• Abu Muqawama Explains the State Department, USAID to You

    August 1, 2012

    Tags: , ,
    Posted in: Afghanistan, Embassy/State, Iraq

    Andrew Exum blogs as “Abu Muqawama” at World Politics Review.

    A recent column, State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors, explains the State Department to you. The bold emphasis below is added as Andrew is too polite to have done so himself.

    In the month since Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran published Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan, his brutal review of the U.S. and allied war effort in Afghanistan, it has been interesting to observe the reactions from the various tribes of the Beltway.

    No one escapes criticism in Chandrasekaran’s narrative, this columnist included, but the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Marine Corps come under especially heavy fire.

    The reaction from the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. military as a whole has been to add the book and its criticisms to the list of lessons that need to be learned from the disastrous U.S. experience in Afghanistan.

    The State Department and USAID, by contrast, have reacted angrily to Chandrasekaran’s account, blaming the messenger rather than looking into what they might learn from the message.

    On the surface, these disparate reactions illustrate how the U.S. military has evolved into a learning organization since the end of the Vietnam War and how other U.S. departments and agencies have not. But these reactions reveal much more than that.

    First, yes, let us praise the fact that the U.S. military is more willing to learn from its experiences, and errors, than other departments and agencies. Both top-down efforts promoted by the U.S. military’s senior leadership and grass-roots efforts initiated by junior officers have combined over the past 40 years to make the military a better learning organization. The formalized After Action Review process, the Center for Army Lessons Learned and websites like CompanyCommand.com have allowed the military to gather and promulgate operational and tactical lessons.

    But it is easy to criticize yourself and thus learn lessons when you are a confident organization. Since at least the First Gulf War, American society has raised the U.S. military onto a pedestal, constantly praising the military, even when its performance has been, by objective standards, not terribly great. Is it any wonder U.S. military leaders feel they have room for introspection and self-criticism?

    The State Department rarely garners similar praise from the American people or its elected leaders. Republican congressmen on Capitol Hill talk a big game on national security and vow never to cut the military’s budget, while at the same time threatening to slash the International Affairs budget by 20 percent. U.S. military officers and troops are held up as the best of what America has to offer, while diplomats . . . well, few Americans are quite sure of what diplomats even do.

    That’s a pity because, despite bungling the admittedly challenging Afghanistan mission, the State Department has a pretty good story to tell about itself. One of the illicit delights of reading the WikiLeaks cables has been to discover what wonderful diplomats the United States has in its service. The reports written by U.S. ambassadors and their subordinates are knowledgeable, literate, pithy and often amusing. They confirm, in a larger sample size, my anecdotal experiences visiting embassies around the globe. I remember, for example, spending an afternoon with the U.S. Embassy in Riyadh in 2010 and being blown away by the competence and professionalism of the staff. Many foreign service officers were on their third tours in the country, and even the newest officer — charged with running the motor pool, of all things — spoke fluent classical Arabic as well as several dialects.

    Unfortunately, the State Department is not very good at telling its story to either the U.S. Congress or the American people. When people effectively stand up for the budget of the State Department and make the case for a larger International Affairs budget, it is too often either U.S. military officers or conservative, “pro-military” defense intellectuals. The State Department and its foreign service officers deserve some of the blame here. I recently finished John Lewis Gaddis’ biography of George F. Kennan, and Kennan’s life is a reminder that those Americans who are most knowledgeable about other cultures can often be the most contemptuous and ignorant of U.S. domestic political culture. Foreign service officers who do not hesitate to spend endless afternoons drinking chai with Central Asian warlords somehow can’t, by and large, stomach the occasional coffee with a junior congressman from Nebraska.

    The result is that the State Department as an organization constantly feels that it is under pressure and underappreciated by its appropriators. We should not wonder, then, why such an organization fails to be introspective or critical of itself. That shortchanges both America and the State Department, though, because as Chandrasekaran’s book details, much of the civilian effort promised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan has been an embarrassment.

    I have thus far excluded USAID from criticism because, in the same way that the U.S. military does not have just one organizational culture but rather a collection of organizational cultures, USAID itself has at least three separate cultures. The Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) and the Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) are very different organizations than the rest of USAID. On the whole, OTI has been up to the challenges in Afghanistan, whereas USAID in general has not. Again, the problems and the blame can be divided between appropriators and the agency itself. But as Andrew Wilder and other researchers have suggested, though much of the money spent in Afghanistan may have contributed to the amelioration of certain development indicators, it has also contributed to the destabilization of the country itself by, among other things, creating the mother of all rentier states.

    Social scientists have more trouble proving why things did not happen than why things did happen. A military can defend — or learn from — its performance during a war, but diplomats and aid workers can rarely demonstrate how their efforts toward conflict-prevention preclude a need for the military to get involved in the first place. And the efforts of diplomats and aid workers rarely benefit the economies of congressional districts in the same way military bases or the arms industry does.

    Nonetheless, if the State Department and USAID are ever going to have the confidence to be as self-critical as the U.S. military, they have to better sell their efforts to the American people and its representatives in Washington. Otherwise, to paraphrase Robert Komer, bureaucracy will “do its thing” in the next conflict as well.


    The State Department shooting the messenger, cited above in the case of Chandrasekaran’s book, is all too familiar to me, being thrown out of my job of some 24 years at the State Department for my own book critical of the Iraq reconstruction. A theme I return to again and again in that book, echoed on this blog and written of by Exum, is that the State Department is simply incapable of self-reflection and self-criticism.

    Exum is right in saying that the lack of introspection is due to a crisis in confidence. Lacking a clear mission in general as America militarizes its foreign policy, and lacking a seat at the grownups’ table in the first years of the Iraq fiasco in the particular, the State Department could not consider failure as an option. It wanted to prove itself worthy alongside the military. When its own fears and damning bureaucracy defeated State more soundly than al Qaeda ever could have hoped to do, State simply told itself (over and over, internally) that it succeeded in Iraq. Easy. Such internal self-inflation only works in the void of outside information (see North Korea) and bursts painfully when someone from the inside (like me, who saw it all happen) or outside (Chandrasekaran, a cool reporter not easily deflected) lays out the failure.

    Most people at State will never understand the choice of conscience over career, the root of most of State’s problems. There are higher goals than obedience.

    There is simply no other explanation. People in the State Department are smart, many are very smart. They know good/bad, right/wrong, success/failure. What happens institutionally is that they are taught to thrive organizationally they need to be on guard against public disclosure, Congressional oversight and journalistic insight. They are taught that what the Department tells them– they are performing superbly under difficult conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan– cannot be questioned openly except at risk of your job. Books like Chandrasekaran’s and mine, which create cognitive dissonance, are viruses that need to be expelled.

    Fearing the daylight, State seeks to shut the blinds. State, in my case, edited any commentary I wrote online out of its internal news summaries, still blocks contrarian sites such as TomDispatch.com on its internal intranet (because of “Wikileaks”), maintains far more restrictive social media policies than the military and inculcates into its new diplomats a fear of journalists and Congress. Both groups, the newcomers are told, seek to destroy the Department. It is closer to Scientology than diplomatic training, though the results are about the same.

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  • Recent Comments

    • Rich Bauer said...


      Low blow on the Scientologists, PVB. Tom Cruise is having a bad enough month and doesn’t appreciate being compared to the educated fools at State. Simply stated: too many FS managers are told and actually believe they are the best of the best, and make decisions about things they don’t have the foggiest : Jack of all trades – masters of none.

      There have been many great FS officers who have accomplished a great service to their country but their successes can be quickly undone by the less of the best of the best – which appears to be the norm these days.

      08/1/12 3:33 PM | Comment Link

    • Prison Planet.com » The Neoconservative War Criminals In Our Midst « CITIZEN.BLOGGER.1984+ GUNNY.G BLOG.EMAIL said...


      […] Abu Muqawama Explains the State Department, USAID to You (wemeantwell.com) […]

      08/2/12 1:36 PM | Comment Link

    • jhoover said...


      Let hear from the source……

      High quality global journalism requires investment. Please share this article with others using the link below, do not cut & paste the article. See our Ts&Cs and Copyright Policy for more detail. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights. http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f4837046-d67b-11e1-ba60-00144feabdc0.html#ixzz22YPhI06e

      In the Middle East we must patiently use our aid, expertise and influence to support the creation of inclusive democratic institutions. The fundamental problem in the region is the absence of institutions that can bridge the Sunni-Shia divide, and protect the rights of women and minorities. Even as we make necessary immediate choices – including arming the Syrian rebels – we must insist upon inclusive politics. The US cannot afford to stand aside; regional powers will bring their own agendas that could exacerbate confessional divisions.
      As we work with reformers across the region, we should not forget that Iraq has the kind of institutions that are meant to overcome these divisions. Given its geostrategic importance, the chaos engulfing its neighbours and Iran’s destructive influence, our re-engagement with Baghdad is sorely needed.

      US must recall it is not just any country
      By Condoleezza Rice

      As for the other billions syphon in Iraq
      Let read (PDF)
      Inattention to contingency contracting
      leads to massive waste, fraud, and abuse

      08/4/12 5:58 AM | Comment Link

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