators and analysts at the U.S. Institute of Peace, which was created in 1984 to help resolve conflicts peacefully? Or maybe to the covert-action planners at the CIA, who work secretly to advance U.S. interests in key countries?
The answer is that all of the above would have some role in shaping the U.S. response to a potential crisis. But in practice, the overlapping roles mean that none of them would have ultimate responsibility. Thus, in our imaginary NSC meeting, no one takes charge.
This is why security problems have tended to default to the military and its regional “combatant commanders.” But the age of the “COCOMs” is ending, because of budget strain and military overload, and there's nothing in sight to take their place.
To understand the implications of this “power gap,” let's think more about North Africa. White House officials see instability nearly everywhere they look, as the Arab uprisings transform the region. Borders are porous; arms are proliferating, especially from Libya; security services that once provided counterterrorism help have been weakened; ungoverned spaces where terrorists can hide are growing.
There's no single answer to this multifaceted security problem. In Libya, the challenge is building institutions — a working military, police and government — in a country that was crippled by Moammar Gadhafi's decades of misrule. In Egypt and Tunisia, the priorities are economic development and political inclusion. In Mali and other countries of sub-Saharan Africa, the needs are basic development and security assistance.