The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017


this cooperation with Latin

American militaries made

SOF synonymous with sup-

port for unsavory dictators.

Today, U.S. special opera-

tors go to great lengths to

avoid such perceptions,

but close coordination of

their activities with the State

Department is critical to this

effort. As Linda Robinson observes in

Foreign Affairs

, “Navigat-

ing the failings of partner governments, as well as civil strife and

complex sectarian, ideological, or tribal conflicts, is extraordi-

narily difficult; and given the high risk of blowback, the United

States must constantly assess whether special operations partner-

ships with non-U.S. forces are, on balance, advancing or compro-

mising U.S. interests.” Despite attempts to enhance their political

awareness through specialized training, SOF personnel can

sometimes be tone-deaf to the foreign policy context in which

they operate in so many different countries, and to the conse-

quences for broader U.S. objectives. Career diplomats serving in

those countries, who understand the local history and political

culture—as well as POLADS

themselves, who often have

experience in the same

regions or countries—are

uniquely qualified to provide

the necessary guidance.

Some indirect activities

by special operations units

overlap materially with what

State and USAID programs

are designed to accomplish in a country. Especially when work-

ing in the areas of economic development, public health and

humanitarian assistance, SOF efforts inevitably stray into the

space traditionally occupied by U.S. civilian foreign affairs agen-

cies. For many, this kind of work is an essential part of diplomacy

and therefore should stay under the control of civilian agencies.

But the unfortunate reality is that while the special operations

community has ample and growing resources, State and USAID

have always labored within significant budget constraints and

now face the threat of massive outright cuts.

Ambassadors must acknowledge that the best hope for pre-

serving our ability to use “soft power” in many areas may well

Like the ethos of career

diplomats, the SOF

philosophy recognizes the

value of nurturing ties to

foreign cultures.


The author in a

helicopter with the

SOCOM commander

over the Honduran

jungle in 2013.