Clinton Goes Commando, Sells Diplomats as Shadow Warriors
TAMPA, Florida — The Special Operations Forces Industry Conference had a surprise guest on Wednesday — one that had some here scratching their heads. At a black-tie dinner following the day’s panel discussions, product displays and tech demos, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived behind a phalanx of State Department and Special Operations Command security. Clinton’s presence seemed incongruous at the gaudy Tampa Convention Center packed with weary-looking commando staffers, paunchy industry reps and chipper media handlers. Special Operations Forces are a big deal, sure, but it was still just a trade show.
Then Clinton, wearing pearls and a silver and black blouse, climbed the stage and began to speak. And soon it all made more sense. She had an idea to sell — and to defend — to some of the people she’s counting on to make it happen.
In a 30-minute speech preceding a dinner of beef tenderloin and roasted red potatoes, Clinton first heaped praise on Adm. William McRaven, chief of Special Operations Command and her host at the conference. Then she described a vision in which shadowy U.S. and allied Special Operations Forces, working hand in hand with America’s embassies and foreign governments, together play a key role preventing low-intensity conflicts. And where prevention fails, the same commando-diplomat team goes on the attack, combining the Special Operations Forces’ fighting prowess with the language and cultural skills of State Department officers.
She cited the U.S. intervention in Yemen and the American-led manhunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony in Congo as early examples. In Congo, diplomats met with Congolese officials, preparing the ground for commando manhunters months in advance. In Yemen, the State Department counters extremists’ propaganda with its own pro-government messages while Special Operations Forces partner with Yemeni troops to attack the insurgents.
This new inter-agency Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications, housed at the State Department, got into an online advertising war with the local al-Qaida affiliate recently, Clinton revealed. A couple of weeks ago, that group “began an advertising campaign on key tribal web sites bragging about killing Americans and trying to recruit new supporters. Within 48 hours, our team plastered the same sites with altered versions of the ads that showed the toll al-Qaida attacks have taken on the Yemeni people. We can tell our efforts are starting to have an impact because extremists are publicly venting their frustration and asking supporters not to believe everything they read on the internet.”
In principle what Clinton described is the same “smart power” that she’s been advocating for years — only now it’s smarter, and more powerful, than ever before. “Special Operations Forces exemplify the ethic of smart power,” she said. “Fast and flexible. Constantly adapting. Learning new languages and cultures. Dedicated to forming partnerships where we can and acting alone when we must.”
For its part, the State Department has stood up a new bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations, which Clinton said “is working to put into practice lessons learned over the past decade and institutionalize a civilian surge capacity to deal with crises and hotspots.” Together, Special Operations Forces and State’s new Conflict Bureau are the twin arms of an expanding institution for waging small, low-intensity shadow wars all over the world.
But rumor has it Clinton’s vision has its detractors — and that its implementation in hotspots such as Yemen and Congo has made some Special Operations Forces officers very unhappy. In Yemen, in particular, some commando officers look upon the State Department’s expanding shadow-war powers as a bureaucratic intrusion on what should be military territory. A source tells Danger Room that in Yemen State has effectively hijacked all U.S. counter-terrorism funding, requiring a labyrinthine approval process for even small expenditures. According to detractors, the funding control is a way of cementing State’s expansion into the Special Operations Forces traditional remit.
McRaven does not share the officers’ objections. The admiral has enthusiastically widened and deepened his command’s alliances with commando forces from allied nations — all in a bid to build what he calls the “global SOF partnership.” The Army 10th Special Forces Group’s ongoing deployment to Afghanistan is a perfect example: 10th Group’s Afghanistan task force includes commandos from Poland, Romania and several other countries. In a sense, McRaven is becoming more of a diplomat as Clinton becomes more of a warrior. Meeting in the middle, they’ve apparently chosen to be allies instead of rivals.
In that context, Clinton’s appearance at an otherwise minor military trade show is an important signal. McRaven is showing his officers that if he and America’s top diplomat can get along, then they can get along with their own State Department counterparts, as well. An evolving vision of American warfare is counting on it.