Tag: state department

On Benghazi, the Buck Stops with Hillary

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will face the wrong questions when she testifies today on the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi. The buck stops with Secretary Clinton—and it should. But members of Congress will focus on politically charged and distracting issues. The terrorist attack on the consulate was abhorrent. However, a broader discussion about the NATO-led regime change in Libya—and its unfolding political aftermath in Mali—would be a better use of Congress’s time. The consequences of intervention should not be ignored, and its antecedents must be explored.

Secretary Clinton was among the handful of U.S. and European officials who urged Western military action in Libya, a mission that entangled the United States in yet another volatile, post-revolutionary Muslim country, and accelerated neighboring Mali’s destabilization. North Africa’s vortex of Islamist crosscurrents has now sucked America and France into Mali. Indeed, the reverberations of NATO-led regime change in Libya impelled U.S. and French involvement in Mali. Like the conflict in Libya, France cannot do the heavy lifting in Mali on its own. Senators should ask: How far will the conflict in Mali go? Will the United States end up holding the broken pieces once again? Is America now “leading from behind”?

Furthermore, Congress should ask Secretary Clinton about how the White House shamelessly recast the word “war” into “kinetic military operations.” That Orwellian revisionism allowed the administration to side step the War Powers Act and bypass congressional authorization. In the course of supposedly demonstrating America’s selflessness in the promotion of democracy abroad, the administration compromised the integrity of our institutions at home. In that respect, the Libyan adventure has added to the steady aggrandizement of America’s imperial presidency

Secretary Clinton probably won’t go into any of that, and pitchfork wielding senators likely won’t ask her about those far-reaching consequences.

Thoughts on Little America and Afghanistan

I recently finished reading Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan. The entire book is terrific. I highly recommend it. But one chapter in particular—Chapter 7, “Deadwood”—spoke to some of the things that my colleagues and I have written over the years concerning America’s nation-building problems.

Most Americans have by now moved on from the war in Afghanistan (even though the U.S. military has not) and are focused on, in President Obama’s words, “nation building here at home.” But we still haven’t closed the book on the theories of nation building that arose after 9/11, including the belief that the United States needs to repair failed states, or rescue failing ones, lest terrorists from these states travel thousands of miles to attack Americans. Last month, for example, Mitt Romney’s senior foreign policy adviser Richard Williamson praised Bill Clinton’s nation-building adventures in Bosnia and Kosovo. Williamson told NPR’s Audie Cornish that the U.S. government must “help in reconciliation, reconstruction, helping institutions of law and order, security be built” after authoritarian regimes collapse. From the belief that we must repair failed states flows logically the belief that we can.

These beliefs are, in fact, myths. Cato has published many different papers, articles, and book chapters challenging the claim that fighting terrorism, or preserving U.S. security generally, requires us to engage in nation building abroad. We have been equally emphatic on the point that our efforts are likely to fail, no matter how well intentioned. Little America provides additional evidence to support that argument, although I doubt that was Chandrasekaran’s object.

Take, for example, the case of Summer Coish, the striking and extraordinarily motivated woman who wanted to go to Afghanistan so badly that she appealed directly to Richard Holbrooke. She got her wish—eventually. Despite the fact that the president’s designated point person on Afghanistan and Pakistan had marked her for the fast track, it took 14 months before she was cleared to travel to there.

Once she arrived, Coish’s dream of helping the Afghans emerge from decades of war and desperate poverty crashed against the reality of a soul-crushing bureaucracy. Security regulations made it nearly impossible for Coish and other civilians to regularly interact with Afghans, and few embassy staffers exhibited any desire to do so. “It’s rare that you ever hear someone say they’re here because they want to help the Afghans,” Coish told Chandrasekaran after she had been there a few months. Instead, Chandrasekaran observes, “everyone seemed bent on departure.”

The work itself was painfully dull. Coish concluded that most of it could have been accomplished in Washington, at far less cost to the taxpayers. The reason for the costly in-country presence? The need to count them as part of the vaunted “civilian surge.”

Coish and a handful of other dedicated civilians that Chandrasekaran writes about—including Kael Weston, an experienced political adviser to Marine General Larry Nicholson, and Carter Malkasian, the State Department’s representative in Helmand’s Garmser district—could not make up for the lack of ability (or desire) on the part of many other civilians (i.e. the deadwood). “It seems our best and brightest have burned out long ago and we’re getting the straphangers these days,” Marc Chretien, a senior State Department official in Helmand province, wrote to the embassy. “Or, as one wag put it, ‘they’re just along for the chow.’ No need to go into details here—let’s just say that there’s enough deadwood here that it’s becoming a fire hazard.”

At times, Chandrasekaran’s assessment of the civilian surge exhibits an oddly optimistic tone. I say “odd” because this is the same person who brilliantly documented the dysfunction of the Bush administration’s nation-building fiasco in Iraq (in Imperial Life in the Emerald City), but who can’t bring himself to say that Obama’s mission in Afghanistan couldn’t possibly succeed. Despite everything that he has seen, Chandrasekaran often reflects a belief that it all could have worked out (or that it still might) were it not for the “lack of initiative and creativity in Washington.”

Instead of scouring the United States for top talent to fill the crucial, well-paying jobs that were a key element of Obama’s national security agenda, those responsible for hiring first turned to State Department and USAID officers in other parts of the world. But the best of them had already served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Many of those who signed up were too new to have done a tour in a war zone or too lackluster to have better career options.

Pray-tell, where would the government have found such people? Or, more precisely, how would the government convince those already gainfully employed to set aside their careers, homes, and families to embark upon an Afghan adventure? What additional incentives—or threats—might have sufficed to mobilize the vast army of talented agronomists, lawyers, biologists, teachers, doctors, civil engineers, etc. who were not already motivated (as Coish, Weston and Malkasian were)?

Several years ago, I co-authored with Ben Friedman and Harvey Sapolsky a paper on the lessons of Iraq. Our research was informed by Chandrasekaran’s narrative from the Iraqi Green Zone, and a number of other books on the Bush administration’s signature foreign policy initiative. Here is what we said (the prose in this case is almost certainly Friedman’s; I’m not this clever) about the American people’s disinclination to embark on nation-building missions abroad.

A concerted effort to improve our collective nation-building skills would require “a foreign policy at odds with our national character.”

Reading through the proposals for rapidly deployable bureaucrats to help run failing states, one usually searches in vain for the pages where the author justifies the creation of an empire and a colonial service to run it. Whatever else changed after September 11, [Americans]…are ill-suited for stabilizing disorderly states and achieving success in protracted foreign wars.

The State Department’s budget, including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), we explained, “is tiny because its aim is to relate to foreign nations, not to run them.”

National security organizations are formed by decades of budgets and decisions. Their organizational politics…reflect…lasting national interests, namely a disinclination to subjugate foreign peoples and lose unnecessary wars….Americans have historically looked askance at the small wars European powers fought to maintain their imperial holdings, viewing those actions as illiberal and unjust. Misadventures like Vietnam are the exceptions that make the rule. It is no accident that U.S. national security organizations are not designed for occupation duties. When it comes to nation building, brokering civil and ethnic conflict, and waging counterinsurgency, we are our own worst enemy, and that is a sign of our lingering common sense.

To repeat, Little America is a first-class read, and I hope that the book receives the attention it deserves. The anecdotes about Coish, Weston, and Malkasian, as well as countless stories about brave soldiers and Marines trying their best every day to make Afghanistan a better place, are heartwarming. We honor their service, and we should find other avenues for these people to perform their work, chiefly through NGOs, unencumbered by the massive federal bureaucracy.

But good intentions cannot distract us from the bleak reality: building a functioning nation-state in Afghanistan would require hundreds of thousands of equally dedicated civilians, to go along with a massive troop presence to protect them, tens of billions of dollars every year, and a commitment to remain in country for decades.

We aren’t going to do that. We should stop pretending that we will.

U.S. Bends to Protests in Pakistan

To contain mass protests in Pakistan over a now infamous anti-Islamic film, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear in a $70,000, U.S.-funded ad on Pakistani television denouncing the film and saying America “respects all faiths.”

This joint White House-State Department effort seems terribly misguided, as I would wager that Pakistanis are angrier with Washington dropping bombs on their domes—both cranial and architectural. But what makes this public relations endeavor particularly ill conceived is that, on a basic level, the U.S. Government should be taking this opportunity to promote one of its core foundational principles: the free speech of private citizens.

The ad does not do that. It instead emphasizes America’s tolerance for religious freedom without reference to other fundamental rights. I recognize that Obama and Clinton not only want to stop the anti-American protests, but also challenge the misconception that private and public speech in America are essentially one and the same. But when demonstrators in Peshawar are burning movie theaters and setting fire to posters of female movie stars, our leaders convey the impression that they are kowtowing to radicals. (It should be noted that the savagery perpetrated by radicals in the Muslim world disgusts many moderate Muslims.)

It is bad enough that Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has asked its American counterpart to have the anti-Islamic film removed from YouTube. It would be worse if Washington fulfilled that expectation by obliging. As writer Salman Rushdie has said of the protests more generally, free speech is at risk because “religious extremists of all stripes” attack people who criticize beliefs.

Americans live under a different set of laws and customs and should never be scared into bending to extremists. And, however offensive the film mocking Mohammed was, there is no excuse for the violent behavior on display.

Senate Report Slams Nation-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

As confirmed by yet another U.S. government report, this one prepared by the Democratic majority staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, America’s nation-building mission in Afghanistan has had little success in creating an economically viable and politically independent Afghan state.

The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes:

The report also warns that the Afghan economy could slide into a depression with the inevitable decline of the foreign military and development spending that now provides 97 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. [Emphasis added]

U.S. leaders could look at that statistic and justify prolonging the mission. In fact, the report suggests, “Afghanistan could suffer a severe economic depression when foreign troops leave in 2014 unless the proper planning begins now.” Ironically, “proper planning” is the problem. The belief that outside planning can promote stability and growth has the potential to leave behind exactly the opposite.

While no one would deny that Afghanistan looks a lot better than it did in 2001, there’s a reason why American leaders might be sorely disappointed with the outcome when the coalition begins handing off responsibility to Afghans. As the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan warned last week in a separate report, “the United States faces new waves of waste in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Without adequate planning to pay for ongoing operations and maintenance, U.S.-funded reconstruction projects in both countries will likely fall into disrepair.

The core problem is that top-down development strategies often deepen, rather than strengthen, a foreign country’s dependence on the international donor community. My colleague, development expert Ian Vasquez, once wrote, “Providing development assistance to such countries may improve the apparent performance of foreign aid, but it may also help to create dependence and delay further reform, problems that have long plagued official development assistance.” [Emphasis added]

Indeed, complaints about America’s presence in Afghanistan typically focus on troop levels; rarely discussed is the way in which foreign-led development schemes can deprive locals of the experience of planning projects, managing funds, and procuring goods: what they call in the industry, “building local capacity.” As my friend Joe Storm and I wrote a while back, “US-government contractors are mired in mismanagement and failure, perpetuating dependence at best. Even the Senate Foreign Relations Committee admits, “Donor practices of hiring Afghans at inflated salaries have drawn otherwise qualified civil servants away from the Afghan Government and created a culture of aid dependency.”

Dependence, of course, is only one of many problems. According to the report:

Foreign aid, when misspent, can fuel corruption, distort labor and goods markets, undermine the host government’s ability to exert control over resources, and contribute to insecurity.

Because development is plagued with inadequate oversight, many development contracts are dispersed independently of the quality of services provided. During a trip to Afghanistan some time ago, I heard story after story about development projects being abandoned before completion, American-built schools without teachers to staff them, and billions of dollars charged to American taxpayers for unfinished work that leave Afghans disillusioned. Naturally, turning our mission in Afghanistan into one of limitless scope and open-ended duration perpetuates this massive fraud and waste.

So, who’s at fault? Ourselves. Recall the December 5, 2001 Bonn Agreement, which proclaimed the international community’s determination to “end the tragic conflict in Afghanistan and promote national reconciliation, lasting peace, stability and respect for human rights in the country.” We’ve set the bar so incredibly high for a country that lacks the fundamental criteria intrinsic to the Westphalia model: (a) a legitimate host nation government (b) that possesses secure and internationally recognized borders, and (c) wields a monopoly on the use of force. None of these criteria exist. So far, we are 0-3: 0 wins, 3 losses.

With this latest report from members of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, we are reminded yet again not only of the importance of scaling down lofty expectations, but also recognizing the unintended consequences produced by the noblest of aims. Sadly, given the corruption and dependency we’ll leave in our wake, without an introspective self-critique of our policies, America could turn Afghanistan into Central Asia’s Haiti.

Not the Transparency I Was Hoping For

The Obama administration’s record on open government isn’t so hot, but the State Department expects the utmost in transparency from anyone applying for a passport. Here are the details on a proposed passport application:

The proposed new  Form DS-5513 asks for all addresses since birth; lifetime employment history including employers’ and supervisors names, addresses, and telephone numbers; personal details of all siblings; mother’s address one year prior to your birth; any “religious ceremony” around the time of birth; and a variety of other information.  According to the proposed form, “failure to provide the information requested may result in … the denial of your U.S. passport application.”

This document is only intended for those who do not have a birth certificate, so additional scrutiny is warranted. But compliance with the form is a mixture of the difficult and the impossible. Security clearances generally only require employment and residence information going back seven or ten years, but this form asks for a lifetime accounting of both. Providing details on the circumstances of your birth is asking a lot - but a listing of pre-natal appointments?

To cap it off, the State Department estimates that the average person will only require 45 minutes to compile the information for this form.

On Not Leaving Iraq

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq expects to have 17,000 people on his staff after the United States “withdraws” from Iraq at the end of the year, he told the Senate this week. This is astounding. A typical American embassy in a small country might have 100 employees, in a big country such as Great Britain or Russia maybe a few hundred. A staff of 17,000 (including contractors) is not an embassy, it’s an occupation force. Or at least a viceroy’s staff. Here’s the Washington Post report:

The top U.S. diplomat in Iraq on Tuesday defended the size and cost of the State Department’s operations in that country, telling lawmakers that a significant diplomatic footprint will be necessary after the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of this year.

James F. Jeffrey, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that his staff of 8,000 will grow in the coming year to about 17,000 people, the vast majority of whom will be contractors.

And while the State Department is spending about $2 billion annually on Iraq operations now, it plans to spend an additional $1 billion on the construction of facilities in each of the next several years….

We’re spending $2 billion a year now on State Department operations in Iraq alone, and we intend to spend $1 billion a year on construction for some years to come. That’s some withdrawal! I know that when Sen. Barack Obama asked to be entrusted with the presidency by repeatedly saying, “I will bring this war to an end in 2009. It is time to bring our troops home,” he only said “troops.” But I can’t believe that the voters who heard him anticipated leaving thousands of Americans and spending billions of dollars in Iraq for many years.

If members of Congress are looking for ways to cut a trillion-dollar deficit, they might look at our construction and employment and nation-building plans in Iraq.

Wikileaks Sheds Light on Government Ineptitude

For years I have told anybody who would listen how U.S. efforts to stabilize Afghanistan contribute to Pakistan’s slow-motion collapse. Well it appears that my take on the situation was not so over-the-top. Amid some 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables released by online whistleblower Wikileaks, former U.S. ambassador to Pakistan Anne W. Patterson warned in cable traffic that U.S. policy in South Asia “risks destabilizing the Pakistani state, alienating both the civilian government and the military leadership, and provoking a broader governance crisis without finally achieving the goal.”

On one level, this cable underscores what a disaster American foreign policy has become. But on another level, the leak of this and other cables strikes me as completely odd and slightly scary. How did Pfc. Bradley Manning, who stands accused of stealing the classified files from Siprnet and handing them to Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, obtain access to these files in the first place? How does a young, low-level Army intelligence analyst gain access to a computer with hundreds of thousands of classified documents from all over the world?

After 9/11, the government made an effort to link up separate archives of government information. In theory, anyone in the State Department or the U.S. military can access these archives if he has: (1) a computer connected to Siprnet, and (2) a “secret” security clearance. As Manning told a fellow hacker: “I would come in with music on a CD-RW labeled with something like ‘Lady Gaga’ … erase the music … then write a compressed split file. No one suspected a thing… [I] listened and lip-synched to Lady Gaga’s ‘Telephone’ while exfiltrating possibly the largest data spillage in American history.” Manning said he “had unprecedented access to classified networks 14 hours a day 7 days a week for 8+ months.”

I’m all for less government secrecy, particularly when U.S. officials are doing bizarre things like tabulating the biometric data of various UN officials, the heads of other international institutions, and African heads of state. That these supposedly “confidential” communications were so easily leaked highlights the appalling ineptitude of our unwieldy national security bureaucracy. Indeed, the phenomenon of Wikileaks says as much about government policy as it does about government incompetence.