Tag: United States

Conditionality is easier said than done

The big idea behind the Brookings Unfinished Business: An American Strategy for
Iraq Moving Forward
report published yesterday is conditionality:

As long as Iraq’s leaders are moving their country in the direction that serves American interests, the United States can and should remain willing to help the Iraqis generously.

Otherwise, we should take our assistance elsewhere:

If Iraq’s leaders are not willing or able to act in a manner consistent with good governance, the rule of law, and the need for national reconciliation, then the risks to Iraq’s future stability are so grave that they should cause the U.S. government to reevaluate its level of commitment to the U.S.-Iraqi partnership and the resources it is willing to invest in it.

Let us consider what this might mean.  Take for example the last nine months of negotiations to form a new government: was Allawi correct in concluding that the election results legally dictated that he be asked to form a government because he won a larger number of seats in parliament? Or was Maliki constitutionally correct in claiming that his larger post-election coalition should be asked first? Conditionality could have required that the Americans make a judgment on this issue and behave accordingly. Wisely, the Americans largely stayed out of it.  Had they been required to decide who was acting in accordance with the rule of law and who not, they’d have put themselves in the middle of the then most sensitive issues in Iraqi politics, to no serious purpose.

Likewise with de-Ba’athification:  the Americans argued vigorously in private against the decision to exclude candidates in the March elections because of their alleged affiliations with the Ba’ath party, but ultimately they failed.  What if that failure had required a cut-off of assistance?  How would that have improved the situation?  Would it have served our purposes to make the transfer of military equipment to Iraq contingent on former Ba’athists being allowed to run in the elections?

Unfinished Business argues that “virtually all” American assistance should be subject to strict conditionality based on U.S. objectives.  Really?  Whether we bring Iraqis to the U.S. for university education should depend on what?  On whether the Iraqi police are conforming to international human rights standards? On whether Iraqi schools are teaching tolerance?  On whether Christians are being mistreated in Baghdad?  Has the history of Congressionally imposed conditionality not taught us something about how complex, illogical and even bizarre the procedure can be?

Or consider the “benchmarks” the Bush Administration negotiated with (or imposed on) Iraq in late 2006/early 2007.  They were thought to be vital to ending sectarian strife in Iraq.  Many have still not been met.  But sectarian strife has declined dramatically.  Would we have been wise to reduce military assistance because the benchmarks were not met?

In Baghdad in 2008, I asked a major Sunni politician whether he was concerned about one of the benchmarks, the oil law, which in Washington was thought to be vital to the Sunnis in order to ensure their fair share of oil revenue.  Fresh from a meeting in which the American Ambassador had berated him on the need to pass it, he replied, “no,” that was an American issue rather than an Iraqi one.  He wasn’t at all concerned with guaranteeing the Sunni share of oil revenue, which was already reliably flowing to the provinces according to population, but he was concerned that an oil law passed too early would give little money to the central government and too much to the provinces. The benchmark was thoroughly misconceived.

I am 100 per cent with the authors of Unfinished Business when they argue that U.S. commitments to Iraq, in particular the military ones, should serve U.S. interests.  But if that is the case, there won’t be much we can use as leverage without scoring an own-goal.  Conditionality is easier said than done.  It is not good strategy when your own vital interests are at stake, and it would be better to use it sparingly and tactically.

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Another moment of truth

International Crisis Group has put out its latest on Afghanistan, offering a definitive answer to the question of whether Karzai is worth it:

Any plan that fails to deal with the decay in Kabul will not succeed. President Hamid Karzai no longer enjoys the legitimacy and popularity
he once had and he has subsequently lost his ability to stitch together lasting political deals.

This is followed by a well-documented litany of failures in areas directly relevant to whether the mission as a whole can succeed.

But ICG then somehow manages to turn 180 degrees and recommend, in a backhanded sort of way, engagement rather than exit:

Overcoming the trust deficit between the Afghan government, the Afghan people and the international community will rely on more concerted efforts to increase political representation, to expand access to justice and to confront corruption.

This amounts to no more than wishing it weren’t so–if it wanted to be listened to, ICG would have done better to go where its analysis points: drawdown, presumably on the currently agreed NATO schedule.

PS:  Later in the day, the New York Times added fuel to the fire with a report on high level corruption in Afghanistan.

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The moment of truth that lasts a long time

While the press and blogosphere focus on the diploleaks, which I admit provide diplomacy with more attention than it has had in a long time, my guess is that the more important and long lasting effects on America’s foreign and security policies will come from the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, or more accurately from what the Congress decides to do with its recommendations.

The most relevant portion is found in The Moment of Truth under “Discretionary Spending” on pp. 21-23, though a quick read of the section on gasoline tax (p. 25) is recommended as well.  “Security,” including international affairs (presumably the 150 account), would take a substantial cut (7.1%) from the President’s request for 2012, and get back above the 2012 level only in 2019.  Wars (“Overseas Contingency Operations”) would be funded separately, but the funding sounds as if it would be strictly limited to military operations (it seems not to include counterpart civilian efforts).

The gas tax is notable for its modesty:  15 cents per gallon, a drop in the tank.  If anything like the real cost of importing oil were charged to oil users, I suspect the number would be over $1 per gallon, which would still be modest compared to gas taxes elsewhere.  When will we face that moment of truth?

Michael Mandelbaum’s Frugal Superpower is the best treatment I’ve seen of the implications of the coming budget stringency for foreign and security policy, though I think it mistaken in imagining that we’ll be able to avoid future state-building efforts. Or that we should, since judicious, preventive state-building is a relatively cheap way to avoid much larger military expenditures.

The only thing worse for U.S. foreign and security policy than the cuts contemplated in the Commission’s report is not making the kinds of cuts contemplated in the Commission’s report.  The superpower needs to get its own house in order if it is to continue to play the appropriate leadership role abroad.

P.S. It looks more like $2 per gallon or more, but I am still looking for a good, recent source on the real costs of petroleum dependency. Can anyone point me in the right direction?

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Gates crashes

Secretary Gates thinks the impact of the diploleaks on U.S. foreign policy will be modest:

Now, I’ve heard the impact of these releases on our foreign policy described as a meltdown, as a game-changer, and so on. I think – I think those descriptions are fairly significantly overwrought. The fact is, governments deal with the United States because it’s in their interest, not because they like us, not because they trust us, and not because they believe we can keep secrets.

…some governments deal with us because they fear us, some because they respect us, most because they need us. We are still essentially, as has been said before, the indispensable nation. So other nations will continue to deal with us. They will continue to work with us. We will continue to share sensitive information with one another. Is this embarrassing? Yes. Is it awkward? Yes. Consequences for U.S. foreign policy? I think fairly modest.

I am an admirer of the Secretary, but this is old think.  We are less indispensable than once we were, and we are declining in importance relative to others as their economies grow, ours stagnates, and our oil dependency sends hundreds of billions abroad that are much needed at home. Sure others will continue to deal with us, but they will do so with less commitment and enthusiasm if they feel we are unreliable–and in diplomacy keeping private conversations private is an important dimension of reliability.

Michelle Kelemen got it right on NPR yesterday.

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A bird? A plane? No, it’s the QDDR!

More powerful than a locomotive…it’s this year’s longest awaited government report:  the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review.

Human and energy security get elevated.  USAID (and within it the Office of Transition Initiatives) gains.  Conflict prevention and response get more focus and a dedicated bureau within State (which might in future absorb OTI?)  Ambassadors get more authority and responsibility.  Planning gets a push.

AID and State both get promises of more staff (but what about those budget constraints?).  Innovation, partnerships, outcomes, government officials,and regionalization are all in, contractors and outputs are out.

Bottom line:  it’s prettier and easier to read than most government reports, but it is going to be a while before we understand what is really important, if anything, and what isn’t.

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The diploleaks are going to hurt

I’ve only had zippy peaks at wikileaks, via the New York Times, but that’s enough to know that this is going to hurt.  The problem is not only what’s in the cables, which will blow the cover even on many redacted sources, but more what will not get reported because sources won’t trust American officials, and the officials won’t trust the system.

I spent 21 years as an American diplomat, talking with people who were trying to acquire the technology they needed to build nuclear weapons, to transfer missile technology to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and to buy electronics that were prohibited for export.  Maybe they weren’t so smart to be talking with me at all, but they certainly would not have done it if they thought I could not be discreet.

Like it or not, diplomacy as practiced today depends on confidentiality.  If you want to be good at it, you’ve got to be able to assure people that what they say will go back to your capital, and nowhere else.  The news coverage will of course focus on juicy tidbits in the cables wikileaks puts out, but the greater harm lies in the future:  the information diplomats fail to obtain because no one trusts them.

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