Civilian Response Corps Gains Ground
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 15, 2008; A19
Are you a road engineer who speaks Urdu? A city planner fluent in Arabic? Maybe a former judge who happens to know Pashto and seeks foreign adventure?
There's a job for you at the Civilian Response Corps, the State Department unit designed to deploy with or shortly after U.S. troops in world hot spots. The corps is designed to be a kind of international Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. officials said, an agency that would take charge of entities including local police, courts, the banking system and airports after states collapse or governments are defeated. President Bush's fiscal 2009 budget proposal allocates funds to expand what until now has been little more than a pilot project.
Its goal is to avoid repeating the disastrous U.S. experience in managing Iraq during the early days of the Coalition Provisional Authority, officials said. "This requires a major, perhaps even a revolutionary, change in the way the U.S. government approaches and resources conflict response," John E. Herbst, coordinator for reconstruction and stabilization at the State Department, said in congressional testimony last month.
In a twist to the usual State Department-Pentagon rivalry, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has become the program's most outspoken advocate.
"We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military," Gates said in a November speech. "Based on my experience serving seven presidents, as a former director of CIA and now as secretary of defense, I am here to make the case for strengthening our capacity to use 'soft power' and for better integrating it with 'hard power.' "
Gates acknowledged that arguing for more funds for another agency is considered "blasphemy" at the Pentagon. "It is certainly not an easy sell politically," he said.
As failed and unstable states become a leading security challenge for the United States, the administration is scrambling to draft three corps of more than 4,000 specialists to rebuild and help manage states, Herbst said in an interview. In an era of belt-tightening, the Civilian Response Corps is one of the few staff increases called for in the State Department budget.
The 2009 budget calls for $248 million for the program, up from $7.2 million in the 2007, he said.
The idea of an emergency civilian corps has had mixed congressional reception since State's Office of the Coordinator of Reconstruction and Stabilization (CRS) was created in 2004. Herbst so far has fewer than 90 people who have been deployed in small teams to Afghanistan, Chad, Haiti, Iraq, Kosovo, Lebanon, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Sudan.
Under the new budget proposal, the CRS nucleus would grow to a 250-person Active Response Corps pulled from U.S. agencies, including Agriculture, Commerce, Justice and Treasury. It would include city planners, economists, port operators and correction officials, Herbst said. They would undergo months of training. Their mission would be to deploy within the first 72 hours of a U.S. military landing. As much as 80 percent of the team would be dispatched for as much as one year.
"We are proposing shifts across our civilian agencies that will bring all elements of national power to bear in the defense of America's vital interests," Herbst told Congress.
The second group would be a roughly 2,000-strong Standby Response Corps, again pulled from all branches of government and having the same diverse skills. They would train for two or three weeks a year and would be the second group to deploy in a crisis. Between 200 and 500 would deploy within 45 to 60 days of a crisis onset, Herbst said in an interview.
The third group is the Civilian Reserve Corps of about 2,000 that would be pulled from the private sector and state or local governments, much like the military reserve. Its members would sign up for a four-year commitment, which would include training for several weeks a year and an obligation to deploy for as much as one of the four years, Herbst said.
The first two groups now have small teams, while the Reserve Corps awaits congressional authorization.
The United States is late in the development of a civilian corps, Herbst said. Several European governments have the capability, but the most developed is in Canada, where such a program has a budget of more than $260 million.