Dishonest Graft: Two Recent Books about the Limits of Good Intentions in American Policy in Southwest Asia
Posted on: May/16/2015 4:01 pm by: William Brooke Stallsmith

GW Plunkitt 

I started writing this post on the 60th anniversary of the surrender of the French colonial army’s garrison at Dien Bien Phu. The classic study of that debacle is Bernard Fall’s Hell in a Very Small Place, and I am happy to report that a similarly definitive account of the US post-millennial interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan is not likely to merit so bleak a title.

An appropriate joint title for the two books I consider here—Sarah Chayes’s Afghanistan-centric Thieves of State (2015) and Peter van Buren’s Iraq memoir We Meant Well (2011)—might be something like Discomfort in a Disappointing Motel Room. That is, the accommodations for our Great National Adventures in Southwest Asia are dingy and over-priced, with cockroaches skittering out of the policy memoranda papering the walls, but the United States is not likely to contract a fatal injury or infection during its brief stay.

A former National Public Radio reporter, Chayes stayed on in Afghanistan after 2002 to run an NGO and, later, an artisanal soap business in Kandahar. Run-ins with corrupt Afghan officials led her to serious reflection about the causal relationship between corruption and chronic instability, which in turn led to positions as a corruption adviser to US forces in Afghanistan and the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington. These experiences—described in the voices of first the sadder-but-wiser girl and then the savvy bureaucratic in-fighter—lead her to conclude that Afghanistan’s endemic graft and chaos stem mainly from well-intentioned Westerners’ misapplication of Amazonian floods of aid to a country lacking any ability to absorb it.

Chayes notes that the level of corruption in 21st century Afghanistan is not unique in terms of either geography or history. This forms the basis for what I consider the highlight of the book: analyses of kleptocratic styles of government across the contemporary world and across history. She produces an interesting typology of thieving regimes, from the resource kleptocracy of Nigeria (and also of Mobutu’s Zaire, analysis of which was a foundation of my own career) to post-Soviet Uzbekistan and the way systemic corruption in the Catholic Church fueled the Protestant Reformation..

Notwithstanding her searing experiences with US incompetence and Afghan cupidity, as well as her research into the universal human weakness for using political power to advance personal financial ends, Chayes remains an optimist. She ends Thieves of State with a chapter of recommended remedies, for which I award her an “A” for effort here. My own experience in Africa and the Middle East—not to mention my innate cynicism—tells me such efforts would likely fall short, though. The problem is that Chayes’s recommendations are directed at aid donors, foreign investors, and Western policymakers who, in our post-colonial world, can influence but not control what goes on in Afghanistan, Albania, or Angola. The corruption, violent instability, and other woes in these countries result largely from what their citizens and leaders do or don’t do; if this doesn’t change, no amount of resources, good will, tough love, and exhortations from Washington, Brussels, Paris, and London will make a lasting difference.

Pete van Buren, by contrast, had no idealistic expectations when he—motivated by college tuition bills and changing requirements for promotion in the Foreign Service—took on a one-year State Department assignment to run a “Provincial Reconstruction Team” in Iraq. His time in-country reinforced his cynical outlook, producing the tragi-comic tone of We Meant Well that is redolent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (albeit with a shorter casualty list). Van Buren and his working-level State and military colleagues undertake a series of snipe hunts at the behest of their uniformed and Embassy higher-ups, who are undistracted by Iraqi realities in their quest for press releases and other quick wins. One example is the promotion of a project to teach bee-keeping to Iraqi widows, thereby killing the birds of entrepreneurship and women’s advancement with a single bureaucratic stone. Some Iraqis attach themselves to this do-gooding like famished ticks on a hound-dog’s leg; most just view it with the combination of contempt, fear, and manipulation that Mesopotamians have reserved for foreign invaders since the time of Alexander the Great. The dogs bark, the caravan moves on …

Van Buren’s analysis of the fundamental cause of this buffoonery (for the Americans, at least; for the Iraqis it’s a tragedy) dovetails with my own. Iraq’s problems belong to the Iraqis, and successful redressing of them can come only from local initiative. Meanwhile, the conduct of American foreign, military, and humanitarian policy in conflict zones represents the sort of mismatch between risk and reward that prevailed among mortgage lenders, banks, and other financial institutions in the run-up to the 2008 economic crash. US stakes in building secure, prosperous, and terrorist-free (or at least terrorist-lite) states in Iraq and Afghanistan are large and long-term, and the US Government has accordingly committed significant amounts of military and financial resources. Turning around these complex, traumatized societies—and putting Western aid to proper use—would be the work of decades, but the people in charge of our efforts think in terms of much shorter horizons. At the most, it’s the four years of a presidential term; more typically it’s the 12- or 18-month period of a diplomat’s or general’s tour of duty in the conflict zone. Worse, recognition and advancement depend on conveying something tangible—like a series of “quick wins”—on an efficiency report. The result is that the Iraqis and Afghans haven’t faced just one US politico-military-economic intervention, but at least a dozen, all with different casts of characters, objectives, and rules.

Chayes and van Buren had different experiences in different countries, and emerged with different perspectives, but I think a single overarching lesson emerges from their two books: Rebuilding a shattered state on the other side of the planet is not a commitment to make lightly, and it’s the sort of project that easily distracted people like Americans are not likely to do well. We have mastered the ability to deliver inputs—not just missiles and the world’s best special forces soldiers to hunt down terrorists and tyrants, but also relief supplies and expertise after disasters like the Nepal earthquake and the Southeast Asian tsunami. In my opinion at least—which I suspect Peter van Buren shares and which I know IST’s President will disagree with for its starkness—the United States should make an honest inventory of its capabilities and in the future stick to what we do best.

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