Foreign and Defense Policy

A Big Challenge for Secretary Gates

gatesEarlier today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates delivered an important speech in Washington on the future of U.S. export control reform. In his comments, Gates set out the Obama administration’s four priority reforms: the creation of a single export control list, a single licensing agency, a single enforcement agency, and a single, unified IT structure for administering U.S. export controls. In order to undertake these fundamental reforms, Secretary Gates presented a three-step plan of, first, executive branch reforms to transition toward a single control list and licensing agency; then, second, to transition to a single IT structure; and, finally, congressional action to actually establish a single licensing and enforcement agency.

Many have been wondering over the past few months what shape the export control reforms would actually take. This speech makes clear that broad, sweeping reforms, not small band-aids, are on the table. And, the plan places a considerable onus on Congress to undertake significant legislative action.

The plan of action is comprehensive and would make fundamental changes to the U.S. export control system if implemented. Having a single list of controlled items, single export control agency, single enforcement agency, and single IT system would certainly simplify the process for administrators and exporters alike. One of the key questions is which agency will the export control function call home? Will it be State, Defense, Commerce, Homeland Security, another agency, or an independent body? Exporters might hope it may be pro-trade Commerce. National security hawks would pull for Defense. State may not immediately come to mind, given the current condition of its munitions licensing activities. And, Homeland Security—probably the most independent, given that it is not at present intricately involved in the export control licensing process—does not have military functions within its purview. Whichever is chosen will have to take on many roles it is not currently allocated. Moreover, the agency ultimately chosen must incorporate within its functions the goal of the interagency process which is supposed to undergird the current system—that U.S. national security, foreign policy, and commercial interests are all taken into account in export control licensing and other policy decisions. This will be the challenge.

This export control reform effort is ambitious and will require significant political capital both within the administration and vis-à-vis Congress to complete the three requisite phases—and all over the tight timeline of a year. To comprehend the difficulty of bringing about congressional action, we mustn’t forget that the dual-use export control statute, the Export Administration Act, which first expired in 1989, has been in lapse since 2001 and is continued by the president annually under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. Secretary Gates clearly comprehends the problems with the present system and is the driving force behind these proposed improvements. Many before him have tried and failed. If this plan comes to fruition, it may come to be known as one of his most significant achievements.

Image by eschipul.

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