Ambassador Jett is a professor of international affairs at the Pennsylvania State University. A former career diplomat, he was U.S. ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and has served on the National Security Council and in American embassies in Argentina, Israel, Malawi and Liberia.
Ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001, one of the highest priorities of the U.S. government has been to prevent another terrorist assault on American soil. A major component of the response to that challenge has been to provide security assistance to a number of countries in the Middle East and other parts of the world. By aiding some of those governments, however, we are making ourselves less secure and more likely to be attacked again in the future. And the way we are providing the assistance is not merely wasteful; it further compounds the problem. But don't tell that to the U.S. government. It would rather not know and only measures its success by how much money it throws at the problem and whether it gets a receipt for it.
Security assistance to fragile states has become an essential part of America's strategy to defend itself. Nearly a decade after 9/11, then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in Foreign Affairs1 that "the main security challenge of our time" was the possibility that failed states would become the launching pad for new attacks on the American homeland. His recommendation for dealing with that threat was to provide military and other training to the security forces in those failing states.
As described in my article in Middle East Policy last year,2 such a policy puts the United States in the position of supporting the world's most repressive and corrupt regimes. It is little more than an updated version of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine from the Cold War: a rightwing dictator was always preferable to a leftwing populist because the former was an ally in the struggle against Communism, and the latter was not. Now any regime, no matter how repressive, is our friend if it professes to be on our side in the so-called global war on terror. This makes the pious declarations of support for democracy by the State Department appear disingenuous to the rest of the world. Undermining American public diplomacy is not the only cost of the Gates Doctrine, however, if it results in American arms and assistance being provided to governments that use them against their own people.
The "global war on terror" was the term invented by the Bush administration to describe its response to 9/11 and to justify the programs it undertook to win that supposed war. Of course, "terror" is an all-consuming fear, and terrorism is a tactic that will be used as long as there are fanatics who kill innocent people to make a political point. So waging war on either is nonsensical; there is no ultimate victory over an emotion or a tactic.
But that did not seem to matter, and the press echoed that theme and used the phrase enough that it became the shorthand description for the main threat to U.S. security.3 Even though it initially denied dropping the term "global war on terror," the Obama administration looked for other ways to describe its efforts and now uses different euphemisms.4 The logic persists, however. If this is war, it demands a military solution. And the quickest way to victory is to train the troops involved in the fighting, regardless of who they are or what they are really fighting for.
A recent article in The New York Times5 illustrates the danger of such a policy and how it might create more terrorists than it eliminates. The article described in detail how demonstrators in Bahrain, who have been demanding more democracy and less corruption from their government, are beginning to direct their anger toward the United States as their hopes for meaningful reform fade. While that frustration may not lead the demonstrators to actually become terrorists, it provides a strong incentive for them to support people who are. Like Gates, proponents of furnishing assistance to the security forces in places like Bahrain insist that it is necessary because of the security threat posed by these countries if they become failed states. They add that these programs are administered in a way that helps ensure they have the intended effect without the negative impact critics predict.
Neither argument is true. The programs are unnecessary and a waste of money, given that their results are as uncertain as they are unsustainable. Worse still, the American government appears to not want to know the effect of what it is doing and only measures its success by the metric of how much money is spent.
The security-assistance programs are unnecessary; fragile states do not pose that big a threat. Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote a book on this specific issue last year.6 In it, he argues persuasively that "globally, most fragile states do not present significant security risks, except to their own people, and the most important spillovers that preoccupy U.S. national security officials are at least as likely to emanate from stronger developing countries, rather than the world's weakest countries."
Yet the U.S. government presses ahead with arms sales and security training to precisely those kinds of countries. Perhaps this is one reason there is no meaningful attempt to measure whether the training is accomplishing the goals that it is supposed to achieve. This should not be surprising to anyone who understands how governments and international organizations operate. They often do what they can do instead of what they should do. And they measure what they want to measure, not what they ought to measure.
That is in part because of the nature of what governments do. In the private sector, measurement is generally easy. If a company decides to build a product, it constructs a factory, acquires raw materials, manufactures a product, advertises it and sells it. The process is complex, but quantifiable. And as long as the company can convince the consumer to choose its product through its advertising, it will be able to make a profit and measure down to the dollar how much money was made from one year to the next. Maximizing next quarter's bottom line is thus the goal and the yardstick by which progress is measured.
Governments and international organizations, on the other hand, usually don't have the advantage of precise measurements of what they are doing or how successful they are. Because of this, in order to demonstrate short-term results, there is less concern for long-term goals. The solution to a problem is to throw money at it. The measure of success is whether the money gets spent in the time allotted by the budget cycle. Getting a receipt so the money can be accounted for also matters, but what it actually does is too difficult to measure and therefore often ignored.
That won't sound like an exaggeration to anyone who has seen development agencies like the World Bank in operation. But anyone who thinks this description could not apply to the U.S. government should consider the following. In February 2008, the Government Accountability Office issued a report on the State Department's Antiterrorism Assistance Program (ATA).7 The GAO study concluded that the State Department's Office of Coordinator for Counterterrorism (S/CT) and its Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Office of Antiterrorism, (DS/T/ATA) had a number of problems in administering the ATA program:
• The counterterrorism coordinator provided minimal guidance to help prioritize which countries would receive ATA.
• Neither the counterterrorism coordinator nor diplomatic security attempted to systematically align ATA programs with an assessment of what the countries needed.
• Neither bureau systematically assessed the outcomes of the ATA program and, therefore, could not determine its effectiveness or its sustainability.
In response, the State Department did not disagree with any of the report's findings and called the GAO's conclusions "fair." It noted that the GAO review highlighted the difficulties in attempting to reduce to numeric terms the benefits of the ATA program, but it added that an effort was underway to develop "a methodology to quantify levels of achievement of foreign governments in the area of fighting terrorism, which can be applied internationally and against the differing capabilities of each country." The department also said it considered "the need to align limited resources with national security and foreign policy objectives to be essential."8 While the State Department agreed with what needed to be done and emphasized its importance, over four years later, there was scant evidence of any progress.
The Office of the Inspector General (OIG), in its capacity as the internal auditor of the State Department, recently began putting its inspection reports on its website with only slight redactions for national-security reasons. In April 2012, the OIG posted its evaluation of the ATA program,9 which examined how the assistance was being provided to the 22 countries in the bureaus of Near Eastern Affairs and South and Central Asian Affairs.
It is important to note that, of these 22 countries that receive such assistance, 12 are considered by the human-rights organization Freedom House to be repressive autocratic regimes. All 12 fall into its worst category in its annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties10 and are classified as countries that are "not free." Another nine were considered only "partly free"; only one, India, was considered to be "free."
The OIG report did not deal with that aspect of the antiterrorism assistance program in these countries, but it did find that there was still no system to evaluate the effectiveness of the training or any attention paid to how the skills taught would be sustained by these security forces once they no longer had American aid:
In FY 2010 the ATA program trained nearly 2,700 participants . . . at a cost of approximately $1,800 per student per day of training. However, DS/T/ATA could not determine the ATA program's effectiveness because it had not developed specific, measureable, and outcome-oriented program objectives or implemented a mechanism for program evaluation. In addition, DS/T/ATA and CT [the successor of S/CT] were not consulting with the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL), when selecting partner countries or when determining the assistance to be provided to those countries. As a result, the Department has no assurance that the ATA program is achieving its intended statutory purposes or that the overall or individual programs are successful. Further, DS/T/ATA has no basis for determining when partner countries are capable of sustaining their own ATA programs without U.S. support.11
The 1983 act passed by Congress establishing the ATA program requires that the Human Rights Bureau be consulted about what countries are provided assistance and the nature of that assistance. Congress wrote that provision into the law in an effort to deny assistance to known abusers of human rights. The Human Rights Bureau's vetting simply consists, however, of a name check to see if any of the potential trainees are known to the bureau to be individuals who have abused human rights.
The problem is that repressive regimes do not make known the names of those in their security forces who commit such crimes, and there is no functioning judicial system that would ever charge and try them for such abuses. Indeed, the entire security apparatus in such countries can generally be considered to be one large mechanism for abusing human rights, suppressing political opponents and keeping the regime in power. It would be as ridiculous as training members of the Khmer Rouge because the Human Rights Bureau did not have the names of the individual trainees on their list of known human-rights abusers.
While the attention paid to human rights is negligible, the amount of money spent is not. During the nine fiscal years from 2002 to 2010, a total of $1.369 billion was spent on the ATA program, of which $873 million went to the 22 countries in North Africa, the Middle East and Central and South Asia that were evaluated in the OIG report. The average training course lasted 13 days and cost about $23,000 per student. Less than two weeks of training for $23,000 has to be an astoundingly high cost in anyone's book, especially if the State Department has no idea of what it is accomplishing or whether it will produce any lasting changes.
Despite claiming in its response to the GAO that a methodology was being developed to measure the effectiveness of the program, over four years later the OIG found "nearly all of the performance indicators and targets used to define success or failure of a country program were ambiguous, were not measurable, or lacked meaning."12
Is it too difficult to measure what is being accomplished in a program like the ATA? Or, when there is a mandate to show results, is it simply easier to throw money at the problem and ignore what it is accomplishing as long as there is a receipt for the money spent? If it were this, it would not be the first time that the government, when faced with a challenge, did what it could and not what it should. And it would not be the first time that the results were less important than the appearance of action and initiative in pursuing a high-priority goal.
During the Cold War, the highest priority was to fight Communism. Philip Agee was a CIA officer who decided to betray his country and publish everything he knew about the agency in his book Inside the Company.13 Agee did have a point, however. The agency found the Soviet Union to be a hard target that it had little luck in penetrating. It devoted extensive resources to recruiting agents in Latin America, not because the region was important, but because government officials there were so easy to buy.
A much more recent example is the reconstruction of Iraq. Given the frequent lack of security and the response of the Iraqi people to an occupying army, nation building was an impossible task. But it had to be undertaken to show that the war was not a complete failure and to obscure the fact that the country had no weapons of mass destruction, anything to do with 9/11 or any meaningful ties to al-Qaeda.
Peter Van Buren is a foreign-service officer who was the leader of two provincial reconstruction teams that were supposed to be leading the efforts at economic development in Iraq. He found a system riddled with waste, fraud and mismanagement and one that was primarily concerned with getting the money spent without much concern for what it was actually accomplishing. His best example of this was a chicken-processing plant that, because of the inadequacy of the local capabilities for handling fresh food, was a complete and utter failure. It was the perfect Potemkin project, however, and every time an official from Washington or a journalist wanted to see what was being accomplished, the factory was started up. Chickens were bought on the local market to run through the plant as the visitor toured the facility and then discarded once the dignitary left. The number of chickens that were processed depended on the rank of the visitor, with higher-level officials getting a greater number of chickens slaughtered for their benefit.
Van Buren's book,14We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for Hearts and Minds of Iraqi People, laid all this out in great and amusing detail. Rather than gleaning rewards for revealing so many fundamental flaws in such an important program, the book and his other writings earned him the wrath of his superiors. The department took away his security clearance and was doing all it could to fire him.
The ATA program is not the only one in which the appearance of accomplishing short-term goals is far more important than whether those goals will last longer than the footfalls of the last departing American. The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, a bipartisan legislative commission, looked at billions of dollars spent on U.S.-funded reconstruction efforts in those two countries. The commission said it saw no indication that the Pentagon, the State Department or the U.S. Agency for International Development were "effectively taking sustainability risks into account when devising new projects or programs."15
So instead of worrying about what is being accomplished and how long it will last, the government tends to do things to show it is doing things and to discourage anyone who points out that the emperor is naked. That defense mechanism kicks in when it comes to protecting the recipients of these programs as well as the programs themselves. For instance, the State Department press spokesperson, Victoria Nuland, opened the June 28, 2012, noon press briefing with the following statement:
I have one thing at the top, and then we'll go to what's on your minds. This is with regard to Bahrain and its uncovering of a bomb factory. The Bahraini Government's discovery of several facilities for producing highly explosive bombs is of deep concern. We commend the Government of Bahrain for its counterterrorism efforts and for conducting a thorough and professional investigation that has eliminated a serious threat to Bahrain and to its people. There is no justification for any party holding such material, the use of which would exact an enormous human toll and severely escalate tensions in the country. Violent acts are counterproductive to the reconciliation efforts, which are crucial to building a prosperous, secure, peaceful future for the people of Bahrain.
The report of the discovery of the bomb factories and their tons of explosives came from the government of Bahrain, which has a vested interest in showing it is facing a dire threat. That threat is apparently too serious to permit any legitimate democratic opposition. If the Arab Spring has demonstrated anything, however, it is that the autocrats in the Middle East in today's globalized world can repress their people for only so long. Encouraging the government of Bahrain to make democratic reforms and to limit corruption would be a more effective strategy than selling it arms or providing its security forces with more training. That would require profound and lasting changes but would be a better way to protect American security than the methods being employed.
One of those hired by the U.S. government to train the Bahraini police is a former Philadelphia and Miami police chief. He said the current climate could overwhelm his efforts to remake the force, which has been implicated in torture and killings. He summed up the situation rather succinctly: "It's a heavy lift, changing the culture. If there's no political solution here, it's all for naught."16
The U.S. government doesn't have the patience or the funds for the long-term effort needed to strengthen the institutions of democracy, however. Money for arms and other security assistance is easy to find, while support for strengthening the courts, legislative branches, civil society and the press never is. Such a strategy is designed to do what is easy now, even though it produces results that don't matter, rather than do the heavy lifting of changing a society more fundamentally. That, however, is the best way to really protect this country from a future terrorist attack.
1 Robert M. Gates, "Helping Others Defend Themselves — The Future of U.S. Security Assistance," Foreign Affairs 89, no. 3 (May/June 2010).
2 Dennis Jett, "U.S Security Assistance in the Middle East: Helping Friends or Creating Enemies?" Middle East Policy 18, no. 1 (Spring 2011).
3 Seth C. Lewis and Stephen D. Reese, "What Is the War on Terror? Framing through the Eyes of Journalists," Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly 86, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 85-102, http://umn.academia.edu/SethLewis/Papers/642365/What_is_the_War_on_Terr….
4 Scott Wilson and Al Kamen, "Global War on Terror Is Given a New Name," Washington Post, March 29, 2009. Also see, "No Ban on ‘Global War on Terror': U.S. Officials," AFP, March 25, 2009.
5 Kareem Fahim, "As Hopes for Reform Fade in Bahrain, Protestors Turn Anger on United States," New York Times, June 23, 2012.
6 Stewart Patrick, Weak Links: Fragile States, Global Threats and International Security (Oxford University Press, 2011).
7 U.S. Government Accountability Office, Combating Terrorism: State Department's Antiterrorism Program Needs Improved Guidance and More Systematic Assessment of Outcomes (GAO-08-336), Report to the Ranking Member, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, House of Representatives, 110th Cong., 2nd sess., February 2008.
8 Ibid., 33.
9 "Evaluation of the Antiterrorism Assistance Program for Countries under the Bureaus of Near Eastern Affairs and South and Central Asian Affairs," Report of Inspection, U.S. Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, Office of Inspector General, (AUD/MERO-12-29), April 2012, http://oig.state.gov/documents/organization/190722.pdf.
10 Freedom House's rankings for 2011 can be found on its website at http://www.freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2011.
11 Office of Inspector General, "Evaluation of the Antiterrorism Assistance Program," 1.
12 Ibid., 7.
13 Philip Agee, Inside the Company (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1975).
14 Peter Van Buren, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for Hearts and Minds of Iraqi People (Holt, Henry and Company, 2011).
15 Rajiv Chandrasekaran, "U.S. Projects in War Zones Are Unsustainable, Study Finds," Washington Post, June 3, 2011.
16 Fahim, "As Hopes for Reform Fade."
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