Election purgatory, on the way to hell

Elections:  for Americans the ultimate source of legitimacy and state authority, but just for that reason problematic in authoritarian societies and fragile states.  We are watching elections create problems in three markedly different societies these days:

Elections are one of the few things the international community can organize (relatively) quickly and effectively, even under trying circumstances. Authoritarian and (sometimes) weak states can also manage the task.  What they find much harder is accepting the results.  Elections distribute power; from power flow money, resources and sometimes life and death.   No one should expect elections to be peaceful unless everyone in the game (and out of it) is prepared to play by fair rules and to accept the results.

Tags : , ,

Diplomatic ballet with Iran

While Tehran is touting its “superior” position in talks with the P5+1 Monday and Tuesday in Geneva and asserting that the nuclear issue is settled, reality looks different from Washington. While no one seems to think the Geneva meeting made any substantive progress, insiders think sanctions are biting, due to an unusual degree of US/EU common resolve as well as tacit cooperation from money centers in the Middle East. The recent seizure of Iranian ships in Singapore is possibly related to sanctions.

Lady Ashton at least thought the Iranians agreed to meet again (in January in Istanbul) to discuss nuclear questions, but the Iranians denied it. If the Iranians refuse to meet again, or continue to claim that nuclear issues can’t be discussed, Washington and Brussels will need to consider ratcheting up the sanctions, which are said to have already denied Tehran the overt use of dollars, euros and pounds in international transactions.

Tightened sanctions could however have unintended consequences:  they need to be targeted on the leadership and avoid hurting ordinary Iranians and strengthening the hand of the Iranian government against its opponents, at least some of whom might want Tehran to adopt a more flexible approach on the nuclear issue.

Diplomats generally call this walking a tight rope.  I prefer the ballet analogy.  Or is it all really just a soap opera?

Tags : ,

A diplomat’s guide to reading wikileaks

I wrote thousands of diplomatic cables during 21 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, and I dread calculating how many I’ve read. Here is an insider’s view of how to read them.

Don’t believe everything they say (and don’t say)
. A good diplomat will of course report what foreigners say as accurately as possible, but even when she does there are still several sources of uncertainty. Most important is language.

I have top scores in both Portuguese and Italian, but I did not always understand every word an interlocutor (that’s diplomatese for “person,” implicitly someone worth talking to) said to me in Brazil and Italy. Many conversations occur in non-ideal conditions (noisy restaurants, standing up at cocktail parties, in crowded hallways, over unreliable cell phones, at opposite ends of a long conference table). If the foreigners are speaking to you in English, they may not always understand the subtleties of our complex language and may say things that require interpretation. If the conversation is conducted through an interpreter, a great deal may be lost in translation.

In addition to language, there are omissions. Diplomats don’t usually report a lot on what they themselves say, though there are exceptions to the rule. If there is a need to prove that you carried out your instructions, you may reproduce the instructions in the cable almost to the letter, even if you didn’t really say all that stuff.

What is missing is more important than what is there. The cables being published are not the most sensitive ones. Those are usually “captioned” with markings that limit their distribution (limdis, exdis and nodis are the most common captions, but there are others for special topics). Captioned cables are not routinely shared interagency, so the low-level Defense Department type who leaked these did not have access to the more restricted material. There is of course Top Secret material as well that is not included in the wikileaks. But “Top Secret” is not used as much as people imagine for normal diplomatic discourse. Wikileaks has provided the iceberg, but the tip of limited distribution materials is missing. That is often the most interesting material.

The people who write the cables are not always the ones speaking in them or signing them. It is common for ambassadors and other high-level officials to go to meetings with “principals” (big shots) accompanied by a note-taker. They are lower-ranking Foreign Service officers who know that their job is in part to make the principals look good in the cable that inevitably they have to draft. Being a note-taker is a privilege, a greater one the higher ranking the principal. You want to be asked to do it again.

Note-takers draft, circulate the draft for clearance, and get a higher-up to sign off. All diplomatic cables leaving an American embassy are sent in the name of the Ambassador or Charge’ (the person he leaves in charge when out of the country, usually the “Deputy Chief of Mission” aka Minister for most non-American embassies). This does not mean that the Ambassador necessarily read or signed the cable—there will be others in the Embassy authorized to “sign out”—though if an ambassador was involved in the discussion reported she normally would want to read it before it goes to Washington.

The cables you are reading are on the whole well done, and you can read millions more if you want. The general reaction around the world in diplomatic circles is horror at the release of these documents, but admiration and even acclaim for their quality.

There are many more available for the asking: under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), the National Security Archive at George Washington University has acquired many more than wikileaks is publishing. Those obtained under FOIA are scrubbed to make sure no risks to the national security will arise; they are generally older than some of those being published now and of less obvious journalistic interest.

You can even ask for cables yourself: submit a request on the State Department website and ask for whatever you want. They won’t come right away, but they do eventually come (you may have to pay reproduction costs). I’ve collected many more over the years than I’ll ever be able to read and make sense of!

Tags :

Where are the civilians when we need them?

Our friends at the UN Peacebuilding Support Office (thank you David Harland!) have taken a hard look at a long list of limits to international civilian capacity in an e-discussion conducted by the International Stabilization and Peacebuilding Initiative over the past month (Summary of Responses – e-Discussion – UN Review of Intl Civ Cap):

  • difficulties recruiting civilians,
  • competition with the private sector,
  • slow recruitment times, links among training,
  • rostering and recruitment,
  • vague work descriptions,
  • generalized competencies,
  • diversity of organizational cultures, values and visions,
  • lagging national (host country) capacity development,
  • differences between international and national strategies,
  • getting the right people for the right jobs,
  • expertise gaps, relevance of training
  • and gender balance.

They’ve also looked, less successfully, at planning processes for development of civilian capacities and at bottlenecks that impede deployment:  bureaucratic obstacles, insecurity in conflict zones, lengthy recruitment times and civilian logistics limitations.

Perhaps the most innovative part is on interoperability from the UN perspective, where it is clear that despite the obstacles there is sometimes real benefit to the UN drawing on others’ capacities.  The natural outcome of this discussion is a series of recommendations for more coordination and coordination bodies, a subject that I confess leaves me cold.  I think what all of us need are agreed strategic endstates and frameworks rather than undirected coordination meetings.

Tags :

Democracy in the balance? Iraq’s next government

Please see Event writeups or the Washington Institute website http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/templateC05.php?CID=3280

Tags :

The Brits are coming: DFID at Carnegie

Security and Development in Fragile States

UK Minister of State for International Development Alan Duncan


Charita Law

202 939 2241

Upcoming Events

The Euro Crisis, Currency Tensions, and Recovery
(December 10, 12:30-2:00 p.m.)

Economic and Political Outlook for the Middle East and North Africa
(December 15, 12:30-2:00 p.m.)


DATE Tuesday, December 14, 2010
TIME 9:30 to 10:30 a.m.
LOCATION Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
SPEAKER The Right Honorable Alan Duncan MP
MODERATOR Marwan Muasher

Security concerns emanating from fragile states like Yemen and Somalia have dominated headlines recently. Alan Duncan, Minister of State for International Development for the United Kingdom, will discuss the challenges facing the international community in assisting fragile states. Marwan Muasher will moderate.

Register Add to Calendar


The Right Honorable Alan Duncan MP was appointed as Minister of State for International Development on May 13, 2010. Duncan joined Parliament in 1992 as the Conservative Member for Rutland and Melton. In 1997, he was appointed vice-chairman of the Conservative Party and Parliamentary Political Secretary to the Rt. Hon. William Hague MP. He held a number of positions in the Shadow Cabinet, most recently as Shadow Secretary for Trade, Industry and Energy (2005). In 2009, Duncan was appointed Shadow Leader of the House and shortly after, he became Shadow Minister for Prisons and Probation. Duncan’s Ministerial portfolio at the Department for International Development includes: Asia, Middle East, Caribbean and Overseas Territories; international finance, international relations; and trade policy.


Marwan Muasher is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment, where he oversees the Endowment’s research in Washington and Beirut on the Middle East. Muasher served as foreign minister (2002–2004) and deputy prime minister (2004–2005) of Jordan, and his career has spanned the areas of diplomacy, development, civil society, and communications. He is also a senior fellow at Yale University.

If anyone is interested in writing this event up for peacefare.net, please contact daniel@peacefare.net

Tags :