David Ignatius: Can we close the 'power gap'?

BY DAVID IGNATIUS Published: March 3, 2013
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In all these countries, the U.S. needs to find ways to fill the power gap without using military force. The White House needs to rationalize the situation so that when the president asks “Who's in charge?” he gets a clear answer.

I've talked recently with officials from all these agencies and what I hear is discouraging. They're each heading in their own direction, working on their own particular piece of the puzzle. The pieces get assembled in well-managed U.S. embassies overseas, where the ambassador makes the country team work together. But similar coordination happens too rarely in Washington.

The U.S. Institute of Peace, headed by Jim Marshall, prides itself on being a small, nimble organization with a cadre of specialists who can travel to crisis zones and meet with different sects, tribes and parties. But the organization likes its independence, and doesn't want to be an arm of the State Department or any other bureaucracy.

State's new Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations has the right mission statement. But it's only 165 people and shrinking, and it doesn't even have the heft to lead the State Department's activities, let alone the government's. The bureau's chief, Rick Barton, wants State to designate a “center of gravity” for each budding crisis, so that there's at least an address for mobilizing resources. It's a good idea, but just a start.

USAID has been America's lead development agency for decades. But it's also a perennial area of bureaucratic dispute, and many analysts argue that the nation gets less bang for its development buck than it should. It's hard to imagine USAID being the strategic answer. The same goes for the CIA.

It's a cliche these days to talk about how America needs more emphasis on “soft power” and its better-educated cousin, “smart power.” Meanwhile, for all the talk, the problems fester and the power gap grows.

WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP