Iraq War And Arab Spring Show U.S. Needs Better Crisis Prevention Training

Our guest blogger is Sarah Margon, associate director of sustainable security at the Center for American Progress.

With the New Year approaching, it’s a good time to take stock of the U.S. government’s response to the political upheaval throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Government officials continue to grapple with how best to balance American security interests with support for expanding democratic rights in the region. In recent important speeches, however, Hillary Clinton layed out the U.S. intention to support these transitioning countries and their citizens.

Notably absent from the conversation, though, is how the State Department and other key U.S. foreign affairs agencies can do a better job detecting –- and responding to –- crisis and conflict writ large. Such tools are essential given the increasing regularity with which political instability can emerge anywhere in the world. As the first-ever Quadrennial Defense and Development Review noted, “With the right tools, training, and leadership, our diplomats and development experts can defuse crises before they explode.” Indeed, as political dynamics around the globe continue to shift unexpectedly, preventing and responding to expensive and destructive global crises will need to be incorporated as a cornerstone of our foreign policy — not an afterthought. If the United States wants to become a more effective international player and avoid costly engagements, our diplomats and development experts need to possess the right skill set. And let the price of the just concluded Iraq war underscore the huge price to be paid when we get our analysis wrong.

While the bulk of Americans probably assume their diplomats and development experts are the best trained, they would be shocked to learn how little training these officials actually received, especially compared to those who serve in the military. In fact, former Secretary of State Colin Powell noted that he spent 6 out of his 30 years of service in the classroom. With better and more regularized training, diplomats and development experts can help advance democracy, galvanize economic growth, and strengthen the rule of law before a conflict emerges — not after. Without it, they are left making ad-hoc and reactive decisions that end up costing a whole lot more.


The newly upgraded Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations is a tremendously important first step in the State Department’s effort to “get ahead of change” -– particularly with Rick Barton as its inaugural Assistant Secretary. But if the bureau is going help ensure crisis prevention is a core consideration of policy making, it must be underpinned by a more broad-based comprehensive training initiative.

A new joint report from the Center for American Progress’ Sustainable Security Program and Humanity United — entitled “It All Starts with Training” — delineates the profound need for improved training courses and professional development opportunities at core U.S. foreign affairs agencies. As the paper makes painfully clear, the current state of conflict prevention training at both State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) remains shockingly limited, ad hoc, and uncoordinated. In fact, training has little or no link to career advancement, as opposed to our military branches, and is often seen as an inconvenience rather than an asset.

Expanded and mainstreamed crisis prevention training is certainly no foreign policy panacea, but with such a high number of countries around the globe at risk of unrest and wholesale violence, it’s high time we ensure American diplomats and development experts at least have the right tools to respond. Unless the United States can get ahead of this curve and does a better job in crisis prevention and mitigation, the costs to America — and its national interests — will remain untenable.