Congressional Oversight on Security Assistance

As the Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds its hearing today on U.S. security assistance to foreign partners—only the committee’s second hearing on the topic in the last 10 years—it could not come at a more important time. U.S. alliances and partnerships around the world are being challenged by unpredictable policy pivots and an increasingly isolationist bent to domestic political discourse. The State Department—the coordinator of U.S. security assistance across government agencies—is under stress from proposed draconian budget cuts and personnel shortfalls. And the challenges security assistance is aimed at confronting—from terrorism and narco-trafficking to the risk of major power conflict—are growing in scope and complexity.

In an age when the United States is looked to by nations around the world to play a leading role in solving global challenges, security assistance has long been viewed as a particularly critical tool in the U.S. diplomatic toolbox. Through relatively small expenditures of tax resources (the combined budget of security assistance across the State Department, Pentagon, and other government agencies totals less than the U.S. military spends each year combating rust), the United States can cement critical relationships, enhance regional security architectures, and build the capacity of partners to take on security challenges that otherwise might require the far more costly and risky intervention of our own troops.

But, even nearly a half-century since the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 laid the foundation for the U.S. security assistance enterprise, an essential question remains unanswered: what sort of return are we getting on our investment?

In 2016, Congress and the Department of Defense (DoD) collaborated to engender far-reaching reforms to DoD’s security cooperation activities—its piece of the security assistance pie—precisely because of concerns that DoD might not be seeing the strategic results expected from these programs. Security cooperation has consistently occupied a prominent place in DoD’s strategic vision since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The reforms, which crested with the passage of the Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (FY17 NDAA), overhauled DoD authorities, planning cycles, funding mechanisms, oversight, and supporting workforce.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today brings an opportunity to ask whether similar reforms are needed at the Department of State. Given that much of the State Department’s security assistance architecture was created to respond to the challenges of the Cold War, it is time to revisit whether it has the right people, processes, and tools to meet today’s challenges.

In support of such a reexamination, here are six questions committee members should be asking of the State Department and one key question for DoD.

Does the State Department have the right tools to confront the security challenges of the twenty-first century? State Department security assistance authorities are rather broad, generally allowing the department to provide material assistance such as weapons or vehicles, training, education, construction of certain facilities, and various other assistance. However, some of its key authorities are constrained in unhelpful ways. The flagship security assistance program, Foreign Military Financing (FMF), can only provide assistance to military partners, even while security challenges such as cyber warfare and transnational organized crime increasingly demand nonmilitary or whole-of-government solutions.

In addition, unlike the broad authority of FMF, other security assistance programs enabling aid to nonmilitary forces are often designed to target narrow functional areas such as counterterrorism, counternarcotics, or nonproliferation. Exacerbating this challenge is that Section 660 of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 prohibits the use of security assistance for the training, advising, or equipping of foreign law enforcement forces, albeit with some exceptions. These programmatic constraints, coupled with funding imbalances have meant that State’s security assistance portfolio is disproportionally weighted toward military assistance, even as the Defense Department’s assistance to friendly militaries has grown substantially in both scope and maturity.

State Department tools are hampered by a series of lesser constraints, as well. The underlying law authorizing the Excess Defense Articles program, which makes available to partners U.S. military equipment no longer in use, includes a mandate requiring “priority over the maximum extent feasible over delivery” of excess articles to NATO members and major non-NATO allies on the southern and southeastern flank of NATO and to the Philippines—essentially tying prioritization of excess defense articles to the security priorities of the 1970s. Likewise, tonnage restrictions on excess articles transfers mean that a separate act of Congress is required before any of the Navy’s decommissioned frigates can be transferred to a partner; unsurprisingly, the result is that most remaining frigates are sitting unused in a Philadelphia shipyard.

Congress should take a hard look at the authorities that collectively constitute the State Department’s security assistance tools and question whether they match the needs of our current security environment.

What objective should take priority in security assistance initiatives, building relationships or building capacity? Security assistance tools were legislated by Congress at the height of the Cold War, when the United States and Soviet Union were locked in high-stakes competition to win the allegiances of governments around the world. Tools such as FMF initially were applied toward diplomatic ends, seeking to cement alliances and partnerships of pro-Western governments and to deepen the dependence of foreign militaries on the U.S. military-industrial complex. In recent years, particularly in light of the threat perceived by some at the State Department from DoD “building partner capacity” programs, the utility of these tools in advancing the capabilities and capacity of partner security forces has been emphasized as a goal. It remains unclear which objective takes priority, and the answer to that question matters deeply.

FMF assistance, in particular, can be planned with great deference to a partner military’s stated requirements. (Put more bluntly, FMF assistance can risk supporting a partner’s wish over capabilities desired to address core U.S. security interests.) That’s okay, if building and maintaining relationships is the top objective. But if the United States seeks to use security assistance as a tool to empower and encourage partners to contribute more effectively and substantially to addressing shared security interests, then changes might be necessary to ensure we are consistently investing in the right capabilities.

Incidentally, this question is highly relevant to the proposal of the Trump administration to convert FMF from grant assistance (in the form of financing of sales) to loans. Underscoring why the proposal is so misguided, it would actually damage the ability of the FMF program to meet either objective. Relationships would be damaged by demands that loans be paid back, particularly when these demands downgrade our ambassadors around the world to nagging bill collectors. Likewise, efforts to help partners develop capabilities that can contribute to making the United States safer would almost certainly lag, as key militaries turn to freely given assistance from competitors like Russia and China rather than assume large loans. While one can fairly ask whether the financing model underpinning FMF remains the right approach (versus the grant mechanisms used by most other aid programs), it is clear that a loan model would be disastrous.

Why do Morocco and Tunisia receive more FMF assistance than all sub-Saharan African countries combined? According to the State Department’s Fiscal Year 2018 budget request, Tunisia was the largest recipient of FMF on the African continent (excluding Egypt, its own special case), with $65 million in FY16. Morocco received $10 million. Meanwhile, the entirety of sub-Saharan African nations received $18.6 million, with the largest recipient (Liberia) receiving only $2.5 million. With the U.S. national security community increasingly focused on terrorist networks in Somalia, the Lake Chad Basin, and the Sahel, instability in Libya, and transnational organized crime across the continent, how can this be?

The answer underscores the challenges faced by the State Department in matching FMF allocations to strategic priorities, as well as the continuing dominance of relationship building as the guiding objective. Having participated in the FMF allocation process, and having advocated with minimal success for a more significant investment in key African partners, I can attest that the gap between Tunisia, Morocco, and the rest of the continent is driven by relationship-based factors with almost laughable justifications. For one, Tunisia and Morocco are categorized by the State Department as part of the Near East and South Asia (NESA) region, where they must compete against recipients such as Jordan ($450 million in FY16) and Iraq ($250 million), so their position benefits because of their comparison group. Second, Africa loses out because of the basic complexity of relationship management: with nearly 50 countries on the continent, the relationship-centric approach to FMF suggests that increases to a few countries would have to be balanced by proportionate adjustments across the continent. This dynamic is at play in the European region, where the department provides roughly as much FMF assistance to Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and Serbia as to the entire African continent below the Sahara, despite the fact that these nations are far less likely to contribute significant capabilities to confronting current and potential future security threats than numerous African militaries currently engaged in sustained counterterrorism fights.

None of this is wrong; there is a legitimate reason why the United States ought to be working to cement relationships with countries like the eastern European nations we hope will one day join NATO and/or resist Russian manipulation. But the rationale is too often lost in translation due to lack of clarity regarding what, exactly, is the program’s chief objective.

By what metrics does State measure strategic impact? Without clarity about a program’s primary objective, it is almost impossible to evaluate whether or not it’s working. Putting that challenge aside, though, it is still reasonable to ask how the State Department measures the strategic impact of its security assistance.

One important part of the answer is a robust Assessment, Monitoring, and Evaluation (AM&E) program, which should be designed to routinely monitor progress of individual initiatives toward implementation and to evaluate whether these initiatives are achieving their intended objectives. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has been a global leader in AM&E for the last several years, but the security assistance enterprises at both State and DoD have been slow to follow suit. DoD’s AM&E framework is beginning to take shape in the wake of the 2016 reforms, and the State Department has put in place an AM&E policy that applies to security assistance as well as other forms of aid. Yet, these frameworks deserve careful scrutiny to ensure that they are delivering as intended. Are AM&E policies and processes fully developed? Is AM&E work adequately resourced? Are evaluations asking the right questions, and are policymakers paying attention to their results? Since a robust AM&E framework is the single policy innovation most likely to improve the government’s return on its security assistance investments, Congress should be paying unusually close attention to ensuring that both DoD and State get it right.

Who’s in charge? As the Obama administration issued and then sought to implement Presidential Policy Directive 23 on security sector assistance, and as DoD’s security assistance profile has grown in recent years, debates both within and outside the government have recently been asking the “who’s in charge” question from an interagency perspective. Yet, the question is equally—and perhaps more—important inside the State Department itself.

Responsibility for security assistance is muddled and disjointed. The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (PM) leads a planning process around FMF and International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, but the Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources makes final decisions about funding allocations, and regional bureaus exercise substantial influence on how resources are divvied up within their assigned regions. PM’s power can seem to range somewhere between facilitation and administration.

Complicating matters further, other functional bureaus—such as the International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau and the Bureau for International Security and Nonproliferation—control significant security assistance resources, such as program funding under the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement (INCLE) and the Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs (NADR) accounts. Yet another major aid program, the Peacekeeping Operations (PKO) account, is controlled by regional bureaus.

Developing integrated, holistic plans for security assistance across all these bureaus, which all report to different undersecretaries, is nearly impossible. There are numerous countries in which four or five different security assistance programs may be funding activities in the same general area (for example, maritime security) with competing objectives and limited awareness of other activities. And, in the current organization, there is no one sufficiently empowered to arbitrate conflicts between bureaus below the level of deputy secretary, the #2 official in the department.

Even as the Trump administration considers major reforms to the State Department bureaucracy, this muddle is not expected to improve considerably. Disjointed, uncoordinated programming risks strategic failure, redundancy, and waste; the question of who’s in charge thus becomes critically important. The committee would do well to press State Department leaders to begin sorting out the answer.

And one for DoD: since the FY17 NDAA reforms, what has really changed? The FY17 NDAA enacted monumental reforms for DoD’s security cooperation enterprise. It reformed DoD’s patchwork of over 100 security cooperation authorities, consolidating or eliminating dozens of authorities, and ironing out wrinkles in others. It forced changes in DoD’s approach to implementation of security cooperation activities, mandated an AM&E program, and required a consolidated annual security cooperation budget. And it set in motion a major initiative to professionalize the security cooperation workforce.

State Department officials working on security assistance programs have been openly envious of these reforms, heard wishing for similar reforms at Foggy Bottom. Yet, while acknowledging that it remains early in the implementation of these reforms, it is also legitimate and important to ask whether these major reforms have translated into significant differences in DoD’s execution.

Congress should examine whether DoD planners are bringing forth more holistic, integrated program proposals that address the multiple dimensions of capacity building, as envisioned by the Congress. They should also ask if these programs have begun to be evaluated in ways that identify lessons learned and improve future programs, and if DoD has been able to successfully address previously untouchable problems with its new authorities. Finally, Congress should seek to follow the money: it must seek to understand whether reforms have helped identify how much the Pentagon actually spends on security cooperation, or whether a security cooperation “audit” remains a distant dream.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today will hopefully be the beginning of a much-needed conversation, rather than the apogee. Security assistance remains an essential tool for U.S. intervention in conflicts and crises around the world; yet, it is far from meeting its potential, even as many in Congress and the executive branch continue to offer it as the answer to high-stakes challenges like Iraq and Ukraine. To ensure that U.S. security assistance can achieve its strategic objectives, Congress must sustain its interest until the above questions are answered.

Tommy Ross is a senior associate with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Tommy Ross