• The British Empire, the Eagle and the Bear: Non-Options for Crimea and Ukraine

    March 5, 2014 // 30 Comments »




    “You just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests,” John Kerry said on Meet the Press. “This is an act of aggression that is completely trumped up in terms of its pretext. It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century.”

    Following Kerry’s comment, laughter could be heard from Iraq (twice), Afghanistan, Libya, many undisclosed parts of Africa, Somalia, Pakistan, Yemen, Syria and across the Middle East. Faint chortles echoed out of Grenada, Bosnia, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. Snickers in Panama, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and El Salvador.

    The Triumph of Syria

    Kerry of course had previously brought the joy of laughter to the world in the midst of the last Syrian “crisis.” Kerry clumsily tried to soften resistance to the Obama administration’s urge to launch strikes against al-Assad’s regime with the bizarre claim that such an attack would be “unbelievably small.”

    But like any good comedian, Kerry saved the big joke for last, when, in London enflight to the new, bestest war ever, Kerry famously and offhandedly said conflict could be avoided if the Syrians turned in their chemical weapons. In practically the same heartbeat, the Russians stepped into the diplomatic breach, with Vladimir Putin as an unlikely peacemaker. The U.S. did not attack Syria and the show ended with a good belly laugh for all.

    Onward to the Ukraine

    With Kerry once again taking the show on the road by flying to the Ukraine, all of cable TV has arisen as one demanding options, demanding cards to be played, demanding a catalog of “what the U.S. can do.” As a public service, here is that catalog of U.S. options for the Crimean Crisis:

    –Seal Team 6 will infiltrate Russia, ring Putin’s doorbell late at night and run away in Operation DING&DITCH. Ashton Kutcher will lead the Team.

    — A senior U.S. Embassy official in Moscow will cluck his tongue and roll his eyes disapprovingly.

    — State Department social media rangers will send out Tweets calling Putin a “poopy head.” The Russian translation by State will actually come across as “A green dog’s sandwich” but sure, they’ll get we’re mad.

    — The NSA will hack Putin’s web cam sessions, showing him shirtless. Putin himself will turn around and post the video online.

    — The NSA will also break into Putin’s NetFlix queue and change everything to romantic comedies and Jack Black movies.

    — The U.S. will recruit remaining allies Lichtenstein, Monaco, East Timor and Freedonia to enforce sanctions against Russia.

    — The State Department will direct Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland to say “F*ck the E.U.,” in a recorded conversation with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.

    — Obama will unfriend Putin on Facebook.


    Flashman at the Charge

    As is obvious, there is little the U.S. can, should or will do. The more the U.S. swaggers hollowly about the Crimea, the sadder it all sounds.

    John Kerry, in what he thought was a stinging remark, labeled Russia’s invasion of the Crimean “19th century behavior in the 21st century.” As usual, Kerry was close to being right without actually realizing what he said.

    The 19th century player in this Great Gameis actually the U.S. itself. After following the footsteps of the British Empire into Iraq, after plunging deep into the graveyard of the British Empire in Afghanistan, after fumbling in the British swamp of Pakistan, the U.S. now returns to the land of the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Crimea. Like the Victorian British, the U.S. imagines the world as a chessboard where it can move pieces around with predictable results, shaping world affairs to its own advantage while placing opponents in check. If that was ever true, the events of the last decade demonstrate it is not true anymore.

    As with everyone else who failed to learn the lessons of history and thus will be doomed to repeat them, inevitably next, the U.S. will slip beneath the waves as did the British Empire, over-extended, bankrupt and endlessly tied to foreign policy adventures that mean nothing while the world changes around it. It’s been a good run though, right?



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya

    The Militarization of Foreign Policy

    May 10, 2011 // 11 Comments »

    groucho at embassy freedoniaThere really are more military band members than State Department Foreign Service Officers. The whole of the Foreign Service is smaller than the complement aboard one aircraft carrier. Despite the role that foreign affairs has always played in America’s drunken intercourse abroad, the State Department remains a very small part of the pageant. The Transportation Security Administration has about 58,000 employees; the State Department has about 22,000. The Department of Defense (DOD) has nearly 450,000 employees stationed overseas, with 2.5 million more in the US.

    At the same time, Congress continues to hack away at State’s budget. The most recent round of bloodletting saw State lose some $8 billion while DOD gained another $5 billion. The found fiver at DOD will hardly be noticed in their overall budget of $671 billion. The $8 billion loss from State’s total of $47 billion will further cripple the organization. The pattern is familiar and has dogged State-DOD throughout the war of terror years. No more taxi vouchers and office supplies for you!

    What you do get for your money is the militarization of foreign policy. During my year in Iraq as a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) Leader I watched with some sadness as the majority of our engagement with Iraqis in the field was conducted by young Army captains. I was the lone Foreign Service Officer assigned to a brigade of some 3000 soldiers and while I stayed busy and traveled out of the Forward Operating Base almost daily, there was only so much of me, even overweight and often incompetent as I am. I covered a rural area that sprawled like spilled paint, some one million Iraqis.

    The bottom line was that for most Iraqis not living and working in the Green Zone, the only Americans they saw wore green and carried weapons.

    The militarization issue was always visible at the smallest units of diplomacy in Iraq, the PRTs. The Department of State struggled to field adequate numbers of qualified employees from among its own ranks, forcing the creation of an army of contractors, called 3161s after the name of the legislation in 5 USC 3161 that created their hiring program. The need for 3161s to live on a military base skewed hiring toward self-selecting former military, nearly self-defeating the idea of providing a civilian side to reconstruction.

    The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction in its review of the PRTs’ first year of operation found an Army veterinarian developing agriculture programs, an Air Force aviation maintenance manager as a PRT co-leader, and advisers to Iraqi provincial governors who included a former Navy submariner, a Marine ultrasound technician, and an Army drill sergeant. My own PRT staff fit a similar profile, with the exception of my agricultural advisor, a pig farmer from Missouri. He always felt a bit out of place in Iraq when no one wanted to discuss hogs with him.

    To be fair, out in the field many of those young Army captains did a pretty good job of engaging Iraqis. Many officers were smart, well-educated and generally enthusiastic about their missions of handing out supplies, reconstructing schools and government buildings and generally promoting the idea that America wanted to be besty friends with Iraq over three cups of tea. The problem, however, went something like this:

    Captain: Here’s money for a new village well. We’re friends now, brother.

    Iraqi: You invaded our country, occupy it still and accidentally, you say, killed my son in an air raid.

    Captain: That wasn’t me dude. I was in college when that happened.

    Iraqi: They looked like you. You invaded my country, occupy it still and accidentally, you say, killed my son.

    Captain: Um, how about some more money to buy sheep? Some medical supplies?

    Iraqi: Can you guys please finish your tea and just leave Iraq?

    Unfortunately, that was the good news. There were also some young officers uncomfortable with the hearts and minds mission, unable to switch back and forth from their game face to their happy face seventy two times a day. I can’t blame them; diplomacy is not what they were trained to do. Folks don’t seem to understand that if you want a young kid to put down his rifle, you have to give him some other kind to tools to get what he needs. Patton had a clear mission that could be communicated down to the lowest levels: kill Germans until we reach Berlin, then stop. Unless/until we can attain the same clarity in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, we do a disservice to our soldiers as they risk their lives trying to implement our ambiguity.

    You see, there is something to be said for having America’s engagements overseas done by civilians. That system—we call it diplomacy—has worked pretty well for what it is for most of the last couple of thousand years. The military does some stuff well, and diplomats do some stuff well. Remember your Clausewitz: war is what happens only after diplomacy fails.

    Despite the idea of foreign policy being conducted by diplomats, not soldiers, dating back to the ancients, America increasingly seems to be asking its soldiers to take over the job. Have a look at Afghanistan, where beginning last summer DOD personnel (albeit current civilians) began replacing previously untrained US military personnel and contractors as advisers to top levels of the Afghan defense and interior ministries. The credit goes to a relatively new Pentagon program called the Ministry of Defense Advisors (MoDA).

    Within two months after the first deployment of 17 advisers in Kabul, General Petraeus demanded 100 more before the end of this year. Another such program is the Defense Institution Reform Initiative (DIRI), which aims at the defense ministries in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It identifies gaps and then supplies teams of subject matter experts to work with a partner nation.

    (BTW, if you’re looking for this kind of work, there are plenty of positions.)

    In scenic southwest Asia, recent budget maneuvers have sent the Pakistan Counterinsurgency Capability Fund (PCCF) back to the Pentagon for the rest of the year at least. The Pentagon was the original owner of that fund. Transferring the money as well as the program’s management to State was a key part of Secretary Clinton’s plan to assert more State Department control of foreign assistance programs.

    State tried to take over the PCCF in early 2010; some top senators wanted to give State control over the fund but couldn’t do so last year because State wasn’t prepared to take on the mission.

    As you read this, Congress considers how much of the mission in Iraq (and the money that goes with it) will be passed to State when the military effects some form of a pullout from that country later this year. No one is sure what will happen; Senator Lindsey Graham is doubtful State can do it without the military around.

    The really hah hah not really funny part of this is that DOD does not want all this money and all these missions. In a reversal of bureaucratic infighting that could yet unset the time-space continuum, the loudest voice on the Hill asking for more money for State is SecDef Gates. “The State Department has an unusually strong advocate in Secretary Gates in that regard,” Senator Carl Levin noted. In fact, as Foreign Policy explained, Gates floated a memo proposing that State and DOD share about $2 billion worth of foreign assistance money and administer the accounts jointly. But Hill staffers, who would be the ones appropriating the money, said there was no follow-through.

    Oops.

    Why can’t, as one journalist put it, State get any love from Congress? Foreign Policy again with a big For Example:

    “I think there is a self-limiting quality to how Embassy Baghdad is functioning,” said Maj. Gen. Robert Caslen, the recently returned commander of all multinational forces in Iraq’s northern region.

    “They are not actually doing the research to say this is what we need and if you don’t give me this, this is what we are going to have to take away and here is the effect it will have on the effort. Rather they are going through things and saying this is what we think the piece of the pie is we’re are going to get and here is some stuff we could do for that money. That’s all fine and good, but if you don’t actually accomplish the mission in the end, then you actually fail. What good is that?”

    For example, Caslen said the PRTs role in actually helping Iraqis in rural areas with reconstruction is vital and abandoning it in any way would be a mistake. “The task that the Iraqis value more than anything is reconstruction and that clearly is a PRT task,” Caslen said. Regarding plans to alter the PRTs away from the reconstruction mission, he said, “That course of action puts our future relationship at risk. We definitely need the PRTs.”

    The State Department started shutting down PRTs as early as 2009, typically due to lack of competent staffing. Most of the larger PRTs faded away or were combined in September 2010, and the whole PRT structure will disappear completely in Iraq by spring of this year.

    While the military’s can-do responses to Congress keep paying off, State tends to run the bath water lukewarm when handed a task on the scale of PRT work.

    Former PRT staffer Blake Stone offered this assessment:

    This lack of specific planning guidance stemmed from the inherent inability of the State Department to engage in this sort of work—executing what essentially amounted to the last two phases of a military operation. State Department Foreign Service Officer skill sets are much too passive—the collecting and reporting of information, for example, were the professional stock-in-trade of both of our political cone FSO team leaders.

    The primary interests of both our team leaders were good reporting and submitting weekly reports to Washington. The absence of the ability to plan, execute, and lead stability and reconstruction operations was painfully apparent—it just was not a required skill set or core competency within State. For those of us who came to the State Department directly from the military, this nearly universal truism was a constant source of frustration and disappointment. Our State Department leadership failed either to plan effectively or to lead the civilian reconstruction effort.

    A military colleague working with another ePRT summed it all up, saying:

    State is less concerned about what actually gets done. They don’t establish metrics for themselves, or measure accomplishments. More interested in process, policy, effective communication and establishing connections that allow them to generate good reports. The State Department is very happy just to be. And whether or not anything actually gets done is not important to them.

    I wish the sad tales were confined to Iraq and State. Instead, here is an example of how badly broken the system really is: in FY2009 USAID was authorized $35 million to build cyclone shelters in Bangladesh. It was two-year money which will expire at the end of FY11. USAID was unable to execute the program and late last year proposed to spend the money developing home businesses instead for some reason. The US Ambassador to Bangladesh, recognizing that the Bangladeshis needed and had been offered cyclone shelters, requested that Special Operations Civil Affairs personnel instead execute the original program. USAID just finished transferring the money to PACOM and Special Operations troops and seeing to the construction of the shelters.

    Bottom Line: As long as the civilian development agencies are unable to execute needed programs, and convinced that partner nations will be happy with any well-intentioned program whether or not it meets their expressed needs, the military will be the tool of choice.

    Our execution of outreach programs reminds of a line from a Steppenwolf song–“He only had a dollar to live on ’til next Monday, but he spent it all on comfort for his mind.” If we are to get and effectively use a greater share of the budget, we need to spend the money on some goal beyond making us feel good about ourselves.

    State continues to focus on nonsense while at the same time complaining that the military is usurping the State role.

    The slow pace of rebalancing national security spending and the lack of a comprehensive strategy for guiding that process is the subject of a book by former OMB national security funding chief Gordon Adams, Buying National Security: How America Plans and Pays for Its Global Role and Safety at Home.

    “The tool kit is out of whack,” Adams told The Cable. “There’s been a major move over the last 10 years to expand the Defense Department’s agenda, which has been creeping into the foreign-policy agenda in new and expensive ways.”

    What win can State point to to claw back Congressional confidence? What accomplishments, for example, will be cited as the Department works (read: fails) to convince Congress to pour more money into the Iraq mission and thus demilitarize that hunk o’ foreign policy love? The $58 billion it helped spend on “reconstruction” and democracy building in Iraq? The world’s largest Embassy, in Baghdad, that cost $1 billion and includes a driving range, a bar and outdoor water misters? Good spelling and grammar on Wikileaks? State needs to rack up some wins.

    There is not a lot to work with at present, even for the most dedicated PR people and Congressional liaisons. The results described above are almost inevitable.



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq, Libya

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