August 09, 2005
Iraq - Reconstruction - Knowing when to get out of the way
This article from The Washington Post (Op Ed actually) struck me as if not important a useful point of reflection for a moment:
Less Is More in Iraq
By Michael Rubin
Tuesday, August 9, 2005; Page A17
Let us leave aside Rubin's sketchy history in regards to Iraq as part of what one might properly and non-abusively call a "Neo Conservative" circle in Washington re Iraq (and his direct and personal contribution to the fiasco via his work with CPA-Iraq). Let us leave aside as well the question of whether a US draw down of troops is a good or bad thing (I might argue either way on any given day). Rather, merely look at the question of the US contractor presence.
Taking these as givens (and I bloody will delete comments that waste my time not taking the givens, simply to enforce a bit of literacy and reading comprehension), let's reflect a moment on his argument regarding downsizing the Green Zone Bunglers:
While Washington sees the constitutional milestone as an opportunity to withdraw some forces, policymakers should not limit their downsizing to the military presence. It's time for many of the civilians to go home as well. The embassy and contractor presence in Iraq has grown too large, and diplomacy and reconstruction have suffered as a result.
Baghdad boasts the world's largest U.S. embassy. More than 800 diplomats and half that many intelligence officials work within the marble corridors of Saddam Hussein's former palace. Large blast walls -- so heavy that they have damaged the local sewer system -- secure the neighborhood.
The ill-placed cantonment has inconvenienced a city of 5 million. A drive from middle-class Mansur to the University of Baghdad once took 15 minutes. It now takes over an hour. Ordinary Iraqis do not meet these diplomats; regulations prevent embassy personnel from leaving the Green Zone. After the November 2004 death of education adviser Jim Mollen, the embassy sent e-mails to all staff, underlining the prohibition against leaving the compound unless escorted by a military convoy. Approval, which takes three days, is no certainty. The Bureau of Consular Affairs continues to warn that "travel to and from the International Zone is extremely limited."
Such isolation undercuts both the confidence even Iraqi political leaders have in their interlocutors and the ability of diplomats to advise. Elsewhere in the Middle East, diplomats cultivate sources. They wine and dine them. They visit each others' homes. Their children attend the same schools. But in Iraq, while diplomats can send cables about conversations they have with Iraqi politicians inside the Green Zone convention center, where the National Assembly meets, Iraq's power brokers hash out their deals at night and in private homes. The real Iraq cannot be seen by helicopter. Embassy cables and reports from the U.S. Agency for International Development are sterile.
Outside the Green Zone, much of the civilian presence is at best an irritant. As I was traveling down the "Highway of Death" from the airport to central Baghdad recently, traffic screeched to a halt behind a slow-moving convoy of private security contractors waving weaponry and shouting obscenities. To avoid the mess, my Iraqi driver detoured through both Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, providing me an instant primer on both the resourcefulness of Iraqi commerce and its problems: gasoline black marketing, gerrymandered generators and businesses shuttered for lack of electricity -- a world largely invisible to most of the outsiders roaming the area.
The civilian presence has become a drain on resources. In 2004 officials shifted a quarter of the funds allocated for water and electricity to security, which at times probably does more harm than good. In January insurgents killed a dozen Iraqis working on Baghdad's electrical plant one day after two U.S. contractors had made a visit, escorted by an ostentatious convoy of Humvees and SUVs. A surprise visit by a single Iraqi with a digital camera would have enabled the same oversight and saved 12 lives.
A smaller embassy in Baghdad would mean more funds for Iraqis. ..... Local workers can do without the private security people whom foreign contractors employ and whose recklessness Iraqis despise. Iraqi civilians and politicians both identify the security contractors as the biggest impediment to the battle for hearts and minds. Nor would Iraqis spend aid money on unnecessary foreign personnel. Last month USAID allocated $32,000 for a driver to chauffeur the head of its mission in the protected zone. Injected into the local economy, such an amount could purchase a generator that would keep several local businesses going.
Oversight is important, but absent the ability of accountants and auditors to leave the security zone, their effectiveness is no better than if they were based in Washington. Layers of bureaucracy have not stamped out corruption among either Iraqis or Americans. A better model would be expansion of the Commander's Emergency Relief Program, which allows U.S. military officers to disburse funds immediately to replace power lines, rehabilitate water treatment plants and renovate schools. Officers remain in the field and accountable for their decisions. In contrast, less than a third of the $18.4 billion Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund, appropriated in November 2003, has been spent.
Iraqis have shown what they can accomplish without us. .... The progress evident in Baghdad -- new stores, private banks, Internet cafes -- is largely despite us rather than because of us.
It would be nice to bring troops home, but many civilians should come along as well. A smaller embassy shifts responsibilities and accountability to Iraq's new government. That is what the country's transition to democracy should be about.
Emphasis added, some ommissions.
Well, there are any number of debatable assertions supra, in some omitted text Rubin makes reference to Kurdistan as a model - not bloody likely I would say, but let's not nitpick.
I underlined a few of the more important points. I would note, I may add that as I noted many, many times in my private blog, I have no sense that American diplos really get out that much in the rest of the Middle East, due to security issues, and I know senior experienced diplos who have complained that with security controls tied to risk aversion, they feel - to play on the ironic observation supra - they might as well be in Washington.
One comes to these sorts of jobs with an understanding there is risk. Excessive attention to security merely hobbles one, with perhaps no real pay off (certainly my feeling after my recent passage through the hell that has become chicken little American airports).
Leaving that aside, what Rubin observers regarding the poor return on US reconstruction efforts has been obvious for, well two bloody years now, including the time he was associated with the effort. Regardless, I give him credit for stating the obvious, but painfully unacknowledged - that the US reconstruction effort is a self-defeating fiasco of mixed khayali non-sense, negative net benefit security efforts to keep alive heavy reconstruction efforts better suited for a peaceful country than one in the midst of a low-grade civil war. As he notes, pitifully little of the reconstruction budget has been spent - the bureaucracy, the ignorance in regards to the country and what it takes to get things going in an emerging market (I still remain agog at the profiles the CPA-Iraq recruited, young American republican party types right out of bloody college, e.g. the type who worked on the Bourse there, bloody fools).
If there is something, however, to fault the opposition (call it the Democrats, or the Left) for in this context, it is the fact that it wants contradictory things (of course isn't that what Opposition is all about?): effective spending in reconstruction now means tolerating more than a bit of graft on the part of the Iraqis. Keeping a handle on things of course is necessary for credibility, but trying to enforce US standards on an emerging market in the midst of low grade civil war is khayali nonsense and magical thinking of the worst kind.
I agree, then, with the author's underlying analysis (however self-serving and perverse it may or may not be), send the big contractors home, pump the money into Iraqi or Iraqi foreign JVs.
I do note, for transparency sake, that I have no small degree of self interest potentially bound up in this kind of decision, however I would make the case (and as long time readers know, I have in the past) regardless. Contra the dreamers and the fools, there is no blooming Iraqi democracy on the horizon, nor flourishing Iraqi economy around the corner. However, there is the potential to spend reconstruction money somewhat less badly, and have moderately better return on one's efforts. Nothing magical (as the amusing fools at the investors in Iraq website imagine in their bouts of fevered self delusion), but some potential for limiting the down side and even creating an up side.
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An observation: At first I just thought it was nice to see an actual opinion in the Washington Post Op-Ed that is not simply another polysyllabic pitch for MORE government spending on someone's pet cause. Then, alas, I see it is really, at the end, a pitch for reallocation of said funds, of moving the construction contract funds to the military directly, where not incidentally Rubin's AEI has more allies and gives more faith and credit.
Sorry to lapse into intra-US political issues, but they do matter here in this kind of decisionmaking.
Posted by: matthew hogan at August 9, 2005 02:47 PM
Shifting work to Iraqis would help the economy much more than the policy up 'til now of parachuting MNCs with dodgy credentials/links/just generally bad PR (Bechtel on cost+ in volatile country = bull on speed in china shop) in to waste money on cowboys in white SUVs who thought they'd make a buck or two after they got kicked out of the Marines for a lack of neurons.
The big worry, to my mind, is the corruption issue - the sheer amount of money involved does need to be administered properly, just to ensure that it doesn't turn into a form of economic rent and help revitalise a state capture dynamic in the country. Iraq's already got the odds stacked against its democracy, being a rentier state: we don't really want to help people build up their patronage networks any further by making economic aid into just another source of rent.
So long as the big capex projects were balanced by lots of microcredit initiatives to boost local economies and help encourage low-level entrepreneurialism, I'm all in favour of getting foreign contractors out.
Posted by: yinshuisiyuan at August 9, 2005 04:10 PM
Mathew, you're right, I rather glossed over the put money in DoD hands via officers angle. That is not likely to be workable on the grand scale, if only because American military officers are not likely, in the aggregate, to know who is who, so to speak.
Well, I have largely written off the idea of Iraqi democracy, if it survives that is fine, but the history of petrol-rentier states even without civil war is most unedifying in this area. I'd be satisfied with stability and missing out on the failed state fun.
Pumping vast sums through the Iraqi ministries is likely to create huge rents - the problem becomes what other choices are there?
Micro initiatives to boost local economies and encourage low level entreprenurialism is a post conflict or at least largely stable situ stage.
Prioritisation suggests to me getting the economy functioning near normally in the non-free fire zones has to be prime priority -and best done by Iraqis, the frilly local stuff that the US has been trying since day one has to wait. The foreign contractors are not value add right now, quite the contrary.
By the way, I note my slimey self saw an internal document from Bearing Point directing new business to not pursue further Iraq contracts. If cobidders wish to do so, BP will passively help, but its writing off such efforts now.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 10, 2005 05:50 AM
The author has a good point about the private security contractors; I doubt they are payed to consider the long-term ramifications of their behaviour. The US military is at least supposed to consider these things. Or at least the government in charge of it.
A side note to your side note, Lounsbury: I don't think looking to other Middle Eastern states for a likelihood of democracy succeeding is a fair assessment. Whatever the case may be in Iraq, most other states in the area didn't even try to become democracies, they were set up as authoritarian states from the beginning.
Posted by: zurn at August 10, 2005 11:33 AM
US Mil does not seem to be a doing a terribly brilliant job of looking to long term ramifications either. Something I began pointing out three years ago before it became 'fashionable.' See this Australian report which while containing a whiff of the self serving matches similar things I read in regards to Somalia, etc. - and indeed heard from my more sophisticated friends in military intelligence from the US military.
Myopic "force protection" rules that end up breeding more resentment and long term violence.
That aside, I think you need to learn some bloody MENA history before making stupid observations. Syria, Egypt, Lebanon - to cite merely three off the top of my head - all began with reasonable trappings of democracy on decolonisation. They did indeed try, and in some respects under better economic circumstances - although not ideological necessarily. Even Iraq might be so characterised in a limited since in the 1950s.
Looking to other MENA states for the liklihood of this "experiment" working out under these circumstances is one of the wisest things one can do.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 10, 2005 12:33 PM
a) You were referring primarily to "petrol-rentier states". b) Think of all the exceptions you like. I welcome them, but not your foul attitude.
Posted by: zurn at August 10, 2005 02:38 PM
My tuppence. When I brought up the rentier states issue, I was also thinking of the African and Latin American experiences. Successfulo democratic rentier states are few and far between - off the top of my head, I can only think really of Norway, where they had the institutional maturity to devise a financial structure for the oil rents that would prevent the state capture dynamic.
Posted by: yinshuisiyuan at August 10, 2005 04:38 PM
I come here primarily for the foul attitude. Greetings from sunny Hama, by the way.
Posted by: praktike at August 12, 2005 11:35 AM
I'm not a sunny person. What can I say?
Hamma. Hope you brought you 105 mm.
Regardless, in re the overall issue, there are no models out there that suggest a bright and sunny future for Iraq. Like Yin, only Norway (perhaps GB to the extent its North Sea oil for a period was important relative to its economy).
Regardless, in re the Gulf state model, they may not be democracies but their populations one can expect are and will be leaving a whole fuck lot better than Iraqis in the foreseable future.
Posted by: The Lounsbury at August 12, 2005 11:40 AM
Botswana is a possible exception--but everyone mentions the unusual and remarkable nature of its founding leader as the primary reason as to how they managed ot pull it off.
Posted by: kao_hsien_chih at August 15, 2005 07:04 PM