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Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy?

Mission Creep: The Militarization of US Foreign Policy? edited by Gordon Adams and Shoon Murray. Georgetown University Press, 2014, 303 pp.

The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has placed the decades-long US–Saudi Arabia relationship under pressure. Congress has leapt at the chance to reassess the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and media attention has created a highly charged context for this re-examination. Given the Saudi government’s commitment to bolstering its security forces’ capability through purchases of US military equipment and training, the distinctly military nature of the relationship is necessarily a significant part of the relook. Fortunately, policy makers—professionals in and out of government service—and concerned citizens have an extremely useful guide in helping to navigate the complex political landscape revealed by the Khashoggi incident. Gordon Adams and Shoon Murray’s edited collection of essays on the increasing tilt of US foreign policy toward the military in the post-Cold War era sheds light on the challenges leaders face in balancing foreign policy priorities. Their book entitled Mission Creep identifies the causes of many tensions unleashed in the aftermath of the Khashoggi murder and helps to frame the examination of a relationship that has become defined by shared military interests. The book makes explicit those assumptions and practices within the US government that enabled the extensive militarization of foreign policy as it pertains to Saudi Arabia and numerous other nations. It attempts to familiarize the reader with the concepts, context, and challenges inherent in contemporary security cooperation as it relates to stakeholders in the US government, but it ultimately raises more questions than it answers.

Security cooperation, the broad range of activities conducted by the DOD with partner nations, is the primary topic the authors in Mission Creep address. None of the 13 authors of the book’s chapters would be surprised by the disquiet suddenly expressed in Congress and the media regarding the imbalance in US policy formulation. In fact, each of their essays does a good job of describing the various ways that the DOD has increased its role in foreign affairs and the reasons why the State Department and Congress have been unable or unwilling to stem the growing influence. As Congress reacts to Saudi behavior on the world stage, it will evaluate the division of responsibilities between the State Department and DOD in managing US–Saudi relations and its own role in the checks and balances between the legislative and executive branches of government.  The unclear way ahead is precisely why Mission Creep is such a timely and practical analysis for those who seek a better understanding of U.S. foreign policy.

The book’s strength lies in the varied perspectives the authors provide as they analyze the complicated realm of security cooperation. The editors’ organization of the broad content effectively moves the reader from the context and the institutions in which policy choices are made to the outcomes of those choices as they’ve played out over time. Specifically, experts with backgrounds in academia, the military, and Foreign Service discuss the increasing influence the US military has exercised since before the end of the Cold War. They explain that, although the phenomenon is not new, it has intensified in the early twenty-first century with little public debate about the DOD’s proper role in foreign affairs. Their definitions of militarization in the context of foreign relations highlight the complexity of the concept and the difficulty of ascertaining what, if anything, to do about it. The experts convincingly lay out their arguments and challenge the reader to understand the many facets of security cooperation and the importance of adjusting the balance of power within the executive departments and between the legislative and executive branches of the government.

If the book suffers any weakness, it results from the amorphous definition of “militarization.” Is the number of military members, dollars, exercises, disaster-relief operations, or some other metric the proper lens through which to view DOD’s involvement in foreign affairs?  Each chapter sheds important light on the matter, and the scale and scope of the US military’s engagement with foreign partners become clearer with each author’s argument. All are convincing and create logical connections to other policy issues that result from political battles. Security cooperation touches economic on industrial policies, too, for example. Each of these policy realms calls onto stage a set of executive branch and congressional actors that expands and overlaps with security cooperation leaders. Additionally, the authors in Mission Creep largely leave foreign partners out of their analyses, yet many of our bilateral affairs are shaped by powerful allies, some asserting a “special relation” with the US that they think deserves priority within the policy establishment.  The book may not fully succeed in defining “militarization” in U.S. foreign policy, but, if it explains the varied manifestations and demonstrates the enormity of issues it raises, then it will have met the editors’ stated goal to fill gaps in our knowledge of security cooperation.  And in describing the challenging way ahead, it can also help those military members headed to duties in U.S. embassies around the world to be more attuned to their role in building international relations.

Bureaucracies are often slow to change. The authors clearly show, however, that something has changed in US policy. Their diagnoses of the problem are credible, and their arguments that this evolution has been unchallenged should give us pause as we consider the stress that the Khashoggi murder places on relationships between organizations and branches of the US government. Although this book was published in 2014, the authors’ insights and prognoses provide useful lenses through which readers can examine the current distribution of power and resources in the US foreign policy enterprise. The authors are doubtful that policy makers will find solutions to problems before they become crises. American history suggests, however, that crises are often the crucible in which solutions are formulated. Will the Khashoggi incident amount to such a crisis?  If so, we may be able to address the imbalances explained in Mission Creep. If not, then the book explains those imbalances in time to prepare us for the inevitable next crisis.

Howard G. Jones, PhD

The views expressed in the book review are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense.
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