The Problems of a Militarized Foreign Policy for America’s Premier Intelligence Agency


This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo bragged about bringing “swagger” to State. But, considering the anemic 2020 budget proposal and vacant diplomatic postings, “bluster” might be a more apt word. For the third year in a row, the Trump administration has recommended significant cuts to the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. In the same budget proposal, the administration recommends a 5 percent increase for the Department of Defense. If Congress adopts the proposed budget, this will be the third consecutive year military spending has increased, resulting in defense consuming 57 percent of the discretionary budget. In response to the budget proposal, James Stavridis, a retired admiral and military chief of NATO, warns that excessive defense spending highlights America’s problematic foreign policy approach. Stavridis argues that diplomacy is preventive medicine that will help avoid costly surgical procedures (i.e., military operations) in the future. In Stavridis’ view, the United States has avoided the “ounce of prevention” and instead adopted a “pound of flesh” approach towards the world.

During a recent speech at Auburn University, the director of the CIA, Gina Haspel, argued that her agency has neglected state adversaries over the last 17 years to focus on the counter-terrorism fight. This was the second public speech where the director argued that a shift in CIA priorities toward adversarial nation-states is required and in America’s interest. Although seemingly two separate issues, Stavridis’ comments about excessive use of the military as a foreign policy tool and Haspel’s statements on the CIA’s need to focus more on adversarial states are actually intertwined. Over the last two decades, U.S. policymakers have turned to the military as the preferred foreign policy tool, becoming enamored with the notion that they can shape the world through force. This mindset has resulted in an overreliance on the Defense Department and ensured its dominance among national security institutions. As I argue in my new book, Subordinating Intelligence: The DoD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship, a policymaker preference for the Pentagon has resulted in the quasi-subordination of national intelligence to military operations, a reality directly linked to Haspel’s concerns. Although the militarization of U.S. foreign policy significantly increased following the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon’s influence over the CIA and national intelligence began decades earlier.

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, then-President Bill Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive (PDD) 35 — assigning intelligence support to military operations as the “highest priority” mission for the intelligence community during times of war. PDD-35 marked the end of a debate that extended back to the early 1980s about the role of national intelligence and its relationship with the Department of Defense. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Grenada and the Beirut barracks bombing, as Congress wrestled with improving interoperability among military forces, policymakers argued that the military required increased intelligence support for force protection and military planning. Even after the Goldwater-Nichols Act improved joint interoperability and the 1989 Panama invasion proved the need for interoperability, the calls to increase intelligence support to the warfighter remained constant. They grew significantly following the Gulf War when Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf, the battlefield commander, criticized the support he received from national intelligence generally and the CIA specifically. Although Schwarzkopf’s claims were not supported by other military leaders, his hero status as the victorious wartime commander provided him a platform and he became a voice that could not be ignored.

The intelligence community heeded the call and began increasing support to military operations even before the issuance of PDD-35. In the early 1990s, future secretary of defense and then-CIA Director Robert Gates established the CIA’s associate deputy director for military affairs and the Office of Military Affairs to improve “CIA’s support to military planning, exercises, and operations.” The CIA’s focus on supporting the military continued into the Clinton administration with then-Director John Deutch creating the associate directorship for military support, moving the senior military position out of the Directorate of Operations and underneath the director. The 1990s-era changes did not end with organizational moves at headquarters. The CIA sent officers to support military operations in Somalia and the Balkans. In Somalia, Larry Freedman, a CIA officer and retired special operations sergeant major, was the first U.S. casualty when his vehicle struck a land-mine. In the Balkans, the CIA established the interagency Balkans Task Force to “centralize and coordinate collection and sanctions monitoring,” while also “coordinating general military intelligence support to US policy and contingency planning and tactical intelligence support.” After the 1995 Dayton Peace Accords, the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency established a unified element to coordinate human intelligence collection efforts that were partially focused on military force-protection requirements. While the Long Commission and Congress discussed the role of CIA in collecting intelligence for force protection and military planning after the Beirut barracks bombing and Grenada, the CIA was not established for these missions. Its willingness to support this mission and its broader transition following the Gulf War critiques and the end of the Cold War highlighted a changing mindset within the agency.

By the late 1990s, some policymakers and national security experts had a concern related to Haspel’s—that the CIA’s long-term analysis on strategic issues had been neglected because of too much focus on supporting the warfighter. Government commissions such as the Aspin-Brown and the Hart-Rudman, along with private sector organizations such as Georgetown University’s Checklist for the Future of Intelligence and a Council of Foreign Relations task force, raised concerns about the subordination of national intelligence to the military. These concerns were forgotten after 9/11, as the United States shifted to global counter-terrorism efforts and policymakers increasingly focused on tactical and operational actions. Instead of being as concerned with the position of the United States in relation to Russia, China, and other world powers (where Haspel now wants to direct CIA energy), American policymakers became obsessed with defeating a nonstate actor and the tactics that actor employed. In pursuit of this objective, the CIA focused a significant amount of its resources on global counter-terrorism efforts and in support of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is important for the Defense Department and the CIA to work together, and the partnership between the two agencies after 9/11 led to operational successes, such as the killing of Osama bin Laden. Although the partnership is important and its improved relations mostly positive, there is no doubt the CIA’s increased focus on supporting military operations and toward counter-terrorism operations (two distinct, yet closely related missions) have distracted it from the type of collection activities and strategic analysis it was created to provide. This CIA shift away from strategic collection and analysis and toward more tactical operations is a symptom of what Stavridis recently critiqued: the militarization of U.S. foreign policy.

Stavridis echoed the warnings of other national security professionals that highlight a link to Haspel’s concerns. In 2008, Gates warned of the “creeping militarization” of U.S. foreign policy. Arguing that the United States “cannot kill or capture our way to victory,” Gates stated the military should take a “supporting role” to diplomats in “America’s engagement with the rest of the world.” Loch Johnson, a former staffer on both the Church Committee and the Aspin-Brown Commission and a well-known intelligence studies academic, raised a similar question in his writings: “I continued to wonder if at least a few more resources directed toward national (civilian) intelligence targets wouldn’t make the United States more effective at diplomacy and less drawn toward war fighting.”

Neither is Stavridis the first retired military leader to voice this concern. In 2013, future secretary of defense James Mattis, then a Marine Corps general, famously quipped, “if you don’t fund the State Department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition.” In 2012, Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general and former ambassador to Afghanistan, argued that the militarization of U.S. foreign policy and an unequal investment in the Defense Department over other departments resulted in the military becoming the “starting and relief pitcher for a number of foreign policy problems.” In a speech at Kansas State University in 2010, Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, articulated his concern with the Defense Department’s increasing role in foreign policy: “My fear, quite frankly, is that we aren’t moving fast enough in this regard. U.S. foreign policy is still too dominated by the military, too dependent upon the generals and admirals who lead our major overseas commands. It’s one thing to be able and willing to serve as emergency responders; quite another to always have to be the fire chief.” In an earlier interview, Mullen described a vicious cycle of policymakers turning to the military and increasing funding to the Defense Department because they have greater trust in military capability than in other agencies, and this greater funding in turn makes the military even more capable relative to other national security institutions. Instead of correcting a significant imbalance in resourcing national security capabilities, policymakers just turn to the military to handle an increasing array of missions. The military then becomes the lead while other organizations find themselves in supporting roles.

Although national security experts have been warning of the militarization of U.S. foreign policy for over a decade and the United States has little to show for nearly two decades of militarized foreign policy, Trump’s recent budget proposal raises concern that it might only get worse: As its coffers grow and others shrink, the Defense Department’s relative influence above other national security institutions will also increase. The administration will once again turn to the U.S. military to resolve foreign policy issues (also domestic issues, if the recent border controversy is any indication). And most important for the CIA, the militarized approach to policymaking could distract the CIA from shifting its attention toward the strategic focus Haspel describes — both because they will have an overly engaged military requiring intelligence support, and an executive who prefers action over understanding.


David P. Oakley is an Army strategist and currently serves as an assistant professor at National Defense University’s College of International Security Affairs. His recently published book, Subordinating Intelligence: The DoD/CIA Post-Cold War Relationship, looks at the evolution of the Defense Department–CIA relationship from the early 1980s until the official end of the global war on terrorism in 2012. Much of the material for this article was drawn from the book and/or his previous research for the book. The views in this article are entirely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views, policy, or position of the U.S. government, the Department of Defense, or the Central Intelligence Agency.

Image: James Dietz, CIA