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U.S. Civilians Recruited To Help Troubled Nations

In the coming months, the State Department will put out a call to American engineers, city planners and judges in the hopes that patriotism will compel them to leave their comfortable lives in the United States for far-flung locales and potentially dangerous work — saving states the U.S. classifies as "failing."

This month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the rollout of a new initiative called the Civilian Response Corps. With $75 million approved by Congress in June, the State Department will recruit civil servants from across the U.S. for the corps. Those selected will receive training and be sent to assist countries in turmoil, where the government is not able to function effectively or has collapsed completely.

The program was born out of the idea that if the U.S. helps troubled states before they devolve into terrorist breeding grounds, future attacks like those on Sept. 11, 2001, can be prevented.


As the corps develops, it will be monitored closely. If Congress considers it successful, more funding may be forthcoming. However, critics worry this program will be seen as imperial expansion, further damaging the U.S. image in the world.

A Response To 9/11

In the wake of Sept. 11, the State Department blamed state failure in Afghanistan — the collapse of central authority — for creating the conditions that allowed the terrorists to plot the attacks. So they created a brand new unit, the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization, tasked with preventing other troubled states from going down the same path.

In decades past, a collapsed state thousands of miles from the United States was not necessarily a threat to U.S. national security, said John Herbst, Coordinator for the Office of Reconstruction and Stabilization. But times have changed.

"Today, with global communications, with the integration of the global economy, with the ability of actors to operate at long distances," said Herbst, "it's possible that failed states at great distances from the United States, and of course closer, can represent a national security danger."


Under Herbst's leadership, the office developed the Civilian Response Corps.

In a July 16 speech announcing the rollout of the corps, Rice noted that this program is a departure for the United States. In the past, she said, the U.S. has relied heavily on the military for initiatives that required civilian expertise.

"Over the past 20 years, over the course of 17 significant stabilization and reconstruction missions in which the United States has been involved, too much of the effort has been borne by our men and women in uniform," said Rice, harkening back to difficult American military operations in the Balkans, Somalia and Iraq.

Professional Peace Corps

Herbst is now working to build a force of more than 4,000 civilians. The $75 million approved by Congress in June was the first major step toward this idea becoming a reality.

"The capability that we are trying to create will be made up of serious professionals who have the type of skills that the governments need," says Herbst. "People who are engineers, people who are involved in the rule of law, meaning police men and judges and attorneys and corrections officials. People who are public administrators or public health officials."

Herbst says he would like to attract civil servants who excel in their careers. And while international expertise is preferred, it's not necessary. Civilians who sign up for service with the corps will receive training that combines regional studies, language instruction, and preparation for working in volatile areas. One might call it a "professional Peace Corps."

Those 4,000-plus civilians would include some hired full time to deploy on the ready alongside military forces, should a crisis arise. But it will also include a much larger group of people who will keep their everyday jobs, but be on reserve. These individuals will make a commitment to pick up and go, with only a few weeks' notice, much like reserves in the U.S. National Guard.

"There are a lot of people in the United States who have done well in life, they would like to give something back," says Herbst. "They would like the opportunity to participate in some historical activities, which serve the greater national security interest of the United States."

Herbst also foresees the corps attracting young people, eager to grapple with what he calls "the principal national security challenge of their generation."

Once on the ground, the corps members will assist, or even take charge of various government entities — such as police departments, courts and public utilities — depending on the level of crisis that state is in.

A Trial Run In Darfur

The office initiated a pilot of this program in 2006. So far, they have sent a handful of American civilians to work on projects in places like Haiti and Sudan — where chaos, poverty, and poor infrastructure are facts of life.

Eythan Sontag is one of 11 officers in the pilot program for the Active Response Corps — the fulltime unit of what Herbst refers to as "firemen" responsible for putting out international crises. On his first assignment, Sontag was sent to Darfur to help implement a U.S.-backed peace agreement between the region's largest rebel group, the Sudanese Liberation Movement, and the Sudanese government.

"There's a lot of opportunities to do things that are very much hands on," says Sontag. "We're out there."

A former Army officer, Sontag calls what he did in Darfur "microdiplomacy." He says he practiced microdiplomacy by getting out into rural and remote areas once ignored by the State Department. There, he would meet with provincial officials, live off the local economy and integrate into village life.

"It's really when you get out of those capitals, when you get out into the country side when you see ... what the average Darfurian's life is like," says Sontag.

Herbst says corps members, like Sontag, are most often deployed at the invitation of a host government. But he also foresees situations that would merit sending in these civilian officers against the wishes of local authorities.

Grave Concern

Justin Logan, associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, is skeptical over how this program will unfold.

"I have grave concern, with the image of the United States as bad as it is around the world at this point, that putting U.S. personnel on the ground will generate this kind of nationalist response against the United States and then imperil the people who we've deployed there," says Logan.

Underscoring Logan's point is a study by University of Chicago professor Robert Pape that surveyed all suicide terrorist attacks between 1998 and 2003. The study concluded that almost all of these attacks were motivated by a specific secular and strategic goal — to compel modern democracies to withdraw forces from places that terrorists consider to be their homeland.

"What will be the political outcry in Washington if you have U.S. personnel from the State Department being killed?" says Logan. "I think the impulse would be to send in even greater numbers of U.S. military to sort of remedy the outcome."

Herbst acknowledges that his office will be sending personnel into dicey situations, and that these civilian workers may meet local resistance.

"There will be an element of risk, and people cannot be assured if they are deployed for some of our operations, that they're going into a place where absolute safety is guaranteed," says Herbst.

The Debate Over Failed States

Logan takes issue with what he sees as a disparity between the mission of the corps and its activities thus far. Most of the states targeted by the program in its pilot phase — like Haiti, Sudan, and Sri Lanka — do not pose a real threat to U.S. national security, says Logan. And if they are not a threat, he says, they are not worth the risk and the expense.

"There have been dozens and dozens and dozens of failed states that have existed throughout the world over the past 15 or 20 years, and yet we have one data point to revert back to, Afghanistan, in which there was actually a pressing threat to U.S. national security that happened to emerge from a failed state," says Logan.

Herbst says this is the wrong way to look at the issue. Failed states, he believes, need to be tackled far in advance — before they have the chance to devolve into terrorist breeding grounds.

"Anyone who looked at pictures of the Twin Towers on September 11 cannot say that failed states are not an issue," says Herbst. "The point is that not all failed states represent a security challenge to the United States, but some do."

The State Department has requested almost $250 million from Congress for the corps in their fiscal year 2009 budget. If they receive that funding, Herbst says the program will be fully rolled out, bringing on more than 4,000 additional civilians.

Victoria Chao contributed to this story.

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