A new team of U.S. bureaucrats stands at the ready

The United States bumbled into Iraq without much of a postwar plan. There were too few troops to secure the country, and the U.S. authorities often lacked the civilian experts to get things up and running again. So key jobs fell to inexperienced Republican apparatchiks or just about anyone the Coalition Provisional Authority could get its hands on. That's how 20-somethings with no experience in finance wound up running Iraq's $13 billion budget (their names were plucked from a job-application page on the conservative Heritage Foundation's Web site) and setting up Baghdad's new stock exchange. Embarrassed by the disasters that resulted (and by grumbling from more-experienced hands), U.S. officials eventually realized they had to come up with a better system for training and deploying seasoned civilians in future conflicts.

So was born one of Washington's wonkiest, most mockable and most important new agencies since 9/11. Known as the Office for the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization, its goal is to become the civilian equivalent of the U.S. military's Special Forces. "We went into Iraq and Afghanistan, and our military proved very efficient at dealing with the bad guys," says John E. Herbst, the former ambassador to Ukraine and Uzbekistan who now runs the agency, which came together in 2005. But the U.S. also had to ensure stability and technocratic competence, "and our efforts to do that proved to be very difficult." Troops aren't trained to govern; the CPA needed bureaucrats.

To provide them, Herbst's new office has collected experts from throughout the federal government in a Civilian Response Corps (CRC). It's a kind of temp agency for specialists, deploying them whenever they're needed to help unstable governments. Beverly DeWalt, a Foreign Service officer and CRC member, was sent to Kosovo in the months before that nation declared independence to help synchronize its laws with international standards. After Kosovar independence, DeWalt was dispatched to a provincial reconstruction team outside Kabul in order to help make municipal government more democratic and transparent. She erected a police recruiting station and helped broker a deal between local clans.

But Herbst's most dramatic new unit is the CRC standby force, only now being assembled. It will rope in, for example, contract-law authorities from the Justice Department, monetary policymakers from the Treasury Department, civil-military-affairs specialists from the Defense Department, linguists from the State Department and botanists from the Department of Agriculture, all ready to respond to disaster at a moment's notice. That way, if, say, the Burmese junta collapses, Washington could assemble a team in hours to fly over and show locals how—without any centralized government—to package, ship and deliver new rice crops to markets on the other side of the country.

To prepare for such contingencies, CRC officials have gamed out exactly what they would do in various regions around the world should calamity hit. They won't say exactly where, because they worry it will frighten local governments about the possibility of an invasion. But it's a safe bet they're looking at current conflict zones (like Congo, Pakistan, Sudan) and teetering strongmen (like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or Burma's Than Shwe).

The idea, says Herbst, is to ensure that "next time we find ourselves in a stability operation, we'll have the flexibility, smoothness and civilians with the right skills to run it." As he puts it, "the post–Cold War world has been characterized by the unique problem of failed states. There were always ungoverned spaces, but in this world—with integrated economies and integrated communications and lethal technologies—an ungoverned space can pose a lethal problem." And the best way to prevent that is to have competent, nonpolitical experts ready to parachute in.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the CRC program, however, is not its size and scope—250 active corpsmen and women, 2,000 on standby and 2,000 on reserve—or its budget, which at just $250 million means that it could do stabilization cheaper than the military. Rather, it's who set it up. Not Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, the "smart power" team that promised a subtle and nonbellicose approach to international affairs. It was then–defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld and then–secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, the Bushies who bungled reconstruction and stabilization in the first place—another sign of how even Bush administration diehards managed to learn from their early mistakes.