Stay in Your Lane: The US Military and the Interagency Community

By: Brian Hayes, Columnist

Photo Credit: Department of Defense

Admiral Kurt Tidd wants to be South America’s top cop. Tidd, the commander of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), is not content to focus on military activities. Instead, Tidd wants SOUTHCOM to target criminal networks throughout the theater in order to “detect, illuminate, [and] disrupt” criminal activities. Tidd—a US Navy officer—also wants to support South America’s police officers, lawyers, and judges.[i] He recently stressed the need for “engagement” in areas such as city neighborhoods and prisons.[ii]

According to his official Navy biography, Admiral Tidd holds a master’s degree in political science, speaks French, and has commanded a destroyer, a destroyer squadron, and a carrier strike group. Notably absent are any experiences in law or law enforcement.[iii] It would seem ridiculous for a Colombian prosecutor, Peruvian police officer, or Brazilian judge to propose to train the US Navy. One might ask what qualifies an American sailor to improve legal administration or policing in South America, or exactly how the US military should “engage” in South American cities.

Yet SOUTHCOM’s desire to do these things should not be a surprise because—these days—the US military does just about everything.[iv] This includes the performance of tasks traditionally associated with the State Department’s public diplomacy campaigns, or with US Agency for International Development (USAID) assistance efforts. Military information support operations teams in Peru have crafted messages “to publicize the government’s efforts to support impoverished communities.”[v] Special operations forces in Europe conduct information operations and civil affairs actions “focused on humanitarian activities.”[vi] More than 2,000 military personnel deployed to West Africa to combat Ebola,[vii] and as of October 2017, more than 13,000 military personnel were involved in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts in Puerto Rico.[viii] As Tidd’s comments demonstrate, the armed forces are also increasingly focused on overseas law enforcement. However, although combatting drugs, disease, and disaster may be in the US national interest, it does not necessarily follow that military power is the right tool for every job.

Of course, military capabilities are sometimes quite useful in addressing humanitarian crises and disrupting criminal networks. For example, US naval vessels quickly move relief supplies, search and rescue aircraft, and fully equipped operating rooms in response to disasters in or near coastal areas. This vital capability exists nowhere else in government. Other military capabilities, such as surveillance aircraft and intelligence collection platforms, augment law enforcement agencies’ efforts to interdict drugs en route to the United States. Such common-sense uses of military power to support non-military objectives should continue.

However, policymakers should ask hard questions about the degree to which the armed forces have taken leading roles in traditionally civilian-led missions, such as development and public diplomacy. Military personnel typically have little expertise in these areas. In Afghanistan, the US armed forces tried their hand at economic development, frequently failing to coordinate with the US Agency for International Development. “Unsurprisingly”—as the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction observed—DOD didn’t have much expertise in economic development and many of its projects failed.”[ix] In Liberia, a US military task force ignored the advice of public health experts and spent hundreds of millions of dollars on Ebola treatment centers that proved essentially useless.[x] Proposed DOD “strategic communication” to counter violent extremism presents another questionable use of military power: why should Army psychological operations personnel conduct what is essentially public diplomacy?[xi] Although in some cases the US military has voluntarily stepped into these roles, it is also important to recognize policymakers’ partial responsibility for the military’s encroachment into traditionally civilian activities. When civilian agencies lose funding while defense budgets remain steady, the military may take on new roles in order to fill the gaps.[xii]

In similarly misguided efforts to those above, SOUTHCOM has proposed to work with foreign law enforcement. Most US military personnel know little about policing—a point illustrated by an officer’s recent admission that he watched television cop shows to prepare for an assignment training Afghan police.[xiii] Civilian US federal law enforcement agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have long operated in key South American countries, and their agents have substantial training and experience in criminal investigation and prosecution. The Departments of Justice and State also operate training and assistance programs for foreign prosecutors and law enforcement officers. If the United States wants to support South American law enforcement more aggressively, it should assign the task to these civilian agencies, not the US military.

“Stay in your lane,” a common US military saying, is a metaphor for staying focused on one’s own task instead of trying to do someone else’s. Military officers are not police or prosecutors and should not try to become them. SOUTHCOM and its counterparts should stay in their lanes.

[i] John Grady, “Tidd: SOUTHCOM is Shifting from Tactical to Strategic Outlook in Illegal Trafficking Fight,” USNI News, August 30, 2017,

[ii] John Grady, “Adm. Tidd: SOUTHCOM, NORTHCOM, Neighbors Must Collaborate to Solve Regional Challenges,” USNI News, October 19, 2017,

[iii] “United States Navy Biography, Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, Commander, U.S. Southern Command,” updated March 8, 2016,

[iv] Rosa Brooks, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

[v] US Department of Defense, Joint Publication 3-13.2, Military Information Support Operations, (Washington, D.C.: US Government Printing Office, 2015, IV-10.

[vi] US Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, “National Defense Authorization Act for 2009,” 110th Congress, 2nd Session, 2008,

[vii] “DoD Releases Breakdown of Ebola Response Effort,” Defense Media Activity, January 8, 2015,

[viii] Cheryl Pellerin, “Puerto Rico Response Continues With More Than 13,000 Personnel,” Defense Media Activity, October 10, 2017,

[ix] John Sopko, “Lessons from Afghanistan: The Need for a Whole-of-Government Approach,
Speech at Columbia University, October 16, 2017,

[x] Norimisu Onishi, “Empty Ebola Clinics in Liberia Are Seen as Misstep in U.S. Relief Effort,” New York Times, April 11, 2015,

[xi] US Department of Defense, Task Force on Department of Defense Strategy to Counter Violent Extremism Outside of the United States, (Washington, D.C.: Defense Science Board, 2015),

[xii] Nahal Toosi and Burgess, Everett, “Source: Trump wants 37 percent budget cut to State, USAID,” Politico, February 28, 2017,

[xiii] Shawn Snow, “US military officers relied on TV cop shows to train Afghan police,” Military Times, September 21, 2017,

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