The oft-repeated pop psychology definition of mental illness– doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results– pretty much sums up America’s limp efforts at reconstruction, nation building, hearts and minds, counterinsurgency, whatever tag you choose.
Efforts failed spectacularly and expensively in Iraq and (ongoing) in Afghanistan, and just as significantly, though more quietly, in Libya. With Obama having morphing into McCain like an old werewolf movie scene and calling for more wrath in Syria or wherever, it is obvious that the U.S. intends to stay in the nation building business.
The Return of the Jedi
One guy with some experience in the trade thinks he has a better idea of how to do this. Stuart Bowen was the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) and produced a series of reports that year-by-year carefully documented America’s failure in Iraq to reconstruct much of anything. Whereas in my own book, We Meant WellI sought to document such failures on the local scale, Bowen’s assessments were Jedi-like, sweeping and Iraq-wide. Through the seemingly endless years of that war, Bowen shouted into the darkness about the waste, fraud and corruption in Iraq. His organization actively sought criminal prosecutions of those doing the wasting and the corrupting. This guy was born with both fists up, and good for him about that.
In a working document Bowen’s office shared with me, the story is this:
Who should be accountable for planning, managing, and executing stabilization and reconstruction operations (SROs)? The U.S. government’s existing approach provides no clear answer. Responsibilities for SROs are divided among several agencies, chiefly the Department of State, the Department of Defense, and the United States Agency for International Development. As a result, lines of responsibility and accountability are not well-defined.
The lack of an established SRO management system forced the U.S. government to respond to challenges in Iraq through a series of ad hoc agencies that oversaw stabilization and reconstruction activities with—unsurprisingly—generally unsatisfactory outcomes.
A New Hope
Bowen suggest a new solution, comprising a collection of targeted operational reforms and the creation of an integrated management office— the U.S. Office for Contingency Operations (USOCO)— that would be accountable for planning and executing SROs. You can read more details about his proposed new agency.
As almost an air-tight endorsement of the idea, both State and Defense oppose it. Bowen explained that both agencies believe that the existing management structure, which diffuses duties between and among varying agencies, is preferable to implementing a new, consolidated system. State believes that SRO problems chiefly arise from insufficient resources and not management weaknesses (Note: A lack of money, and not management problems, is State’s default answer to nearly everything from failure in Iraq to failure in Benghazi).
The Empire Strikes Out
While the reality is that just about nobody in Congress will support creation of a new government entity in the current political climate, the Obama Administration remains hell-bent to do some more nation building. If nothing new is tried (that mental illness definition again!) nothing new will happen. Failure is assured. Again. Bowen’s idea is worth looking into as a possible way to break the loop.
At the same time, a new organization sitting around the table with no purpose other than to tuck into reconstruction may be more dangerous that you think. The bureaucratic rules of evolution that govern Washington say any organization, once spun up, will seek more resources and more reasons to continue to exist. Would having a new office for SRO work simply create another strong voice inside government in favor of more SRO operations?
The jury is still out on how best to proceed. The best way to win at Fight Club is not to get into it in the first place. Is it too much to dream that maybe the U.S. will just stop invading and intervening abroad, and perhaps create an office designated to reconstructing America instead?
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
According to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Convening Authorities can reduce or eliminate a convicted soldier’s sentence. They use this power when they feel the court martial failed to deliver justice. As Commanding General of the Military District of Washington, Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan is the only other individual besides President Obama (and there ain’t no joy there unless Manning qualifies as a Syrian kid) with the power to lessen Pvt. Manning’s sentence.
This process is not new, nor unique. Though a slightly different judicial procedure, the Air Force Court of Criminal Appeals only in June of this year reduced the sentence of a former Ramstein Air Base staff sergeant who advertised babysitting services to gain access to three young girls he repeatedly sexually assaulted. Staff Sgt. Joshua A. Smith’s sentence was reduced such that Smith, 30, would be eligible for parole after a decade or more. The appellate judges, in their written opinion, said that despite the heinousness of Smith’s crimes against the girls — ages 3, 4 and 7 — the sentence handed down in November 2010 by military judge Col. Dawn R. Eflein and approved by the Third Air Force commander was “unduly severe.”
If you wish to add your voice to the many now asking for Manning’s sentence to be reduced, the instructions on how to do so are straightforward.
Here is what I wrote:
Major General Jeffrey S. Buchanan
Commanding General, U.S. Army Military District of Washington, DC
I write to request that as the Convening Authority in the case of U.S. v. Bradley E. Manning you move to reduce Pvt. Manning’s sentence to time served. Pvt. Manning has, in the course of several difficult years of confinement, taken responsibility for his actions and has been punished.
As the leader of a State Department Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq, I was embedded with the 10th Mountain Division, 2nd Brigade at Forward Operating Base (FOB) Hammer at the same time Manning was deployed there (though we never met.) I worked closely with Colonel Miller and his team to implement U.S. goals, and came away with great respect for him and his officers, and the enlisted men and women of the Commandos.
At the same time, I experienced first-hand the austere conditions at FOB Hammer, and the difficult lives the soldiers led. As you are aware, one young soldier tragically took his own life early in the deployment at Hammer. Many veteran soldiers, some who served in the Balkans, also talked about the rough conditions at our FOB. I saw that at times computer security was imperfect. While none of this excuses Pvt. Manning (nor should it; he himself has plead guilty to multiple counts), it does in part help explain it. I ask that you consider these factors in your decision.
As a State Department employee, I had access to the same databases Pvt. Manning in part disclosed, and back in Washington played a small roll in State’s “damage review.” I thus know better than most outsiders what Pvt. Manning did and, significantly, did not disclose, and am in a position to assess dispassionately the impact. As the State Department and the DoD reluctantly concluded at Manning’s trial, little if any verifiable damage was indeed done to the United States. There is no denying that the disclosures were embarrassing and awkward, but that is not worth most of a man’s life.
Justice elevates us all, and reflects well on our beloved nation. The revenge inherent in a 35 year sentence against Pvt. Manning does not.
Peter Van Buren
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Since the government is shut down and thus there is no news to report except that the government is shut down, we’ll have to reach into the memory hole for something to talk about today. Ah, here’s one…
The House Appropriations Committee approved on July 24 an $8 billion cut for 2014 in the roughly $50 billion current international affairs (State and USAID) budget. That same day, the House authorized only a $5 billion reduction in the defense budget of over $600 billion.
The Department of State did not sit ideally by.
The employee association (AFSA for you State people still paying dues to them for this garbage) commissioned a guy who had already written a happy-talk book about State (“America’s Other Army,” give us a break) to interview all of 28 Congressional staffers about their attitudes toward Mother State. The author concluded: “an overwhelming majority (82%) described their experience with the Foreign Service and Department of State as ‘mostly positive.’ Respondents view Foreign Service members as dedicated, intelligent and patriotic public servants who make significant sacrifices…” Awesome. Sounds like an ad on Match.com
The author of the survey then went on ForeignPolicy.com to write a journalist-like article about his own work. Maybe Foreign Policy will next allow authors to review their own books? Sign me up, and hey, good luck with that paywall Foreign Policy.
About that Survey
That anyone at State paid for a survey that reached only 28 staffers out of the thousands on the Hill is in itself hilarious. There are approximately 11,692 personal staff, 2,492 committee staff, 274 leadership staff, 5,034 institutional staff, and 3,500 GAO employees, 747 CRS employees, and 232 CBO employees on the Hill. So basing anything on only 28 interviews is enough to make one wonder what FP.com’s journalistic standards are. Very sad.
Oh yes– the 28 were selected by the author himself, not randomly. About the only bone he throws is that they were half Democrat and half Republican, which itself makes no sense given the variation even within parties.
Here’s a taste if you don’t have the stomach to read the whole thing: One of the survey’s findings is supposedly that Congressional staffers feel that “Content about diplomacy and the Foreign Service should be included in the middle school and high school curriculum.” Sure, sure, squeeze that in between gym and drivers ed.
The author’s broader argument, that basically Congress does not know what State does and thus undervalues, is funnier than his grasp of statistical methods.
Congress knows; they just think State does not do much of importance. Members and their staff travel regularly abroad, where they see State Department diplomats act as their tour guides and bag carriers. As a young diplomat in London, I was assigned to accompany so many Congressional spouses on shopping trips masquerading as official business that my colleagues called me “Ambassador to Harrod’s Department Store.” Meanwhile, a well-briefed Defense Congressional liaison sits on the gratis military-rpovided plane for every overseas Congressional visit as a respected peer, with hours in the air to score talking points. State handles the luggage on the ground as the Defense Liaison boards the limo to the hotel. Congress knows.
When Committees ask for quick answers from State, they get delays followed by verbatim content-free responses. Subpoenas had to be issued to get State people up to the Hill on Benghazi, and even the Secretary of State had a cascading series of “reasons” not to testify until her last days in office.
So Congress knows.
On the Hill
I worked as one (in 2006) of only two State Department Congressional liaisons to assist all members of both the House and Senate. State was the last Cabinet-level agency to open a liaison office on the Hill, and only then in 2001 (by contrast, the military has had people on the Hill since the early part of the 20th century.) We were the only Cabinet-level liaison office without a dedicated web site. I was not even issued a cell phone and was not given a Blackberry to respond to emails outside the office; staffers just left voice messages for me to pick up Monday morning if I was in the office.
We never gave briefings. State did not pay into a collective fund and so we could not reserve rooms ourselves for meetings. Instead, one of my official duties was to cajole interns on the Foreign Relations Committee to do it on our behalf. We were prohibited from doing any substantial interaction. Instead, 80 percent of the inquiries into my office were demands for visa and passport favors. Most of the other 20 percent were minor administrative things related to Congressional travel. In my year only one actual Member appeared in our office, to say a polite thank you for a U.S. visa facilitated for a well-to-do foreign friend. Congress knew just what we did.
Full disclosure: I was removed from the liaison job after I told staffers the truth about the 2006 Passport Crisis instead of passing on State’s wholly-false talking points. Refusing to lie to Congress is what gets you in trouble at State.
One issue the State Department just can’t get past is the need for realistic self-criticism. They just can’t do it. State instead runs a large “public diplomacy” operation at taxpayer expense in large part to promote itself, and spends tremendous energy on telling itself what a fine job it is doing.
As for reality, Congress expresses itself (yeah I know, for better or worse) in what it funds and what it does not. So the author of all this tripe may wish to take a pause from his defacto job as State Department stenographer and admit: Congress votes against State because indeed Congress knows exactly what they get for their money: America’s Concierge Abroad.
Copyright © 2013. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!
Today, our guest is long-time friend of this blog, Charlie Sherpa. Sherpa runs his own blog at Red Bull Rising. It’s one of the best milblogs out there, and always worth your time. This guest piece tells of how we can help save some of the Iraqis and Afghans who served as interpreters (‘Terps to the trade) during our adventures in their countries. These folks saved regular Americans’ lives in many cases, and helped us make the best of the crappy situation our national leaders flung us into. Many of them did this at great personal risk, and they were promised in return that they would get visas to the U.S. for themselves and their immediate families. This would save their lives from the revenge and retribution that is even now sweeping through their countries as the U.S. once again grows tired of another quagmire and abandons it.
Not such a surprise as much as an expectation, America’s promise to give them visas had as much validity as what drunk men say to drunk women they pick up from a bar. The next morning it all seems embarrassing and awkward to even bring up those promises, at least to the man. The woman’s opinion is usually not given much air time.
I’ve written myself on this topic in the past. A core problem is that this program was set up to do one thing, circumstances changed, and the program became unattractive to the government but was never canceled. State has always given out Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), typically to foreign nationals who had worked in our embassies, and typically at retirement. The SIV program for Terps was intended the same way, a thank you for what was expected to have been years of service. This of course presumed the U.S. had won quickly the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and service to the U.S. there was similar to what it was in London, Kenya or Bonn. When the wars went a different way, the SIV program morphed into a way to save the lives of Terps, which a) flooded what was supposed to be a limited pool of older, well-vetted applicants with many young less-known people and b) was an embarrassment to the USG, a daily reminder of all the good we failed to accomplish. Congress was afraid to just do away with or radically change the program and generate bad PR while the wars still dragged on, and State had no bureaucratic interest in sticking its neck out to approve what it saw as risky cases. Now, with Iraq a distant memory and Afghanistan about to be, the plan in Washington seems to be to just allow the program to fade away, sorry to the Terps. Hence, a human quagmire.
Not leaving a comrade behind does not just apply to fellow soldiers. According to Charlie Sherpa, here’s how to help.
In the days before the Internet, I pulled a few short stints in the offices of a couple of U.S. senators. A couple of times as an “intern,” one time as a “Congressional fellow.” In such capacities, not only did I get opportunities to open the daily mail and prepare internal media summaries, I regularly answered letters from constituents. I even learned to use the machine that signed the senator’s name—before some idiot co-worker started writing and signing his own job references.
Through those experiences, I learned that a letter “written by a senator” on behalf of a constituent was often like applying the Penetrating Oil of Helpfulness to the Stuck Machine Bolt of Bureaucracy. I helped get retirees their Social Security checks, veterans their missing medals, and school kids their answers to social studies tests. Small and concrete victories. Democracy in action. Your tax dollar at work.
To this day, I still write business letters like a certain senator from Iowa:
Dear CONSTITUENT NAME:
Thank you for contacting me regarding PROBLEM X. I am glad to be of help. [...]
I have a sent a letter to AGENCY Y regarding this matter. I will contact you again when I receive a response. In the meantime, please do not hesitate to let me or my staff know if I may be of additional assistance. Keep in touch!
Later, after I’d joined the Army, I was on the receiving end of a few of these Congressional inquiries. Troops would write their representatives about pay concerns, food quality, or other matters. No matter how seemingly silly some of the questions were, the military put an emphasis on quickly investigating and responding to each query. Whether because of the legislative power of the purse or the War Powers Act, when Congress calls, soldiers listen.
On Capitol Hill, constituent letters also factored into senators’ legislative calculations. So-called “legislative correspondents,” specialized research staffers who kept up-to-date on where their senators stood on matters of policies and politics, were more likely to respond to such letters. The whole office would see the weekly contact summaries, however—that was our feel for the pulse of opinions back home.
Usually, responses to individual constituents were kept non-committal. A letter about a hot-button issue like gun control, for example, would likely receive a boilerplate response, blandly marking out the senator’s current positions. The response to a “pro” letter would often be very similar to the one for a “con” letter. In one senator’s office, we called such letters “robo-letters.” I preferred the more-punny term “Frankenmail,” a nod to Congressional members’ power to send official mail without paying postage.
Staffers would tally letters and telephone calls they the senator’s office had received on given topics. Letters from constituents mattered more than letters from out of state. It didn’t matter whether a constituent identified themselves as Republican, Democrat, or Independent: A constituent was a constituent. We were all in this together. We called it “representative democracy.”
Letters that were obviously written by individuals, citing specific examples and requesting specific actions, were valued more than fill-in-the-blank form-letters. The latter were considered more as evidence of Astroturf by special interests than actual grassroots support. Bottom line: Constituent contacts were like straw polls. People who write letters are people who are motivated to vote. A senator might not vote your way every time, the thinking went, but he or she was bound to listen.
Despite the gridlock and partisan gameplay that generate so much of today’s headlines, I’d like to think that Congress, fundamentally, still operates that way. Our legislative branch has to listen, right?
If it doesn’t, what values are we fighting for?
Write an Email Today
I was recently inspired to dust-off my letter-writing skills (developed at taxpayer expense!) regarding the plight of Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who are seeking to immigrate to the United States. These are men and women who have risked their families and their futures to help U.S. forces. Troops call them “terps” for short.
I’ve posted my letter below, as an example. I am sending similar letters to other U.S. senators and representatives—and note that many Iowa and Minnesota members (“Red Bull” country) of Congress are involved in immigration policy.
Check out who’s on the senate House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Border Security, for example, or the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees, and Border Security.
I hope that you might be similarly motivated to voice your own opinions to Congress, whether about this or other topics.
Dear Senator Grassley:
I am retired Iowa Army National Guard soldier who deployed under Operation Enduring Freedom orders in 2003. In 2011, I also traveled to Afghanistan as civilian media, during the largest deployment of Iowa National Guard soldiers since World War II. I am writing to you regarding the need to eliminate bureaucratic obstacles to granting special visas to Iraqi and Afghan interpreters who have fought alongside U.S. soldiers, and who have placed themselves and their families at great risk on our behalf.
It is my understanding that an extension of the Refugee Crisis in Iraq Act of 2007 and Afghan Allies Protection Act of 2009 was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee in May 2013. Without extension, these programs will soon expire. In your response to this correspondence, I would appreciate an update regarding the status of this and other efforts to deliver upon America’s promise to our allies.
According to recent news reports, including those in the Washington Post and National Public Radio, the U.S. State Department has failed to effectively or efficiently implement the special immigrant visa program authorized by Congress. According to the above-cited news reports, as of late 2012, only 32 visas had been issued. As of June 2013, only 1,120 visas of the 8,750 authorized had been issued.
I am not going to suggest that all interpreters are saints. To be honest, some seemed suspect in their actions, attitudes, and interactions with U.S. soldiers. Others, however, were shining examples of Afghan bravery and American ideals. All are worthy of consideration, and safety after we leave Afghanistan. We owe them that.
Please help our citizen-soldiers—past, present, and future—deliver on our country’s promises.
Thank you for your attention. Keep in touch!
This article also appeared on the Huffington Post
Hah! You just crossed my red line with your chemical weapon eyes, clearing the way to me cruise missile you!
But enough about me. Like me, I am sure that you are overjoyed at the prospect of the U.S. inserting itself even deeper into another MidEast civil war (I think it is still Syria at present but the U.S. could have invaded another place between the time this was written and when you are reading it.)
The United Nations does not say to do it. The United Kingdom voted against it, the first time in two decades the U.K. has not supported U.S. military action. The U.S. Congress will not have an opportunity to vote on it, though many members have reservations. Many in our own military have doubts. Half of all American oppose it. Why does the president insist America must attack Syria?
Obama’s reasons seem vague at best, something from the 19th century about “firing a shot across Assad’s bow” as if this is a pirate movie. Or maybe protecting the U.S., though Syria (and others) have had chemical weapons for years without threatening the U.S. Even Saddam did not use chemical weapons against the U.S. during two American-led invasions of his own country. To protect women and children? If that is the goal, the U.S. might best send doctors and medicine to the refugee camps, and nerve gas antidotes into Syria itself.
Vagueness is a very poor basis for the U.S. entering into another war in the Middle East, throwing itself deeper into a chaotic and volatile situation it little understands.
So let’s reprise our handy questions summary:
The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because maybe it was Assad who used poison gas.
The poison gas killed a couple of thousand people. A horrible thing by any measure.
Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.
The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because a tiny percentage of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
Because it seems Obama is not asking himself some important questions, here’s a list he may wish to consult:
Is it Iraq again? That went well.
Does it have oil?
Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator” or a magical “red line”)? Even John Boehner made sense on this question.
Does the Chemical Weapons Treaty say it is the U.S.’ job to take punitive action against violators?
Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs or is killed?
Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda, won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the “rebels” whoever the hell they are to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
With that in mind, can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door and the greater Middle East?
What are the possible unintended consequences of another military strike? Are they worth whatever is hoped to be gained by the strike?
Obama, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
BONUS: The U.S.’ use of white phosphorus and tear gas against civilian areas in Fallujah during the liberation of Iraq, and the use of depleted uranium munitions during the Iraq and Afghan crusades clearly do not in any way constitute the use of chemical weapons. Nor did Agent Orange and napalm in Vietnam.
My recent article/post on post-Constitutional America brought in more mail than usual. With the permission of the writer, I’d like to share a particularly poignant comment. In my list of signs that we have devolved into a post-Constitutional America, I left out one very important milestone: The Destruction of New Orleans in 2005.
Here’s what one person had to say:
Your article was better than any I’ve read that connect the dots between the collapse of rule by law and the Constitution domestically and our imperial exploits since the invasion of Afghanistan. It is a topic rarely discussed and one which few citizens have even the most remote understanding of.
There is also a brief story I would like to relate. In late August – early September I was among a group of veterans (in my case, from the American War in Viet Nam) that had traveled to the New Orleans area in the wake of Katrina to try and lend a hand. We were encamped on the grounds of an elementary school in Covington, LA which is located a few miles north of Lake Pontchartrain. By the time I arrived, the three-layer deep armed perimeter around New Orleans was fully in place and few were allowed to penetrate to the city or Algiers, across the river. One of our number, however, was certified as an EMT and so he and a few helpers were still being allowed through. He was therefore able to report on developments others had seen only the beginnings of – like the “drowning victims” still laying in the streets with entry wounds in the back and gaping exit wounds in front.
The talk turned to the mercenary forces brought to the city to guard private property by CACI, Titan, and the then-named Blackwater, among others. The EMT-qualified activist made an observation I had never considered but which the developments your article catalogs proves to have been prescient.
He observed that it has always true that empires test new tactics and weapons in the colonies before deploying them for use at home.
With the Bradley Manning sentencing decision expected in about a week, much attention has turned to his statement in court on August 14 essentially begging for leniency, and thus his life. Many people who support Manning are confused and maybe saddened by his apology and contrition. Others seem gladdened, feeling that Manning humiliated himself and chose not to call himself a whistleblower.
I see it differently.
Manning watched over more than three years as the government denied him first his rights, then attempted to break him psychologically, then subjected him to a drumhead court martial based on denied defense motions, limits on witnesses he could call, exaggerated and stacked charges and a lack of transparency. He saw that he was convicted of espionage even after the government admitted that they could show no actual harm done by his disclosures and that no foreign power was helped. He spied for no one, and aided no one but the American people in better understanding how America makes war and conducts diplomacy.
The totality of this left Manning with no choice but to exercise the last chance at justice he had left, a sentence actually in line with what he actually did, as opposed to the defacto death sentence the government seeks. I am saddened that the process pressed Manning into this final act of subjugation as his only hope for a whiff of fairness.
Wikileaks said something similar:
“The only currency this military court will take is Bradley Manning’s humiliation. In light of this, Mr. Manning’s forced decision to apologize to the U.S. government in the hope of shaving a decade or more off his sentence must be regarded with compassion and understanding… Bradley Manning’s apology was extracted by force, but in a just court the US government would be apologizing to Bradley Manning. As over 100,000 signatories of his Nobel Peace Prize nomination attest, Bradley Manning has changed the world for the better. He remains a symbol of courage and humanitarian resistance.”
(A quick Google search for images with the term “Manning” turns up more pictures of NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli than Bradley. He’s already slipping down the Memory Hole.)
I usually don’t just re-sling press releases back at ya’ without too much comment or additional information, but the sleaze squirting out of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) office is almost impossible to otherwise keep track of in both volume and awfulness.
To save you some time, I totaled up the expected costs mentioned below: $771.8 for aircraft purchase, $553 million to the Russians and, at $109 million a year for ten years for ongoing logistics support, over $1 billion. Total = over $2.3 billion dollars in blatant waste. Ka-ching!!!!!!!!
So, without further introduction, here is another snapshot of how your tax money is being spent in America’s 51st state, Afghanistan.
SIGAR’s audit of the Afghan Special Mission Air Wing (SMW) found that the Department of Defense is moving forward with a $771.8 million purchase of aircraft even though the Afghans lack the capacity to operate and maintain them. Furthermore, DOD awarded $553 million to Rosoboronexport, a Russian government agency, even after receiving SIGAR’s recommendations that moving forward was imprudent.
Among the report’s findings:
–NATO and DOD do not have a plan with milestones and dates for achieving full strength for the SMW to justify the fleet size.
–DOD performs 50% of maintenance and repair, and 70% of critical maintenance & logistics management for SMW and does not have a plan for transferring these functions to the Afghans.
–SMW had less than one-quarter of the 806 personnel needed to reach full strength and during the length of the audit made no tangible growth.
–Only seven Afghan pilots are qualified to fly with night vision goggles, which is necessary for most counter-terrorism missions.
–Difficulty finding recruits who are literate and do not have associations with criminal/insurgent activity has slowed the growth of the SMW.
–Afghan Ministries of Defense and Interior do not have an agreement on the SMW command and control structure, impacting growth and capacity.
–DOD task orders to provide maintenance, logistics, and supply services lack performance metrics and oversight has been inadequate.
–DOD intends to provide an additional $109 million per year for oversight, maintenance, training, and logistics support for the next several years.
–Training commander and U.S. contractors acknowledge the Afghan government will not be able to independently perform maintenance & logistics for the SMW for at least 10 years.
But enough about me. Like me, I am sure that you are overjoyed at the prospect of the U.S. inserting itself even deeper into another MidEast civil war (I think it is still Syria at present but the U.S. could have invaded another place between the time this was written and when you are reading). So let’s try another handy quiz:
The U.S. is intervening in Syria’s civil war because Assad used poison gas.
The poison gas killed 100-150 people.
Close to 100,000 people have been killed in the Syrian civil war to date.
The U.S. is thus going to war again in the Middle East because 0.001 percent of the deaths were caused by gas instead of artillery, aerial bombs, machine guns, tanks, rockets, grenades, car bombs, mines, bad food, or sticks and stones.
(Also, please note that the U.S.’ use of white phosphorus and tear gas against civilian areas in Fallujah during the liberation of Iraq, and the use of depleted uranium munitions during the Iraq and Afghan crusades clearly do not in any way constitute the use of chemical weapons. Nor did Agent Orange in Vietnam.)
As a public service to Obama and his spanking-new National Security Advisor Susan Rice (Rice’s autobiography should be titled Failing Upward by Sucking Upward), here is a handy checklist to consult before deciding to intervene further in Syria.
Is it Iraq again? That went well.
Does it have oil?
Does it pose a direct threat to America, i.e., knife to our throat?
Can you define specifically what U.S. interests are at stake (no fair just citing generic “world peace” or “evil dictator”)?
Is Syria’s evil dictator somehow super-worse than the many other evil dictators scattered across the world where the U.S. is not intervening?
Did Syria attack any U.S. forces somewhere? Kidnap Americans? Commit 9/11?
Does the U.S. have a specific, detailed follow-on plan for what happens if Assad departs?
Does the U.S. have a specific plan to ensure weapons given to the rebels, some of whom are openly al Qaeda, won’t migrate out of Syria as they did in Libya?
Does the U.S. believe its secret deal with the rebels to hand over Syria’s chemical weapons after they take power is airtight?
Can the U.S. tell with accuracy the “good” rebels from the “bad” rebels?
Has the U.S. considered in detail what affect a rebel (Sunni) victory in Syria will have on chaotic Iraq next door?
Why are Syria’s chemical weapon so different than say North Korea’s or anyone else’s that intervention is a good idea?
Extra Credit Questions
If the U.S. is regime-changing in Syria, why does the U.S. still diplomatically recognize the Syrian government? Discuss.
Why did the U.S. render prisoners to Syria for torture by Assad just a few years ago but now thinks he is an evil dictator? Discuss.
Since the American electorate overwhelmingly chose Obama over McCain in 2008, why is Obama acting more like McCain every day? Discuss.
Exactly why, after Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and drone wars everywhere, does the U.S. need to get sucked in to yet another Middle East quagmire? Discuss.
Obama and Rice, if the answer was “No” to any of the above questions, you should not intervene in Syria.
Bonus: The blogging software I use for this site requires “tags” be created to mark posts for searches. When I first started, the only country tag I needed was “Iraq.” Since then I have had to add Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Iran, multiple African nations and now Syria as places America is openly at war.
My mom always forwards me the worst email crap, multi-megabyte Powerpoints of cats, or babies doing something odd, or homilies to life last century and the like. I usually thus delete most FWD’ed messages, but this one caught my eye. It’s making its way around the world so you might have already deleted it. If not, enjoy a cheap laugh. And be nice to your mother this Sunday, Mothers Day.
How to Be an Afghanistan Expert
1. Cite your most recent trip to the region where you saw – with your own eyes, absent the media’s blinders – irrefutable progress. Add points if you spoke with some cigar store Afghan who confirmed this for you. Add double points if you attended an actual jirga. (Subtract points if you were actually at a shura and mistook it for a jirga).
2. Imply that if only the clearance-less masses were privileged enough to see the same “high side” intelligence that you do, they would know the truth. Add points if you have an actual clearance and didn’t just look it up on Wikileaks.
3. Visit a bazaar. Chat with friendly merchants. Lots of salaams, lots of right-hand-over-your-heart greetings. Buy a (warm) orange Fanta. Note – often and loudly – that this bazaar was closed until ISAF forces arrived. Add points if you can drive to this bazaar, versus flying. Add double points if you can wear armor and helmet without looking like some parody of an obese war tourist.
4. Play down the fact that you are paid roughly $1,000 a day to “advise” the military and deny that there is any subsequent conflict-of-interest when you come home and write flattering things about progress in Afghanistan.
5. Whatever you do, avoid spending too much time in Afghanistan. In addition to acquiring language skills and some measure of cultural understanding, you risk becoming cynical and perhaps even despairing of our odds of success.
6. Adopt a “these aren’t the droids you’re looking for” approach to the region. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and amid the protests of others who have spent years on the ground, imply that through sheer force of will and maybe a Jedi mind trick or two, we shall overcome. Add points if you can beat the other experts in latching onto some insignificant scrap of “evidence” supporting “progress.” Add double points if you are the first to tweet about it.
7. If pressed on the deteriorating security situation, offer some babble about “the night being darkest before the dawn” and tie it into a tortured thesis about how escalating violence is actually a sign of counterinsurgency success. Add points of you can maintain a straight face making this point while citing vastly improved “kill ratios.” Subtract points if your “analysis” is eventually compared to an ISAF version of the 5 O’Clock Follies.
8. Write numerous “analytical reports” with phrases such as “The Way Forward” or “How to Win” in the title. No one, not even your colleagues in the think tank world, will actually read these, but they will be cited widely as a substitute for reading something substantive, that might offer actual insight into Afghanistan. Add points if you can deride previous scholarship on Afghanistan as “Orientalist.”
9. ‘The Grand Slam’ – authorship of a COIN pamphlet that gainsays the holy trinity: Petraeus, Nagl and Kilcullen. If pressed on the apparent failure of COIN in Afghanistan, cite some obscure insurgency – The Malayan Emergency is a good choice – and note how long success took to occur.
10. In case you ever write a book and need a jacket photo, make sure to get a photo of yourself rocking a full beard, a pakool, and a dastmaal. Subtract points if you insist on maintaining this appearance once you return to DC.
There are ghosts in Washington that few will talk about, roaming the halls of the Pentagon, inside the State Department and the CIA, and at the White House, moaning “Vietnam, Vietnam.” Nick Turse, in his new book Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, awakens those ghosts and gives them a voice, and in the process has written one of the most important books about the American War in Vietnam. As America again makes war on an industrial scale on nations far less advanced, and commits again torture, assassinations, mass killings and keeps secret prisons while all the while trying to hide its dirty hands from the American public, that Turse’s book was published in 2013 is no accident.
Kill Anything That Moves is a painstaking, detailed, minutely-cataloged 370 pages of the atrocities America committed in Vietnam . Like much of the scholarship of the Holocaust, Turse seeks to document in straight forward, simple language what happened so that no one will be able to someday pretend—as the men who run from the ghosts in Washington now do—that it never happened. To make clear his intent, Turse gives us a trail to follow, 85 dense pages of sources and footnotes.
The slaughter at My Lai is the signature event for most Vietnam war historians (the massacre took place almost 45 years ago to date, on March 16, 1968), the single instance, the aberration, the time when a small group of poorly-led soldiers went rogue and gunned down civilians. There were photos this time. Everything else, TV and movies tell us, is an exaggeration, propaganda, the drunken and drugged memories of freaked out veterans who came to hold Jane Fonda in too high a regard.
What really happened is Turse’s story. His book began with a different focus when as a graduate student in Public Health, Turse began looking into post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among Vietnam vets. By chance an archivist asked Turse whether he thought witnessing war crimes might be a cause of PTSD and directed Turse to the forgotten papers of the Vietnam War Crimes Working Group. That group had been set up by the military in the wake of My Lai to compile information on atrocities, not so much to punish the guilty as to “to ensure that the army would never again be caught off-guard by a major war crimes scandal.” Turse tells us the group’s findings were mostly kept under cover and the witnesses who reported the crimes were ignored, discredited or pushed into silence.
Kill Anything That Moves is a hard book to read. You want to look away but finally turn the pages and read of mass killings and targeted assassinations of Vietnamese civilians, rape committed casually and coldly in sight of officers, sport killings and road rage incidents. Turse painstakingly documents each incident, in many cases starting with the War Crimes Working Group reports and then adding his own first-person interviews conducted in Vietnam with eye witnesses. Mostly aged, the witnesses speak calmly now, and Turse reports what they say without embellishment. Still, the ghosts are there and you half expect to see drops of sweat on the pages.
But however horrific the many, many individual acts of brutality are to read about, Turse’s larger conclusion is even worse. Turse comes to understand that most of the atrocities were committed with official sanction, in fact, were committed because of U.S. policy that demanded body counts, number of “enemy” killed, as the borderless war’s only metric of accomplishment. He writes, “U.S. commanders wasted ammunition like millionaires and hoarded American lives like misers, and often treated Vietnamese lives as if they were worth nothing at all.”
Officers, seeking validation and promotion, made it clear in case after case that their troops must come back from the field with a high body count. Given that demand, standards of accountability were purposefully loose. Any Vietnamese man killed was labeled Viet Cong (VC). When that number was not enough, orders were given to sweep through areas and kill anything that moved or ran, man, woman or child, on the assumption that only a Viet Cong would run. When even that tally was insufficient, civilians were executed in place, the soldiers planting captured Chinese weapons on them to justify the ‘Count. Once reality became so flexible, soldiers lost touch with any standard, creating “rules” that allowed them to kill everyone—if she stands still she is a trained VC, if she runs she is a VC taking evasive action. If men are present the village is VC, if men are missing the village has sent its males off to fight with the VC and so either way, burn it all down.
America’s actions were, in Turse’s words, “Not a few random massacres… But a system of suffering.” The deaths were “widespread, routine and directly attributable to U.S. command policies.”
In short, the atrocities were not war crimes, they were policy.
Iraq is the Arabic Word for Vietnam
Nick Turse’s book wasn’t published by accident in 2013. While it details terrible, terrible things Americans did in Vietnam some 45 or more years ago, one need only open a web browser to see that the atrocities have not stopped—call them out now, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the secret CIA prisons across the world, the black sites in Afghanistan.
As the Iraq War sputtered to a close, at least for America, Liz Sly of the Washington Post wrote a sad, important story about the legacy of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The story highlights, if that word is even permissible here, some of the long series of atrocities committed by the U.S. in Iraq, instances where our killing of civilians, whether by accident or purposeful or something smeared in-between, ruined any chance that the U.S. could in fact capture those hearts and minds and build a stable society in our image. We could hold ground with tanks but only achieve our broader national security goals via memory. It was true in Vietnam, and it will be true in Syria or the Horn of Africa or wherever we drag the fight on to next. Vietnam’s CIA assassination program, Phoenix, was just a low-tech version of today’s drone killings.
While focusing on the massacre at Haditha, Sly also referenced the killings at Nisoor Square by Blackwater under the “control” of the State Department and several other examples. In a sad coda to the war, even online she did not have space to touch upon all of the incidents, so ones like the aerial gunning down of civilians captured so brilliantly in the film Incident in New Baghdad, or the rape-murder of a child and her family from the book Black Hearts, are missing. There are just too many.
Sly’s article quotes retired Army Colonel Pete Mansoor, who commanded a combat brigade in Baghdad in 2003-04 and then returned as executive officer to David Petraeus during the Surge, explaining the fog of war, the ambiguity of decision making in a chaotic urban counter-insurgency struggle, and exonerating those who made wrong, fatal decisions by saying “when you look at it from the soldiers’ point of view, it was justified. It’s very hard.”
Though I doubt he would find many Iraqis who would agree with him, and though I do doubt Mansoor would accept a similar statement by an Iraqi (“Sorry we killed your soldiers, it was hard to tell the good ones from the bad ones”), his point carries some truth. I cannot let this review of Nick Turse’s book end without asking the bigger questions outside of his scope as a documentarian.
The issue is not so much how/when/should we assign blame and punishment to an individual soldier, but to raise the stakes and ask: why have we not assigned blame and demanded punishment for the leaders who put those 19-year-old soldiers into the impossible situations they faced? Before we throw away the life of a kid who shot when he should not have done so, why don’t we demand justice for those in the highest seats of power for creating wars that create such fertile ground for atrocity? The chain of responsibility for the legacy left behind in our wars runs high.
In this rare moment of American reflection Turse’s book offers, ask the bigger question, demand the bigger answer. Those Vietnamese, those Iraqis, those Afghans — and those Americans — killed and died because they were put there to do so by the decisions of our leaders. Hold them accountable for their actions, hold them accountable for America.
Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam is available from Amazon.com
“The card was from Lesotho, a country I learned which was one of them African nations you never hear about. The Lesothoians wrote ‘Thanks for Not Invading Us’ and claimed to be one of the last places on earth that had not been invaded by the United States, either on foot or by drone or via our sneaky Pete special forces. Got me to thinking, so I called up Barack. We talk from time to time, usually when he can’t find something around the White House and needs my help.”
“It was George’s call that made me get out the map,” said Obama. “I didn’t want to bother the Joint Chiefs, and the CIA was tied up with new prisoners, so I just used one of Sasha’s from school. Turns out George was right, there was a country called Lesotho– it was even on Wikipedia– and as best I could tell the U.S. had not ever invaded it. I made a quick call to the Pentagon and they said they weren’t sure if it was a country, but they were sure we had not invaded it. The guy over there asked me if I wanted to invade it, he’d get things started, but I said I’d want to think about it.”
“So Barack called me back, and as we were talking we realized between the two of us we had invaded, droned, sent Special Forces, set up secret prisons, had CIA sites and what have you just about everywhere else in the world. You know, there after 9/11 I kinda let Dick Cheney run things for awhile, and he may have done a lot of it but darn it, it turns out I signed off on a bunch of them myself. You don’t think of it as you do them one-by-one but over time the countries really add up.”
“Once I started making my own list,” continued Obama, “it was damn near everywhere.”
“Everywhere,” said Bush, “‘Cept maybe that Lesotho place.”
“I was faced with a real quandary,” continued Obama. “But then George and I got to talking.”
“Turns out,” said Bush, “between the two of us we had damn near bankrupted the U.S. with wars every freaking place, but Lesotho. I logged on my secret worldwide cabal account, and sure enough, almost all of the U.S. tax money had been transferred into my Rothschild MegaFund, in Chinese currency no less. Since I was online anyway– damn AOL account is so slow and I hate that modem sound– I started reading these ‘blogs’ and message boards and it turns out most people around the world hate the U.S. Nobody told me.”
“George was right. The Secret Service doesn’t let me get online much, but I kept this kinda secret account from Michele so I could, um, look at, um, nature photography sites, and people really did hate us. Pretty much everyone except Lesotho.”
“So me and Barack put two and two together. We made a list of all the places the U.S. had messed up since 9/11 and then sent a note to the Pentagon and Langley recalling every soldier, spook, analyst, torturer, diplomat and all the rest. Everybody– just brought them all back to the U.S. in one awesome Executive Order.”
“Should I tell him George?”
“Nah, it’s a surprise… oh hell, go ahead Barack.”
“We didn’t recall any Americans. I just ordered a nuke strike on Lesotho. April Fool!”
Just to get ahead of things, a few announcements before we begin. If you plan to send hate mail or death threats after this blog post, please include the key word “HATE” in the subject line to assist me in sorting things. Also, I grieve for all those lost on 9/11. It was a terrible tragedy. None of this is intended to dispute that, but…
Get over it New York.
I had the pleasure of a few days in New York City, all for the good. People were themselves, food great, subways running smoothly post-Sandy. But it seems that official New York can’t seem to get past 9/11. On Monday the cops in the subways switched from their weekend soft caps and 9mm pistols to helmets, body armor and M-4s with the long clips. Armed National Guard paroled the Port Authority terminal, literally outfitted for war. Both the cops and the Guard carried milpsec gas masks ready to protect against anthrax and a host of other militarized biochem things. C’mon guys, 9/11 was almost twelve years ago. In the subway, with its low ceilings, packed-to-the- edges crowds and hard surfaces, exactly what are you going to do with a machine gun? Can you sketch out a scenario where the NYPD is going to be exchanging a couple of hundred armor piercing rounds underground where they won’t be killing more people than the bad guys?
The subways are noisy enough without the endless recorded admonitions to “see something, say something” and report suspicious packages to the proper authorities. No one cares. The homeless guys all had bags and bags with them, maybe filled with empty 40 ouncers, maybe terror bombs, but nobody paid them any attention. I am so very sorry about those who lost their lives on 9/11, particularly the brave first responders. But do we really need that many murals on walls, all resplendent with gas station velvet-painting level burning Twin Towers?
The indifference of the millions of people and the signs of official excessive panic stand in contrast. Most folks seem to have moved on. It has been almost twelve years and yet… and yet… the NYPD and others seem to want to keep everyone on edge, act as if there has been attack after attack, to keep the sore from healing. Of course some one will write in and explain to me that such vigilance is all that stands between us and the darkness, that when it is my child held in the kabob-stained hands of terror under 51st Street I’ll wish there were armed men protecting her and all that. Save your time.
Maybe, just maybe, it makes sense to a police state to keep reminding everyone why they need to support and maintain a police state. Maybe the image of the NYPD as gruff but lovable neighborhood guys and gals isn’t enough to justify big budgets and a surveillance state.
Maybe, just maybe, it is time for New York, officially, to get over 9/11.
BONUS: Anyone enjoying the media these days can see a preview of the Next Enemy. Even the White House seems to be slowly walking back from Terrorism Everywhere as a justification for Everything, and is prepping us with near-daily stories about the super dangers of cyber-terrorism. Stay tuned for the change over as we head first into midterm elections next year and then as we gear up for the 2016 presidentials. The Chinese are sneaking into our Internets to take over our Facebooking!!!!!!!!
Gentle readers, allow me a moment of angry self-congratulation. I’ll be back to normal with the next posting. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy.
I was right. When they print the next edition of my book, I’m going to change the title from We Meant Well to I Told You So.
I spent a year in Iraq as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, leading two of the then-vaunted Provincial Reconstruction Teams. We were charged with nothing less than winning the war for America by rebuilding Iraq’s infrastructure, creating a functioning democracy and stable economy, and thus ensuring Iraq would be an ally of the United States in the war on terror. As it became more and more apparent to me over the course of my time in Iraq that we were accomplishing none of those goals (while simultaneously wasting incredible amounts of money), I was compelled to tell the American people what I saw. It would be both a lesson for history and a warning about similar efforts already under way in Afghanistan. I wrote a book and lost my career of 24 years at the State Department as a result.
What if Iraq Turns Around?
When, in 2010, I sent the first draft of We Meant Well, about the waste, fraud, mismanagement, and utter stupidity surrounding the Iraq reconstruction efforts, to my editor, I remember her saying, “You know the book itself won’t come out for close to a year, and if things turn around in Iraq in the meantime, that will make you look wrong.” I told her not to worry.
When the book did come out in September 2011, most of the interviewers I met with threw in skeptical comments: “Well, maybe it will work out like in Japan,” they said, or “It’s too early to tell.” When I met with staffers from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2012, they said, “We’d like to believe you, but everything that State tells us contradicts your thesis that the money spent was just a big waste.” Foreign Policy felt the need to run an angry rebuttal (“The greatest assets in many respects were our ‘clients,’ the Iraqi ministers, provincial officials, and local residents who were active and engaged at every level”) to an excerpt from my book.
Failure Made Official
Well, now it’s official. Although it took 10 years for the report to come out, according to the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), “$60 billion in American taxpayer funds later, Iraq is still so unstable and broken that even its leaders question whether U.S. efforts to rebuild the war-torn nation were worth the cost.”
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said “that $55 billion could have brought great change in Iraq,” but the positive effects of those funds were too often “lost.”
Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, the country’s top Sunni official, told auditors that the rebuilding efforts did not “achieve the purpose for which it was launched. Rather, it had unfavorable outcomes in general.”
There “was usually a Plan A but never a Plan B,” said Kurdish official Qubad Talabani, son of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
Shiite, Sunni, Kurd. Trust me, about the only thing everybody agrees on is the United States spent a bundle of money. According to the Associated Press, to date the United States has spent more than $60 billion in reconstruction grants on Iraq. That works out to about $15 million a day. Overall, including all military and diplomatic costs and other aid, the United States has spent at least $767 billion since the U.S.-led invasion began. Some funds are still being spent on ongoing projects.
I Told You So
I hate to say I told you so — but I told you so. SIGIR, if you’re out there, perhaps it would have been better to agree to meet with me back in 2009. I could have saved you some time and money. SIGIR, like everything else associated with the Iraq reconstruction, was expensive. The inspectors cost taxpayers $16 million this year, a bargain compared with the $30 million a year they used up during the war era itself.
We all know that we study history to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, so with the dreadful example of Iraq now clear, we can draw from it to avoid repeating the errors in Afghanistan. In fact, speaking of book titles, my volume on the Iraq failures was originally supposed to be called Lessons for Afghanistan from the Reconstruction of Iraq, before the editor thankfully nudged me toward the snarkier We Meant Well.
What Went Right?
And yet … and yet … only the day before the SIGIR report on Iraq was issued, this magazine ran a long piece by Peter Bergen titled “What Went Right.” The piece talks about al Qaeda on the run from Afghanistan (without mentioning how well the franchises in Iraq and North Africa are doing), cites gains in cell-phone usage (without discussing how much is due to billions of U.S. aid dollars dumped on the local markets), talks about how the Taliban have been vanquished (without understanding an insurgency avoids head-on clashes just before the other guys pack up and go home), and describes aspects of Kabul as “thriving” (based most likely on a conversation with some taxi driver). Incredulously, Bergen writes, “U.S. and other NATO forces have taken care to ensure that their soldiers do not contribute to the civilian death toll. Indeed, some American cities are today more violent than Afghanistan. In New Orleans, residents are now around six times more likely to be murdered than Afghan civilians are to be killed in the war” and concludes, “Maybe, not too long from now, a new generation of guidebooks will again be raving about the joys of springtime in the Hindu Kush.”
Quite sadly, one only need change “Afghanistan” to “Iraq” in the article, and it could have been published in 2010, right down to the last line about tourists: The United States spent millions of dollars building tourist infrastructure around Iraq’s ancient archaeological sites for naught. It idiotically helped sponsor the “Iraq Tourism Week” expo in Baghdad in 2009.
Meanwhile, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has been issuing its own reports, saying among other things that “a significant portion” of the U.S. government’s $400 million investment in large infrastructure projects in fiscal year 2011 alone may have been wasted because of poor planning. In an episode that could have come straight out of my book — except that it took place years later in Afghanistan — SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, “yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most of the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.” There are many, many more examples.
History Repeats Itself
In asking why such mistakes are being repeated, one need only look at the people involved: A large percentage of the State Department personnel on the ground in Afghanistan are veterans of the Iraq reconstruction, as are the soldiers reconstructing alongside them. The same two U.S. Ambassadors (Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker) ran both embassies at different times. Most of the lame and unskilled hirelings who worked with me in Iraq moved over to identical roles in Afghanistan, and even one of my old bosses found work in Afghanistan after retirement from State. On the macro level, the same massive contracting firms and security mercenaries continue to make bank. The fat paychecks help keep everyone looking the other way about “progress” and thus on-message.
Despite SIGAR finding that “delays, cost overruns, and poor construction of infrastructure projects … resulted in lost opportunities and in incalculable waste,” the United States and its allies have already committed to $16 billion in economic aid to Afghanistan over the next four years. Costs for maintaining Afghan security forces are expected to come to over $4 billion per year.
There is a pop-psychology definition of mental illness that applies here: doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. And there’s something grim about this. So while it feels good today to know I was right — the reconstruction of Iraq I participated in is now unambiguously acknowledged as the failure I said it was years ago — it still feels bad knowing someone else will need to write an article just like this in a few years, when we tally up the losses in Afghanistan.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.com
I was there. And “there” was nowhere. And nowhere was the place to be if you wanted to see the signs of end times for the American Empire up close. It was the place to be if you wanted to see the madness — and oh yes, it was madness — not filtered through a complacent and sleepy media that made Washington’s war policy seem, if not sensible, at least sane and serious enough. I stood at Ground Zero of what was intended to be the new centerpiece for a Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but the invasion of Iraq turned out to be a joke. Not for the Iraqis, of course, and not for American soldiers, and not the ha-ha sort of joke either. And here’s the saddest truth of all: on March 20th as we mark the 10th anniversary of the invasion from hell, we still don’t get it. In case you want to jump to the punch line, though, it’s this: by invading Iraq, the U.S. did more to destabilize the Middle East than we could possibly have imagined at the time. And we — and so many others — will pay the price for it for a long, long time.
The Madness of King George
It’s easy to forget just how normal the madness looked back then. By 2009, when I arrived in Iraq, we were already at the last-gasp moment when it came to salvaging something from what may yet be seen as the single worst foreign policy decision in American history. It was then that, as a State Department officer assigned to lead two provincial reconstruction teams in eastern Iraq, I first walked into the chicken processing plant in the middle of nowhere.
By then, the U.S. “reconstruction” plan for that country was drowning in rivers of money foolishly spent. As the centerpiece for those American efforts — at least after Plan A, that our invading troops would be greeted with flowers and sweets as liberators, crashed and burned — we had managed to reconstruct nothing of significance. First conceived as a Marshall Plan for the New American Century, six long years later it had devolved into farce.
In my act of the play, the U.S. spent some $2.2 million dollars to build a huge facility in the boondocks. Ignoring the stark reality that Iraqis had raised and sold chickens locally for some 2,000 years, the U.S. decided to finance the construction of a central processing facility, have the Iraqis running the plant purchase local chickens, pluck them and slice them up with complex machinery brought in from Chicago, package the breasts and wings in plastic wrap, and then truck it all to local grocery stores. Perhaps it was the desert heat, but this made sense at the time, and the plan was supported by the Army, the State Department, and the White House.
Elegant in conception, at least to us, it failed to account for a few simple things, like a lack of regular electricity, or logistics systems to bring the chickens to and from the plant, or working capital, or… um… grocery stores. As a result, the gleaming $2.2 million plant processed no chickens. To use a few of the catchwords of that moment, it transformed nothing, empowered no one, stabilized and economically uplifted not a single Iraqi. It just sat there empty, dark, and unused in the middle of the desert. Like the chickens, we were plucked.
In keeping with the madness of the times, however, the simple fact that the plant failed to meet any of its real-world goals did not mean the project wasn’t a success. In fact, the factory was a hit with the U.S. media. After all, for every propaganda-driven visit to the plant, my group stocked the place with hastily purchased chickens, geared up the machinery, and put on a dog-and-pony, er, chicken-and-rooster, show.
In the dark humor of that moment, we christened the place the Potemkin Chicken Factory. In between media and VIP visits, it sat in the dark, only to rise with the rooster’s cry each morning some camera crew came out for a visit. Our factory was thus considered a great success. Robert Ford, then at the Baghdad Embassy and now America’s rugged shadow ambassador to Syria, said his visit was the best day out he enjoyed in Iraq. General Ray Odierno, then commanding all U.S. forces in Iraq, sent bloggers and camp followers to view the victory project. Some of the propaganda, which proclaimed that “teaching Iraqis methods to flourish on their own gives them the ability to provide their own stability without needing to rely on Americans,” is still online (including this charming image of American-Iraqi mentorship, a particular favorite of mine).
We weren’t stupid, mind you. In fact, we all felt smart and clever enough to learn to look the other way. The chicken plant was a funny story at first, a kind of insider’s joke you all think you know the punch line to. Hey, we wasted some money, but $2.2 million was a small amount in a war whose costs will someday be toted up in the trillions. Really, at the end of the day, what was the harm?
The harm was this: we wanted to leave Iraq (and Afghanistan) stable to advance American goals. We did so by spending our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most Iraqis lacked access to clean water, regular electricity, and medical or hospital care. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”
By 2009, of course, it should all have been so obvious. We were no longer inside the neocon dream of unrivaled global superpowerdom, just mired in what happened to it. We were a chicken factory in the desert that no one wanted.
Time Travel to 2003
Anniversaries are times for reflection, in part because it’s often only with hindsight that we recognize the most significant moments in our lives. On the other hand, on anniversaries it’s often hard to remember what it was really like back when it all began. Amid the chaos of the Middle East today, it’s easy, for instance, to forget what things looked like as 2003 began. Afghanistan, it appeared, had been invaded and occupied quickly and cleanly, in a way the Soviets (the British, the ancient Greeks…) could never have dreamed of. Iran was frightened, seeing the mighty American military on its eastern border and soon to be on the western one as well, and was ready to deal. Syria was controlled by the stable thuggery of Bashar al-Assad and relations were so good that the U.S. was rendering terror suspects to his secret prisons for torture.
Most of the rest of the Middle East was tucked in for a long sleep with dictators reliable enough to maintain stability. Libya was an exception, though predictions were that before too long Muammar Qaddafi would make some sort of deal. (He did.) All that was needed was a quick slash into Iraq to establish a permanent American military presence in the heart of Mesopotamia. Our future garrisons there could obviously oversee things, providing the necessary muscle to swat down any future destabilizing elements. It all made so much sense to the neocon visionaries of the early Bush years. The only thing that Washington couldn’t imagine was this: that the primary destabilizing element would be us.
Indeed, its mighty plan was disintegrating even as it was being dreamed up. In their lust for everything on no terms but their own, the Bush team missed a diplomatic opportunity with Iran that might have rendered today’s saber rattling unnecessary, even as Afghanistan fell apart and Iraq imploded. As part of the breakdown, desperate men, blindsided by history, turned up the volume on desperate measures: torture, secret gulags, rendition, drone killings, extra-constitutional actions at home. The sleaziest of deals were cut to try to salvage something, including ignoring the A.Q. Khan network of Pakistani nuclear proliferation in return for a cheesy Condi Rice-Qaddafi photo-op rapprochement in Libya.
Inside Iraq, the forces of Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict had been unleashed by the U.S. invasion. That, in turn, was creating the conditions for a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran, similar to the growing proxy war between Israel and Iran inside Lebanon (where another destabilizing event, the U.S.-sanctioned Israeli invasion of 2006, followed in hand). None of this has ever ended. Today, in fact, that proxy war has simply found a fresh host, Syria, with multiple powers using “humanitarian aid” to push and shove their Sunni and Shia avatars around.
Staggering neocon expectations, Iran emerged from the U.S. decade in Iraq economically more powerful, with sanctions-busting trade between the two neighbors now valued at some $5 billion a year and still growing. In that decade, the U.S. also managed to remove one of Iran’s strategic counterbalances, Saddam Hussein, replacing him with a government run by Nouri al-Malaki, who had once found asylum in Tehran.
Meanwhile, Turkey is now engaged in an open war with the Kurds of northern Iraq. Turkey is, of course, part of NATO, so imagine the U.S. government sitting by silently while Germany bombed Poland. To complete the circle, Iraq’s prime minister recently warned that a victory for Syria’s rebels will spark sectarian wars in his own country and will create a new haven for al-Qaeda which would further destabilize the region.
Meanwhile, militarily burnt out, economically reeling from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and lacking any moral standing in the Middle East post-Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, the U.S. sat on its hands as the regional spark that came to be called the Arab Spring flickered out, to be replaced by yet more destabilization across the region. And even that hasn’t stopped Washington from pursuing the latest version of the (now-nameless) global war on terror into ever-newer regions in need of destabilization.
Having noted the ease with which a numbed American public patriotically looked the other way while our wars followed their particular paths to hell, our leaders no longer blink at the thought of sending American drones and special operations forces ever farther afield, most notably ever deeper into Africa, creating from the ashes of Iraq a frontier version of the state of perpetual war George Orwell once imagined for his dystopian novel 1984. And don’t doubt for a second that there is a direct path from the invasion of 2003 and that chicken plant to the dangerous and chaotic place that today passes for our American world.
On this 10th anniversary of the Iraq War, Iraq itself remains, by any measure, a dangerous and unstable place. Even the usually sunny Department of State advises American travelers to Iraq that U.S. citizens “remain at risk for kidnapping… [as] numerous insurgent groups, including Al Qaida, remain active…” and notes that “State Department guidance to U.S. businesses in Iraq advises the use of Protective Security Details.”
In the bigger picture, the world is also a far more dangerous place than it was in 2003. Indeed, for the State Department, which sent me to Iraq to witness the follies of empire, the world has become ever more daunting. In 2003, at that infamous “mission accomplished” moment, only Afghanistan was on the list of overseas embassies that were considered “extreme danger posts.” Soon enough, however, Iraq and Pakistan were added. Today, Yemen and Libya, once boring but secure outposts for State’s officials, now fall into the same category.
Other places once considered safe for diplomats and their families such as Syria and Mali have been evacuated and have no American diplomatic presence at all. Even sleepy Tunisia, once calm enough that the State Department had its Arabic language school there, is now on reduced staff with no diplomatic family members resident. Egypt teeters.
The Iranian leadership watched carefully as the American imperial version of Iraq collapsed, concluded that Washington was a paper tiger, backed away from initial offers to talk over contested issues, and instead (at least for a while) doubled-down on achieving nuclear breakout capacity, aided by the past work of that same A.Q. Khan network. North Korea, another A.Q. Khan beneficiary, followed the same pivot ever farther from Washington, while it became a genuine nuclear power. Its neighbor China pursued its own path of economic dominance, while helping to “pay” for the Iraq War by becoming the number-one holder of U.S. debt among foreign governments. It now owns more than 21% of the U.S. debt held overseas.
And don’t put away the joke book just yet. Subbing as apologist-in-chief for an absent George W. Bush and the top officials of his administration on this 10th anniversary, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair recently reminded us that there is more on the horizon. Conceding that he had “long since given up trying to persuade people Iraq was the right decision,” Blair added that new crises are looming. “You’ve got one in Syria right now, you’ve got one in Iran to come,” he said. “We are in the middle of this struggle, it is going to take a generation, it is going to be very arduous and difficult. But I think we are making a mistake, a profound error, if we think we can stay out of that struggle.”
Think of his comment as a warning. Having somehow turned much of Islam into a foe, Washington has essentially assured itself of never-ending crises that it stands no chance whatsoever of winning. In this sense, Iraq was not an aberration, but the historic zenith and nadir for a way of thinking that is only now slowing waning. For decades to come, the U.S. will have a big enough military to ensure that our decline is slow, bloody, ugly, and reluctant, if inevitable. One day, however, even the drones will have to land.
And so, happy 10th anniversary, Iraq War! A decade after the invasion, a chaotic and unstable Middle East is the unfinished legacy of our invasion. I guess the joke is on us after all, though no one is laughing.
Because of this blog, I occasionally receive emails from people who also participated in the reconstruction programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most writers are civilians, a few military. With the writer’s permission, I publish some of the letters here.
Today’s I publish to call attention to the very real issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). All of us suffer from it, some more than others, some more aware of it than others. For me, I benefited from good care (which I had to pay for myself but it was worth it). I have also found most veterans’ groups I’ve run across welcoming– it takes all of 30 seconds to establish that we civilians experienced most of what they did and have more in common than we have apart. To be frank, writing the book and blog are also part of my catharsis. To anyone out there suffering, get help. It makes things better. Anyway, here’s the letter.
I’ve been reading your blog since its inception and ordered your book while serving with a PRT in Afghanistan. While devouring your book in my “hooch”, I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Everything you reported on in Iraq was happening AGAIN in Afghanistan. You actually saved me the time of writing my own book “How I helped lose the battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan people”. I felt as if I had found the Holy Grail and ran around my PRT encouraging others to read We Meant Well. My State Department colleague was less than thrilled and was busy bidding on her next assignment while my PRT military colleagues were so burned out (due to multiple deployments) that they either didn’t care or knew that in true military tradition they were there to follow orders and helpless to do anything about the hellhole we found ourselves in. I was stunned that no one appreciated what I had found. They wanted me to quit talking and just do my time (i.e..stop being a trouble maker). Some members of the PRT were in denial and believed COIN was working while others knew that we were failing and didn’t need your experience to remind them.
It has taken me more than a year to write to you as I’ve been dealing with a great deal of anger and feared I would send you a 10 page rant outlining the insanity of wasted lives and resources that I witnessed during my 12 month deployment. I was offered additional time in Afghanistan but declined. I was afraid my already mild PTSD would be completely unmanageable after another deployment. Our well-deserving veterans are fortunate to have the VA to access once they come home (although I’m told the waiting list for mental health services is horrendous) and find other vets to talk to. These wars have now created yet another fine mess. There are now well over 200,000 people (from various nations) which include former diplomats, civilians who worked directly for the USG, contractors, NGO aid workers and even journalists that come home to no support whatsoever. I can only imagine the broken marriages, broken homes, alcoholism, isolation and other social ills that plague those with full blown PTSD and TBI. To my knowledge, no one is writing about that or even acknowledging it exists outside the military.
Unlike your “no experience necessary” chapter, I did have years of international development experience. But, I saw plenty that fell into the “no experience necessary” category and it was frightening. Not to mention the out of shape and the overweight (of all ages) who could not get in and out of an MRAP without assistance. No wonder civ-mil had its problems. This is all so terribly sad. I’m still trying to figure out a way to move forward after becoming so disillusioned with my government and the military. It’s now taken me three months to send this.
In addition to expressing gratitude for your book, I’m also writing to you in memory of the USAID officer, serving in Kunar Province, who was killed in August 2012 (link added). I find it appalling that his death and those of his three military colleagues got about 10 seconds of TV news coverage in the states. If anyone tells me that they died for my freedom, I may seriously lose it. From what I can conclude, they died for the profits of defense contractors, the careers of some high ranking military officials, the pockets of crooked Afghans, and most of all for self serving politicians and diplomats. My freedom had nothing to do with it. You tried to tell them but they didn’t listen. Instead, they tried to kill the messenger. Without knowing it, you’ve been a good friend these past 21 months and I apologize for taking so long to say thank you. Best of luck as you continue to fight for justice.
I meant well,
Name Withheld by Request
This article originally appeared on the Huffington Post.
Though I spent 24 years working for the State Department as a Consular Officer, charged in part with the issuance and (very rarely) revocation of U.S. passports, there is still room to learn something new: The Government of the United States can, and apparently does, take away passports from American Citizens because “The Secretary of State determines that the applicant’s activities abroad are causing or are likely to cause serious damage to the national security or the foreign policy of the United States.”
If the government feels it is against its interest for you to have a passport and thus the freedom to travel, to depart the United States if you wish to, it will just take it away. The law allows them to do this prospectively, the “or are likely to cause…” part of the law, meaning you don’t need to have done anything. The government just needs to decide that you might.
We learned via a Judicial Watch Freedom of Information Act request that prior to having him and his 16 year old son away blown away via drone in 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton secretly revoked the passport of Anwar al-Awlaki, al Qaeda propagandist and U.S. Citizen. The State Department even tried to invite al-Awlaki into the U.S. Embassy in Yemen so they could hand him a letter announcing the revocation and so that they could encourage him to return to the U.S. to face charges. Six months later (al-Awlaki never dropped by the Embassy, by the way), the U.S. Government simply killed him. Two weeks after that it killed his 16 year old son.
I have been unable to track down many recent examples where the U.S. Government revoked the passport of an American simply because his/her presence abroad bothered– or might bother– the Secretary of State. In fact, the only example I was able to locate was that of infamous ex-CIA officer Phillip Agee, who in the 1970′s exposed CIA officers identities. It was Agee’s case that prompted a Supreme Court review of the Department of State’s ability to revoke passports simply because the government didn’t want you to travel abroad (the Supreme’s upheld the government’s ability to do so based on a 1926 law after lower courts said no. The Court stated that “The right to hold a passport is subordinate to national security and foreign policy considerations.”)
Agee was a naughty boy. According to the Supreme Court:
In 1974, Agee called a press conference in London to announce his “campaign to fight the United States CIA wherever it is operating. He declared his intent “to expose CIA officers and agents and to take the measures necessary to drive them out of the countries where they are operating.” Since 1974, Agee has, by his own assertion, devoted consistent effort to that program, and he has traveled extensively in other countries in order to carry it out. To identify CIA personnel in a particular country, Agee goes to the target country and consults sources in local diplomatic circles whom he knows from his prior service in the United States Government. He recruits collaborators and trains them in clandestine techniques designed to expose the “cover” of CIA employees and sources. Agee and his collaborators have repeatedly and publicly identified individuals and organizations located in foreign countries as undercover CIA agents, employees, or sources. The record reveals that the identifications divulge classified information, violate Agee’s express contract not to make any public statements about Agency matters without prior clearance by the Agency, have prejudiced the ability of the United States to obtain intelligence, and have been followed by episodes of violence against the persons and organizations identified.
In Anwar Al-Awlaki’s case, the Government has not made much of a case (never mind for the passport, remember he was murdered by a drone). In fact, officially, we do not know why al-Awlaki was killed at all, or under what laws or by what decision process. Some reports tie him to the failed idiot underwear bomber, but being part of a failed plot seems not to rise to the usual standard for capital punishment. It is all secret.
The Government of the United States executed one of its own citizens abroad without any form of due process. This is generally seen as a no-no as far as the Bill of Rights goes. The silly old Fifth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees “no person shall be deprived of life without due process of law” and includes no exceptions for war, terrorism, or being a really bad human being.
Could the passport revocation have been simply a ruse, a bureaucratic CYA attempt at providing some sort of illusion of “due process?” Could al-Awlaki’s not dropping by the U.S. Embassy to chat about his passport have been a veiled attempt to justify his killing in that he was thus not able to be arrested? Or was the passport revocation just a simple act of dehumanizing someone to make killing him that much more palatable?
We’ll never know.
We have seen this movie before, but let’s allow the US Army’s own “public diplomacy” writer describe it to us once again:
Service members and U.S. embassy employees took part in a sports day event at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait, Feb. 16, as a part of the English Access Micro-scholarship Program. The program is a U.S. State Department-funded, two-year English-language program for Kuwaiti youth to not only learn the English language but to learn about American culture as well.
The story is that the US Embassy and the US military gather up a bunch of local kids as props, play at playing soccer, wrap it in the sweet coating that this is also some weird kind of English lesson, and make nice.
“This is a very important part of the program,” said Airman Travis Holmes, a cable and antenna maintenance technician with the 386th Communication Squadron, 386th Expeditionary Wing. “I like being around the kids. This gives them a chance to get away from the stereotypical thoughts about Americans and get to know us one-on-one.”
Missing from the article is why/how the US military is in Kuwait. Following 1991′s Desert Storm, the US never left Kuwait. Instead, the US appropriated as much land as it wanted to build vast military bases, adding jewels to the necklace of foreign military enclaves that stretches around the world. Much of the war with Iraq was run out of Kuwait. Imagine how welcome a Chinese Army base might be in say Kansas City.
“These sports days are important for a couple of reasons,” said Grace Choi, the public diplomacy officer for the embassy and event coordinator. “It encourages these young people to participate in some of the core values we have at the embassy, like being healthy and maintaining healthy habits. And, because they’re doing it in English, it helps reinforce some of the things that they have been learning in class.”
The United States holds these kinds of feel-good events all the time, everywhere. We want to be loved as occupiers, want to believe that we are welcomed as liberators instead of merely tolerated as conquerors. In that sense, these sorts of staged propaganda pieces are indeed a success– we’re not trying to convince the Kuwaitis to love us, we’re trying to convince ourselves that the Kuwaitis love us.
I took the photo, above, in Iraq, at a US-sponsored event to bring together our soldiers and some Iraqi orphans for a day of sports, food and fun.
Also, this same week, NATO apologized after it said its troops mistook two Afghan boys for insurgents and shot them dead. One wonders how many English lessons and soccer matches it will take to overcome that incident?
As the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) shuts down in what can only be thought of as a mercy killing, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) continues its dreary work. They send out regular press releases that all look like this most recent one:
Today, SIGAR released an inspection of the Imam Sahib Border Police company headquarters in Kunduz province, Afghanistan. The $7.3 million facility was built to hold 175 people, yet only 12 were on site and no one was aware of any plans to move additional personnel to the facility. The personnel did not have keys to many of the buildings and most the facility appeared to be unused. Additionally, there is no contract or plan to train personnel in the operations and maintenance of the facility raising questions about its sustainability.
Photo of Facility (shown above)
Should you have any questions or need any additional information please do not hesitate to contact our Director of Public Affairs, Phil LaVelle at (703) 545-5974 or email@example.com.
Friends, do a little search and replace exercise and that SIGAR report could have been right out of Iraq circa 2006. It strongly suggests we have learned nothing, that the reconstruction of Afghanistan is simply another foreign policy feel-good farce. It means no… one… cares.
After all I went through personally to bring the abuses, waste and fraud of Iraq reconstruction to light, well, that makes me sad.
Ralph Nader offers up one of the better summaries of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, and at the same time gives us a taste of what a Clinton presidency in 2016 might do for America.
Clinton’s chief legacy, according to Nader? “Behind the public relations sheen, the photo-opportunities with groups of poor people in the developing world, an ever more militarized State Department operated under Clinton’s leadership.”
Nader goes on to say:
Secretary Clinton reveled in tough, belligerent talk and action on her many trips to more than a hundred countries. She would warn or threaten “consequences” on a regular basis. She supported soldiers in Afghanistan, the use of secret Special Forces in other places and “force projection” in East Asia to contain China. She aggressively supported or attacked resistance movements in dictatorships, depending on whether a regime played to Washington’s tune.
Time and again, Hillary Clinton’s belligerence exceeded that of Obama’s Secretaries of Defense. From her seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee to her tenure at the State Department, Hillary Clinton sought to prove that she could be just as tough as the militaristic civilian men whose circle she entered. Throughout her four years it was Generalissima Clinton, expanding the American Empire at large.
Not a pretty picture, but an accurate one. 2016 is coming– be afraid. Read the entire article at Common Dreams.
Colin Powell, you need to shut the fuck up. Like Grandpa Simpson, every time you open your mouth you just embarrass yourself and demean all around you. Your time is done. Let the nurse change your diaper without fussing and just watch Matlock on TBS until you wither fully away.
Colin emerged from the land of creamed corn and denture adhesives to cast a shadow on the Sunday talk shows. He said this about Hillary Clinton and the deaths of four Americans at Benghazi:
I think she’s had a distinguished record. And I don’t think that this one incident–which is one of these things that those of us in government have been through many, many times where suddenly an action happens late at night … I don’t think it’s a blot on her record.
You’re surprised. Somebody gets killed, something gets blown up. And then the after-action reports start and everybody wants to know who was at fault. Who was responsible? ‘Why didn’t you keep this from happening?’ Well, you can’t keep everything from happening. Benghazi was a very, very difficult one and a difficult situation, and maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.
The reader is reminded that Hillary Clinton was the head of the organization that placed those Americans where, in Colin’s words, “maybe they shouldn’t have been there in the first place” and thus might, oh, I don’t know, have some responsibility for what happened. Colin, who likely can’t read anymore even with his damn glasses, wherever the hell he left them, might also recall that the State Department’s own report on Benghazi found “a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection.” Since Slick Hilly was head of the pack that showed such poor leadership, maybe she had some responsibility?
Nothing New for Colin Powell
But of course not being responsible for the deaths of others is Colin’s specialty, actually the hallmark of his career.
Colin Powell, as Secretary of State, lent his considerable credibility and gravitas to the case for war with Iraq.
Powell spoke publicly before the UN General Assembly, and privately in depth with America’s allies, about mobile biowar labs, weapons of mass destruction and the imminent danger Saddam Hussein posed. While many people considered Bush an idiot puppet, and Cheney and Rumsfeld psychopathic fibbers, Powell convincingly represented the United States’ case for war. Of course, everything Powell said was a lie. Pimping his book Colin told all (like Benghazi, it was just a “blot”):
A blot, a failure will always be attached to me and my UN presentation. I am mad mostly at myself for not having smelled the problem. My instincts failed me. There is nothing worse than a leader believing he has accurate information when folks who know he doesn’t don’t tell him that he doesn’t.
So why did no one stand up and speak out during the intense hours we worked on the speech? Some of these same analysts later wrote books claiming they were shocked that I have relied on such deeply flawed evidence. Try to get over failure quickly. Learn from it. Study how you contributed to it. If you are responsible, own up to it.
And My Lai Just Happened Too
Colin famously served in America’s retro-war of choice, Vietnam. He was charged with investigating the My Lai Massacre. Powell wrote: “In direct refutation of this portrayal is the fact that relations between American soldiers and the Vietnamese people are excellent.” Later, Powell’s assessment would be described as whitewashing the massacre. Almost rehearsing his Hillary lines to the very word, in May 2004 Powell told radio host Larry King, “I mean, I was in a unit that was responsible for My Lai. I got there after My Lai happened. So, in war, these sorts of horrible things happen every now and again, but they are still to be deplored.”
Birds of a Feather
So it is no real surprise that Colin Powell, who took no responsibility for helping America into a horrible war with Iraq, is now dragged out of the retirement home toilet to tell us that Hillary also has no responsibility for the stuff that just kinda happens out there when you go intervening around the world. And hey, in Colin’s own words, you’d be surprised when people want to know who is responsible for the deaths of their sons and daughters. Gosh golly, why would anyone want to know who was responsible for just a blot? And why are we still listening to has-beens like Colin? Have we run out of Kardashians to interview? Do we have to wait for some pathetic sex scandal until we can heap Colin into the dust-bin of once-media-superheroes alongside Petraeus and Lance Armstrong? Colin and Hillary together, what a pair, which is good because without her Colin does not have one.
Thanks Colin, for all your
blots service. Now go away you tired old man. Meanwhile, let’s watch this:
I grow weary of “journalists” who don’t get counterinsurgency. So I’ll try and use simple words: We kill the bad guys so that the LEGITIMATE GOVERNMENT can assert its control. The key to why almost every counterinsurgency struggle fails (Vietnam and Iraq are my faves) is the absence of that legitimate government. The U.S., using massive firepower, clears a hole that is filled either by the legitimate government should one exist, or, if not, by the insurgents, or, in worse case scenarios like Libya, no one and chaos ensues.
If you are Alissa Rubin of the New York Times, or know her, or read her dumb ass piece on Afghanistan in the Times, please re-read that opening paragraph above until it makes sense. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Reporting from Helmand Province
Rubin reports to us from Helmand Province, Afghanistan, the once-to-be center of Greater Georgebushistan, when the U.S. had any plans for Afghanistan other than trying to figure out the best way to just make it all go away. It seems while we’ve been at the bar waiting for a table, 21,000 Marines have been surging the heck out of Helmand, clearing naughty Taliban out left and right. Rubin is now surprised that since the Marines have cut back to about 6500 on the ground, the Taliban are “creeping back.”
Counterinsurgency tip no. 147: Don’t fight the big guys, especially when you know they’ll only be around for a short while. Let them surge in as you surge out and then when their numbers drop off, move back in and reclaim your turf. Still not sure? Watch what cockroaches do when you flip on the kitchen light at night– do they stand on their hind legs and try to tear the insecticide can from your hands?
Now back to that legit government. Rubin does seem to have a bit of a clue when she quotes a local:
Afghan forces now control his district, he said, but will not be able to hold it unless “the foreigners manage to get rid of corruption in the Afghan government, in the districts and the province levels.”
“Before the Marines launched this big offensive, Marja was the center of the opium trade,” said Ahmad Shah, the chairman of the Marja development shura, a group of elders that works with the government to try to bring change here. “Millions and millions of Pakistani rupees were being traded every day in the bazaar. People were so rich that in some years a farmer could afford to buy a car.
“We were part of the eradication efforts by the government, and if they had provided the farmer with compensation, we could have justified our act. But the government failed to provide compensation, and unless it does so, the people will turn against us or join the insurgency and be against development, as they were during the Taliban.”
A corrupt government that fails to ensure the livelihood of its people will not win a counterinsurgency war. The Marines can hold off the Taliban temporarily indefinitely, but they will never be an Afghan government.
To wit from a half-wit:
Hajji Atiqullah, the tribal leader in Nawa, says the road between his city and the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, has been life-changing. “This road will last for many years, and I think people will remember it as one of the biggest contributions of the American Marines,” he said.
Other economic benefits, however, are dwindling as the Western troops leave. The surge brought jobs for many rural residents. There were small irrigation and construction projects, which are finished now. In Marja alone, about 1,400 people were hired to work for the informal security forces set up by the Marines at the height of the surge, according to elders in Marja. But when the Interior Ministry began to integrate these forces into the Afghan Local Police, they offered places to only 400, said Mr. Shah, the chairman of the development shura. As the rest find themselves jobless, village elders say, they will turn to whoever will protect them, even if that is the Taliban or criminals.
Counterinsurgency tip no. 672: If the government must rely on foreign troops to protect the people, it cannot be seen by the people as legitimate.
Looking for an Optimist
Rubin wonders “So why, then, was it so difficult to find an optimist in Helmand Province?”
Let’s help her figure that out by calling the Times and reading out loud to her: “Counterinsurgency will always fail without a legitimate government and Afghanistan does not have one. The Afghan government was created by the U.S. for our own domestic political purposes. It is corrupt. It cannot secure its people and cannot provide them with a way of living.”
Let us now return to the words of the best writer on counterinsurgency, Bernard B. Fall, who covered both the French and the American defeats in Vietnam. Fall said:
The French in Algeria learned every lesson from the French in Viet-Nam. The troop ratio there was a comfortable 11-to-1. The French very effectively sealed off the Algerian-Tunisian border, and by 1962 had whittled down the guerrillas from 65,000 to 7,000… It cost 3 million dollars a day for eight years, or $12 billion in French money. The “price” also included two mutinies of the French Army and one overthrow of the civilian government. At that price the French were winning the war in Algeria, militarily. The fact was that the military victory was totally meaningless. This is where the word “grandeur” applies to President de Gaulle: he was capable of seeing through the trees of military victory to a forest of political defeat and he chose to settle the Algerian insurgency by other means.
Some of these wars, of course, can be won, as in the Philippines, for example. The war was won there not through military action (there wasn’t a single special rifle invented for the Philippines, let alone more sophisticated ordnance) but through an extremely well-conceived civic action program and, of course, a good leader–[Ramon] Magsaysay.
Civic action is not the construction of privies or the distribution of antimalaria sprays. One can’t fight an ideology; one can’t fight a militant doctrine with better privies. Yet this is done constantly. One side says, “land reform,” and the other side says, “better culverts.” One side says, “We are going to kill all those nasty village chiefs and landlords.” The other side says, “Yes, but look, we want to give you prize pigs to improve your strain.” These arguments just do not match. Simple but adequate appeals will have to be found sooner or later.
W-a-y back in October 2011 the U.S. invaded, albeit in a small way, the Central African Republic, because, well, big countries can still do stuff like that in Africa. Now, in December 2012, we’ve evacuated our diplomats and civilians because the invasion failed and chaos reigns in yet another place the U.S. muddled. Happy New Year!
Obama sent some 100 U.S. troops to central Africa to help battle a rebel group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. American troops deployed to South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The troops were combat-equipped to “fight only in self-defense,” a dubious statement given that as armed troops they are stomping around someone else’s country. That sort of calls for an armed response by the homeboys, and thus the need to self-defend, yes?
FYI, The Lord’s Resistance Army are a bunch of terrible thugs who have conducted a two-decade spree of murder, rape and kidnapping. They have not, however, attacked the U.S. They live really far away from America.
Anyway, like Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and pretty everywhere else the U.S. has bumbled into, things are not working out in the Central African Republic. Another 50 U.S. troops have deployed to the African country of Chad to help evacuate U.S. citizens and embassy personnel from the neighboring Central African Republic’s capital of Bangui in the face of rebel advances toward the city. Obama informed congressional leaders of Thursday’s deployment in a letter Saturday citing a “deteriorating security situation” in the Central African Republic.
For those keeping score at home, this all tracks the growing US military presence throughout Africa (Admitted: Uganda, South Sudan, Mali, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Botswana, Kenya, Burundi, Ethiopia and Djibouti, currently some 5,000 personnel), complete with complex special ops, US troops on the ground engaged in “training” and occasional combat, along with the sad, usual accidents involving prostitutes and naughty boys that follow our military worldwide, most recently in Mali.
Bonus: As part of our ongoing public service, Where’s Hillary?, we note that the elusive still-recovering SecState had no comment on the evacuation of her diplomats from the Central African Republic.
Extra New Year’s Bonus: While the primary US engagement in Africa continues to morph into a military one, China’s dominant relationships on the continent are economic.
As a former BDE ops officer and former MiTT team leader, I can say I know Iraq. Your book was dead on. We were there at the same time. I especially liked you comparing the KBR guys to the dudes that won’t stop hanging around high school. Yep, that is what we all thought of those ass clowns. My brothers fought in Iraq and I lost my best friend to an IED in 2004. Anyways, thanks for the fast read and the laugh-out-loud moments.
John Stanton‘s reputation as a truth-teller/trouble-maker (depending on your politics) is solid.
His new book, The Raptor’s Eye, JIEDDO, MISO, General P and The Prophet Smith: Reports from Washington, DC 2012, Capitol of the American Empire, with contributions from Dr. Emma L. Briant, University of Glasgow, is a collection of essays on the state of Amerika.
Stanton made his name in part through his dissection of General Petraeus’ vaunted Human Terrain System (HTS), a failed component of Petraeus’ failed counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq. HTS employed anthropologists to work alongside the US Army, analyzing the Iraqis scientifically so the US could more effectively manipulate and/or kill them.
But that’s for another time. Here are a couple of quotes from Stanton’s new book to set the tone for you:
“The biggest reason why stuff like the General Petraeus scandal happens is because the Inspector General’s Office (IG) continues to discount or ignore complaints from subordinates, until they explode in their faces. There is no way Paula Broadwell could have jumped on a plane and appeared in Afghanistan, without someone asking questions, somewhere. Instead of going after General David Petraeus, or Paula Broadwell, the military would save a lot of time and trouble taking a look at the people who allegedly approved Paula’s access to classified information, and the people responsible for safeguarding that access. I guarantee you that you will find someone who raised questions, who was harassed, intimidated, or removed from their position. The IG complaint process is supposed to provide a safety net for people who come forward with allegations of misconduct. This system appears to have fallen apart, and IG offices appear to be either complicit or disinterested in pursuing allegations of suspicious conduct by senior officers and NCO’s”.
“It was not to New York City, Boston or Baltimore that Wall Street financiers and banking houses ran to in 2008 when they screwed up. It was a sprint to Washington, DC that they made in search of cash to salvage their bank accounts first, and then the American economy, second. This provided a fine lesson for those who deride the citizens and institutions of the National Capitol Region: the action is here DC, not outside the Beltway.”
Everyone is special in his/her own way, so take what applies below and leave the rest.
– Your State Department person is unlikely to have had any military service, or any training into the way the military works. Unless you clearly do not have to, make sure s/he understands who out-ranks whom, what acronyms mean and what will be expected of him/her at a meeting (sit quietly, agree with General, offer real options, etc.). Your Statie is unlikely to arrive knowing the difference between the S-2 and the S-4.
– At the same time, State people usually have a lot of experience blending in to foreign cultures. S/he may talk the talk like a 25 year O-6, but unless you clearly do not have to, make sure s/he understands who out-ranks whom, what acronyms mean and what will be expected of him/her at a meeting (sit quietly, agree with General, offer real options, etc.). Some State people will inadvertently overdo it, maybe too many war movies, so it is OK to advise against calling the visiting CSM “Sarge” or trying to out profane the “guys” in the “unit.”
– Inside an embassy, almost everyone but the ambassador calls each other by his/her first name. People are “asked” to do things and expected to understand when “ask” means “an order.” Even though State people may say “I’d like you to…” or “If you get a chance…” those words may or may not mean what they sound like. It is usually considered a bit uncool or crass to issue “orders” or “demand” things even when that is what you are clearly doing. State people can read these things like dogs understand each other by sniffing, but you may not get what’s going on. If a State person says “It is my strong recommendation…” for example, that means “Goddammit, do it now.” “I’ll consider it” or “That requires some study” are the same as “I’m busy that night” in the dating world.
– Explain to your Statie who to talk to about problems. S/he will have at least courtesy meetings regularly with your boss’ boss and that would be a bad place for the Statie to casually bring up a minor complaint about his CHU. While some Staties are indeed out to jerk you around, in most cases it is benign ignorance. Tell your Statie to come to you personally with any issues, however small.
– Telling your Statie to pack for a helo trip, or be prepared to overnight means nothing to them. Be specific: one small backpack you can carry yourself, boots not shoes, bring a sleeping bag, etc.
– State does not do Powerpoint well. If you are expecting slides or a presentation, get someone to help your Statie get ready. Be very specific: if you only need one slide, say that. If you need photos, a chart, whatever, don’t assume, specify.
– State is a very vertical organization. Everyone is at least a Major and thinks they are a Colonel. At the same time, very little authority is explicit or delegated. Expect even minor decisions to take time and be run up the chain. Whereas a decision run up through channels to a Four Star is a big deal, it is not uncommon in State for even relatively minor things to be “cleared” by the Deputy Chief of Mission or Ambassador as part of State’s deeply ingrained CYA culture. It may not mean that much, so don’t over-read into it.
– The State Department culture is very clearly comfortable with men and women in all roles. Sexual harassment is not tolerated in any form, even what some might call “friendly kidding around.” Gay Staties are very openly accepted and acknowledged. Ambassadors will travel with their partners on government travel. While usually age and rank in State track, State does accept entry-levels of all ages, and the promotion system can send relatively young people into higher positions. Your Statie’s attitude on these things may differ from yours.
– State rarely has any money. Think of the relationship like an old-timey date– you’ll pay. Most State people are encouraged to believe that DOD has unlimited personnel, money and resources. If you say something can’t be done for lack of these, however truthful, your State person will think you are not telling the truth.
– There is no physical fitness requirement at State. Medical clearance is mostly a negative thing– the Statie doesn’t have a life-threatening heart condition– and not a positive thing. Assess the physical demands of a task before sending a State person out into the field or make provisions to accommodate.
– Commitment will vary. Personnel rules at State require most employees to “volunteer” to do some time in conflict zones whether they really want to or not. Many lack the service ethic. Don’t be too surprised if your Statie bitches openly about having to be there and does very little. Perhaps offer the option to “backstop the operation from the FOB” instead of going outside the wire?
– At the same time, many “field” positions have been created by State to satisfy some Washington-level political need, and your Statie, even if pumped-up herself, may not have anything pushed to her from the embassy and will need to be kept busy.
– Be honest and clear about living conditions. Most of the State people will be flexible if prepared right, but simply saying “we’ll be at COP Hammer for two days” is not enough. Best to say “two days unless weather closes down the helos, it’ll be four to a dry CHU, probably MREs for two out of three meals, no good Internet.”
– State does not issue gear to its people. Whatever your Statie has s/he bought at LL Bean and carried over in a suitcase. The shopping list was spread like chlamydia, from the last Statie to the next. It is not their fault. Help them if appropriate, maybe even a shopping trip to the Exchange. Your Statie having the right boots will make everyone’s life easier. At the same time, gently turn the volume down from 11 for the Statie festooned with belts and web gear and GPS’ and patches and pouches.
– Information sharing at State is poor. Information is hoarded like loot, to be exchanged and traded. Don’t assume your Statie has been briefed, is informed or has shared. Check, or take the responsibility necessary to ensure your mission works. That one part of the embassy knows something does not mean anyone else there knows it. Info sharing in/out of the Political and Security sections is notoriously poor.
– State is big on “consultations,” in person chats among itself. State people are paranoid about their written communications being thrown back at them (Wikileaks) and will always worry about Freedom of Information Action requests and refer to fears that “this’ll end up in the Washington Post.” Be prepared for them to have to spend a lot of time at the home office figuring out what’s up, and don’t expect to get anything sensitive done in writing, even if classified. More than the military, what State says on paper and what they do in practice vary.
– The biggest brownie points within State are given for “reporting,” often long, literary pieces “from the field” (again, see Wikileaks). If you want to make your Statie look good, throw him/her some tidbits or expose them to some tribal meeting or something to report on. As noted, don’t expect secrecy, but often State prizes most highly slice of life pieces anyway, “taking the pulse of the people” kind of soft stuff. This reporting is referred to as a cable, the term coming from long ago (last year) when actual telegrams were sent via wire back to Washington.
– Almost everything that matters in State is affected by the very specific words on the yearly performance evaluation, EER. Your Statie will be consumed by this throughout the spring, as preparation and negotiations (it is an interactive process) begin in March or so and continue into May. This is the most stressful time of the year for most State people. Especially at the lower levels where the Statie lacks a clear “corridor reputation,” what is said on the EER will significantly affect them. Similarly, State’s next-assignment system is equally hazardous and complex to navigate. This is usually done starting in late summer into early winter, and is also a huge source of anxiety and State stress, FYI.
– All Statie’s are assigned to “cones,” area of specialty. The formal ones are political, economic, consular, public diplomacy or administrative. Security is part of admin but really a world of its own. Ask your Statie about her cone as an icebreaker. Like in the military, “where have you been assigned before?” is a very easy neutral question. Statie’s usually like to say city names instead of country or base names, so it’s Tokyo, not Japan or Yokosuka.
– State personnel assigned to the embassy often do not want to travel into the field, and/or cannot arrange travel out. It may not mean anything that no one senior from the embassy ever visits, or that your Statie’s every meeting with his boss takes place when summoned to the embassy. When seniors do visit, they may feel they should only see their own State person to avoid bothering you and slip back out. If protocol requires a courtesy call or a briefing to senior leaders, best to make this clear way ahead of time if possible. If a senior embassy person does come by on short notice and fails to meet with the Colonel, it may mean nothing. In most cases no harm is intended.
– At the same time, it will be good relations with your Statie to have him sit in on your higher-ups visits. S/he’ll report back to the embassy and brownie points will be awarded for the “access,” especially if the Statie fancies himself a “liaison.”
– In war zones, State offers its people usually three R&Rs a year. No temps or replacements will be sent. There is usually no one in the co-pilot’s seat waiting to fill in, and if there is a deputy s/he will not take charge. Plan for long gaps when whatever it is that your Statie is doing won’t be done. State rarely allows for any significant left-seat/right-seat hand off time. Overlaps, if they occur at all, are usually a matter of a few informal days as the incumbent tries to get out as soon as possible by announcing how well-prepared her new colleague is.
BONUS: A now-classic 1998 essay, DEFENSE IS FROM MARS STATE IS FROM VENUS, by Colonel Rickey L. Rife of the Army War College, is well-worth reading, especially for its still-relevant discussion of decision making styles at State and within the military.
A more official happy-talk depiction of State for a DOD audience is also somewhat entertaining.
Despite the utter failure of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one thing is certain: our future wars will continue to feature civilian-military mixed efforts. This is the sadistic high school football coach’s version of “we’re gonna do this over and over until you losers get it right.”
Getting along is not easy; military personnel will always vastly out number civilians and so most of the adapting needs to happen on our side of the equation, not theirs. The military has its own culture, which you do not share.
Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson has an article in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the US military to understand it. His piece is very good, and worth reading, but does not go far enough. Some additional ideas, in no particular order:
1) Earn respect by being very good at whatever it is you are doing there. Don’t expect second chances to move from the dumb ass to the useful category. Don’t be a know it all either, especially if your knowledge is mostly book learning.
2) 0900 means be there no later than 0845. Don’t operate on civilian time. If you’re late for a movement, you’ll be left behind.
3) If you are entitled to privileges beyond what the military gets, share if you are allowed (sat phone, laptop, movies, books) or keep quiet about it (booze).
4) Follow the rules even if you can get away with not following the rules to earn respect. Shave, keep your hair cut, don’t dress like a slob.
5) Start off formal, work back toward casual. Expect to be invited to call senior officers by their first names. Expect to decline to do so unless in private.
6) Anything to do with real military stuff, such as defensive plans or drills, shut up, pay attention and follow along. Don’t end up dead weight that has to be carried along.
7) Speaking of which, always be able to and always do carry your own gear. Even if you are short, weak and slight, hump what is yours and do not let a soldier carry it for you (they will try). If you can’t carry it, leave it behind. Check how much room you’ll have for stuff on various forms of transport, like MRAPs and different model helos.
8 ) Expect to be tested. Expect things to be thrown your way to see what you’ll do– meet deadlines, help out, or skip things and get away with being lazy. Soldiers have to figure out who they can trust and who they can’t.
9) Socialize. If you are one of many civilians, try hard not to split off into a civilian group at meals.
10) Adopt a sports team if you don’t follow one. There is not a more neutral topic in the military than sports. It’ll be a while before you can argue politics or news, but sports is always a decent topic and opinions are encouraged. You don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia, just be able to join in. Surprise people by being “normal.”
11) Listen carefully to how soldiers complain. Complaining is a right of being in uniform, but you must be careful not to exceed the boundaries, or to make it seem like you are not being cared for.
12) Do not criticize another soldier, even if the troops are doing it. They’re insiders, you’re not. Do feel free to poke fun at yourself to show that you are not an asshole like the last civilian. Just because soldiers of different races can make racial jokes with one another, don’t think you can.
13) If told to wear body armor, or a helmet, or gloves or whatever, just do it. Don’t try to get away with not. There may or may not be a good reason, but that is not your concern.
14) If you don’t understand an acronym, ask. Otherwise people will expect that you understood and expect you to do whatever is expected. Nobody will translate everything for you and as long as they do you are an outsider.
15) Don’t play soldier. Don’t wear military gear you don’t need, don’t over use slang or profanity, don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, or know from books. Be polite and respectful but don’t overdo the Sirs and Ma’ams. Be who you are, though maybe a slightly more laid back and in-shape version of who you are.
16) If you agree to do something, absolutely do it. This is not an environment to say “Let’s get together sometime” without meaning it.
17) Share hardships. Expect to always be offered the best food, the best sleeping arrangements, the ride instead of walking. Decline sometimes, say yes when it seems better than pissing someone off by declining (hard to judge– that’s why you get the big bucks).
18) Special for State Department heroes: don’t ask officers to fetch coffee for you, don’t wear bow ties, don’t speak in passive-aggressive slights, don’t complain when your shoes get dusty, don’t wear white pants to the field, don’t show up without a Powerpoint, don’t ask soldiers to take notes for you, don’t talk about your next assignment to Paris, overall just don’t be a dick and make it harder on the rest of us.
“Why Barack, I’m the Ghost of Presidential Legacies Past.”
“What are you doing here? It’s just Thanksgiving. I thought you guys visited on Christmas Eve, anyway. It starts earlier every year, doesn’t it?”
“You’re confusing me with other spirits, Barack. I visit second-term presidents just after they are reelected to help them map out their foreign policy legacy.”
“I’m calling the Secret Service. Get out of my bedroom!”
“No need Mr. President. No one can see me but you. I’m here to talk about the future, about America overseas, so you can achieve your place in history. I am here to help guide you.”
“You do this for all presidents? What happened with Bush, then?”
“That was unfortunate. It turned out Rove had been a hyena in a previous life and could somehow still smell me, so I got chased out. And see how it ended up for Bush? His legacy is fear of overseas travel, wondering how far the Hague’s reach really is.”
“OK Spirit, what do you want from me?”
“Barack, you were elected the first time on the promise of hope and change. You got reelected mostly by not being Mitt Romney. You need to reclaim the original mantel. You need to be bold in foreign affairs and leave America positioned for this new world. You won the election by not being the candidate from the 1950s. Now, you need to establish a foreign policy for an America of 2012 instead of 1950.”
“What do you mean, Spirit?”
“Stop searching for demons. Let’s start with the Middle East. You inherited a mess in Iraq and Afghanistan, certainly, thanks to Rove and his canine sense of smell, but what did you do with it?”
“I ended the war in Iraq.”
“No, you agreed not to push back when the Iraqis threw the troops out in 2010. The war continues there, fought in little ugly flare-ups among Iranian proxies. But that’s spilled milk. What you need to do is reclaim your State Department from what is now a lost cause.”
“What do you mean?”
“Much like the way Vietnam destroyed the army, Iraq and Afghanistan gravely wounded your State Department. Why does America still maintain its largest embassy in a place like Baghdad? That massive hollow structure sucks money and, more importantly, personnel, from your limited diplomatic establishment. Scale it back to the mid-size level the situation there really requires, and move those personnel resources to places America badly needs diplomacy. As a bonus, you’ll remove a scab. That big embassy is seen throughout the Middle East as a symbol of hubris, a monument to folly. Show them better — repurpose most of it into a new university or an international conference center and signal a new beginning.”
“You mentioned Iranian influence in Iraq, so yeah, thanks, George, for that little gift. I have the Israelis up my ass looking for a war, and it seems every day another thing threatens to spark off a fight with the Iranians.”
“Iran can be your finest achievement. Nixon went to China, remember.”
“You know Spirit, you actually look a little like Henry Kissinger in this light.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot. Coincidences, right? Barack, you can start the process of rebalancing the Middle East. Too many genies have slipped out of the bottle to put things back where they were and, like it or not, your predecessor casually, ignorantly allowed Iran to reclaim its place as a regional power. Let’s deal with it. Don’t paint yourself into a corner over the nukes. You know as well as I do that there are many countries who are threshold nuclear powers, able to make the jump anytime from lab rats to bomb holders. You also know that Israel has had the bomb for a long time and, despite that, despite the Arab hatred of Israel and despite the never-ending aggressive stance of Israel, their nukes have not created a Middle East arms race. Start talking to the Iranians. There are any number of would-be middle men out there, and even Iran’s foreign minister has floated a few trial balloons. Follow the China model — set up the diplomatic machinery, create some fluid back channels, maybe try a cultural exchange or two. They don’t play ping-pong over there, but they are damn good at chess. Feel your way forward. Bring the Brits and the Canadians along with you. Give the good guys in Tehran something to work with, something to go to their bosses with.”
“But they’ll keep heading toward nuclear weapons.”
“That may be true. America’s regular chest-thumping military action in the Middle East has created an unstoppable desire for Iran to arm itself. They watched very, very closely how the North Koreans insulated themselves with a nuke. The world let that happen and guess what? Even George W. stopped talking about North Korea and the stupid Axis of Evil. And guess what again? No war, and no nuclear arms race in Asia. Gaddafi went the opposite route, and look what happened to him, sodomized on TV while your Secretary of State laughed about it on TV.”
“But sanctions are working on Iran. We’re crushing their economy.”
“Maybe, though there are lots of holes. Regardless, real change in Iran, like anywhere, is going to have to come from within. Think China again. With prosperity comes a desire by the newly-rich to enjoy their money. They start to demand better education, more opportunities and a future for their kids. A repressive government with half a brain yields to those demands for its own survival and before you know it, you’ve got iPads and McDonalds happening. Are you going to go to war with China? Of course not. We’re trading partners, and we have shared interests in regional stability in Asia that benefit us both. Sure, there will be friction, but it can be managed. We did it, with some rough spots, in the Mediterranean with the Soviets and we can do it in the Gulf, what President Kennedy called during the Cold War the “precarious rules of the status quo.” I don’t think this will result in a triumphant state visit to Tehran, but get the game started. Defuse the situation, offer to bring Iran into the world system, and see if they don’t follow.”
“I can’t let them go nuclear.”
“Well, I don’t know if you can stop it, and focusing just on that binary black and white blocks off too many other, better options. Look, they and a whole bunch of other places can weaponize faster than you can stop them. What you need to do is work at the need to weaponize, pick away at the software if you will, the reasons they feel they need to have nukes, instead of just trying to muck up the hardware. Use all the tools in the toolbox, Barack.”
“But they’re Islamos.”
“Whatever you want to call it. Islam is a powerful force in the Middle East and it is not going away. Your attempts, and those of your predecessor, to try and create ‘good’ governments failed. Look at the hash in Syria, Libya and, of course, Iraq, real sacks of it. You need to find a real-politick with Islamic governments. Look past the rhetoric and ideology and start talking. Otherwise you’ll end up just like the U.S. did all over Latin America, throwing in with crappy thugs simply because they mouthed pro-American platitudes. Not a legacy move, Barry. You’re sorting your way through this in Egypt. It will feel odd at first, but the new world order has created a state for states that are not a puppet of the U.S., and not always an ally, but typically someone we can deal with, work with, maybe even influence occasionally. That’s diplomacy, and therein lies your chance at legacy. Demilitarize your foreign policy. Redeploy your diplomats from being political hostages in Baghdad and Kabul and put them to work all over the Middle East.”
“Sure Spirit, nothing to it. Anything else you want me to do before breakfast?”
“Hey, you asked for the job — twice — not me.”
“Spirit, sorry to go off topic, but is that an 8-track tape player you’re carrying around?”
“Hah, good eye Barack. KC and the Sunshine Band, Greatest Hits. Things work oddly in the spirit world and one of the quirks is that unloved electronics from your side migrate to us. Here, look at my cell phone, big as a shoebox, with a retractable antenna. I still play games on an old Atari. We got Zunes and Blackberries piled up like snow drifts over there. But back to business.”
“What else, Spirit?”
“As a ghost of sorts, I’m used to taking the long view of things. I know better than most that memory lasts longer than aspiration, that history influences the future. You have it now in your power to amend an ugly sore, America’s dark legacy of the war of terror. Guantanamo. You realize that every day that place stays open it helps radicalize ten young men for every one you hold in prison. Demand your intel agencies give you a straight-up accounting on who is locked away there. For the very few that probably really are as horrible as we’d like to believe, designate them something and lock them away in an existing Federal Super Max. Just do it. Turn the others over to the UN for resettlement. It is an ugly deal, but it is an ugly problem. Close the place down early in your term, let the short-term heat burn off and move on.”
“Same thing. Cut your losses. Accelerate the drawdown. You’ll keep your bases, so your back is covered against anything really awful happening and embarrassing you. The Taliban is disorganized enough, and under Pakistani ISA control enough, that there is unlikely to be any fall-of-Saigon scenarios. Afghanistan will be on a slow burn for, well, probably forever. Among other reasons, Pakistan needs it to stay that way. They like a weak but not failed state on their western border and you can manage that. The special ops guys you leave behind can deal with any serious messes. Corruption and internal disagreements mean there will never be a real Afghan nation-state, no matter how badly you want one. The soldier suicides and green-on-blue attacks are a horror. You are going to accomplish nothing by dragging that corpse of a war around with you for two more years, so cut it off now.”
“Next is drones, right?”
“Yes Barack, next is drones. This is fool’s gold and you bought into it big. You thought it was risk-free, no American lives in danger, always the 500 pound elephant in the room when considering military action. But, to borrow a phrase, look at the collateral damage. First, you have had to further militarize Africa, setting up your main drone base in Djibouti. The Chinese are building cultural ties and signing deals all over Africa, and we’re just throwing up barbed wire. Who’ll win in the long-run? Like Gitmo, every thug you kill creates more, radicalizes more, gives the bad guys another propaganda lede. Seriously, haven’t you noticed that the more you kill, the more there seem to be to kill? You need more friends for America and fewer people saying they are victims of America. Make your intel people truly pick out the real, real bad guys, the ones who absolutely threaten American lives. Be comfortable in publicly being able to articulate every decision. Don’t be lazy with bringing death. Don’t continue to slide downhill into killing easier and easier just because you have a new technology that falsely seems without risk. Seek a realistic form of containment, and stop chasing complete destruction. You need an end game. The risk is there my friend, you just have to pull back and see it in the bigger picture.”
“Bigger picture, eh? That’s what this legacy business is all about, isn’t it? Seeing Iranian nukes not as the problem per se, but as part of a solution set that doesn’t just leave a glowing hole in the ground, but instead fills in things, builds a base for more building.”
“You’re getting it now. And even as domestic politics suffers in gridlock, you have room to do things in foreign policy that will mark history for you. As a second term president, you are freed from a lot of political restraints, just like you told Medvedev you would be.”
“Open mikes, who knew, right? But what about my successor? The party wants me to leave things ready for 2016.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got Springsteen working on new songs for the campaign. Hey, you know anything that rhymes well with ‘Hillary’? Right now we’ve only got ‘pillory’ and ‘distillery.’ Bruce is stuck on that.”
“But look, Spirit, I appreciate the advice and all, but to be honest, all this you propose is a lot of work. It’s complicated, needs to be managed, has a lot of potential for political friction. I could, you know, just stick with things the way they are. People seem to have gotten used to a permanent state of low-level warfare everywhere, drone killings, the occasional boil flaring up like Benghazi. It wasn’t a serious election issue at all. Why should I bother?”
“Well, among other things Barack, you’ve got two very sweet, wonderful reasons sleeping just down the hallway. It is all about their future, maybe even more than yours.”
“You make a lot of sense Spirit. America retains immense power, to do good or to muck things up. I may even earn my Nobel Peace Prize this time. It will be my legacy. I don’t know how to thank you, Spirit.”
“Well, actually, there is one small thing, ironically a domestic issue.”
“Certainly. What can I do for you Spirit?”
“It’s actually for a friend of mine, lives out in Colorado.”
“He needs a job? Should I appoint him ambassador somewhere?”
“No Barack, just two words. Legalize it.”
A few years ago, I retired the Department of Health and Human Services. During my last years of federal service, I was an international assignee.
Because I was both new to and naive about USG “foreign service” my tour was eye-opening. As I found myself routinely unable to complete “impossible tasks” assigned to me, I felt obliged to “explain” to my foreign service superiors what they failed to grasp about laboratory work. Slowly I realized that Van Buren is correct: my task was to spend money. I was supposed to “demonstrate” that the money had “been spent”. In my case, I was supposed to demonstrate that I had “built laboratory capacity” and “strengthened laboratory infrastructure”. Because laboratory-testing demonstrations are not as dramatic as chicken-processing demonstrations, I am especially grateful for his book. He tells the story I have to tell on a grander scale and in a more entertaining way.
I wish that those who understood the pretentiousness of our “do something” foreign policy could hear what Van Buren has to say. He is not the only foreign service assignee to have witnessed our national ineptitude.
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