Apr/May 2013

Peace in Our Time?

A new diplomatic road map for the Middle East seems likely to mire the American empire in familiar territory

Suzy Hansen


The war on terror was sold as a war scarier than all the rest. Even now, it’s tempting to see America’s foreign-policy blunders in the early twenty-first century as aberrations born of panic, fear, and ignorance. The shock of September 11, the emergence of mysterious antagonists, and the Bush administration’s catastrophic retaliation seem to constitute a distinct historical era: a time capsule of unique horror, but one that came with its own sell-by date. Not only were invasion, torture, and increased domestic security newly justifiable; the standard official rationale for them held that they were just temporary measures. But America has been evolving into the fully militarized nation of 2013 for sixty years. Former New York Times reporter David Rohde has pitched the argument of his new book, Beyond War, squarely in the center of this historical paradox: that America can easily reverse course, even as his own reporting suggests a deep dependence on war- and profit-making that will be difficult to undo.

For example, in revisiting the misguided course of US military actions in the Middle East, Rohde focuses much of his ire on the military contractors. Private security firms such as Blackwater, Northrop Grumman, and DynCorp appeared like sci-fi action figures during the Iraq war, lethal corporate demons sprung straight from Dick Cheney’s wildest dreams. As Rohde explains, however, such outfits were long-standing players in the execution of American foreign policy—meaning that, when it came to the new theaters of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, they were not a Bush-administration invention, but an inevitability. The State Department first employed DynCorp, then a small aviation maintenance company, to operate counternarcotics flights in Latin America. When the Clinton administration needed forty-five police officers to assist with the 1994 coup in Haiti, it turned to DynCorp again. The United States claimed it did not intend to keep hiring the company for such quasi-militaristic tasks—but DynCorp knew otherwise. “We always saw it as a growth area,” a DynCorp executive told Rohde, “because of the conflicts in the world.”

They were right. Soon DynCorp was protecting diplomats in Bosnia and Kosovo, too. The company had drawn up a list of active and retired police personnel for contracting in Iraq before the Bush administration even realized it would need them. In the following ten years, the United States would award DynCorp $7.4 billion in contracts. Today, the corporation is the third-largest contractor in the world and is owned by a private-equity firm called Cerberus. Contracting firms were especially appealing to Cerberus because, as one expert tells Rohde, “they had the government’s credit card in their pockets.”

The men and women who went to Iraq and other theaters of war to work for DynCorp had loftier goals. “Our motives are selfless,” said Herb Lloyd, the head of DynCorp’s operations in Afghanistan. “Human beings can sense that. They pick it up right quick. There is no option other than victory. Otherwise, America as we know it will cease to exist.” I’m not sure, after reading Rohde’s book, whether Lloyd’s righteous ideology might actually be more pernicious than Cerberus’s greed; Beyond War illustrates how the combination of these worst American impulses defines the current state of the country and its position in the world.

Yet the Lloydian ideology in subtler form even haunts Beyond War. While Rohde launches a laudable critique of American institutions abroad, he cannot escape a nagging idealistic vision of the benevolent power of US influence. Rohde argues against war, but advocates the soft-power stratagem of waging a financial and diplomatic campaign for the hearts and minds of the Middle East, proposing to support a new cohort of “moderate” groups that share American values through business investment and innovative programs. “There is a desperate need for a new American approach,” he writes. But wasn’t it the compulsion to create a putatively benevolent US sphere of influence that led to war in the first place?

Beyond War is an uneven book. The first half, based on Rohde’s reporting for the Times, shows how America’s foreign-policy apparatus in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan destroyed lives, livelihoods, and the image of the United States. These chapters are colorful, and of course the argument is a slam dunk. Rohde wants us to see, in close-up detail, the way not to conduct US foreign policy before he presents the opportunities that policy makers might seize upon in the future.

But Rohde’s account of just how one might go about steering the American foreign-policy establishment someplace “beyond war” is far from persuasive. The book’s second half, billed as the way forward for US diplomacy, takes on the recent “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East, and explores the country’s relationships with Turkey, Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. These chapters consist largely of rehashed arguments, rudimentary analysis, and secondhand reporting. In an author’s note, Rohde humbly explains that he was kidnapped and held hostage in the tribal areas of Pakistan and promised his family he wouldn’t travel to dangerous places anymore. But the absence of on-the-ground reporting in the second section is not the real problem; the more basic difficulty is that Rohde’s prescriptions aren’t radical enough for the task at hand.

Click to enlarge

US Marine, Helmand Province, Afghanistan, March 25, 2011.

The most compelling sections of Beyond War concern the fate of the United States Agency for International Development, or USAID. Few Americans probably know what exactly USAID is or does, but they should: The organization builds schools, and implements farming initiatives, and sets up weaving looms for poor women, and generally serves as the kinder, unarmed face of America in the wider world. But it, too, is in a state of decline. In the past, USAID undertook expensive and ambitious development projects. Rohde admiringly describes the efforts of USAID to help build a “Little America” in Lashkar Gah in Helmand Province in the Cold War 1970s—a utopia replete with irrigation projects, girls’ schools, Afghans and Americans living together and never locking their doors. He quotes Afghans who laud the program, and USAID officials who rhapsodize about it. Many of Little America’s programs failed, and the community was finally destroyed by Afghanistan’s many wars—but still, Rohde implies, it set a precedent for what could have been accomplished in 2002.

Today, however, the site of that endeavor, Helmand Province, is one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan. In accounting for this transformation, Rohde points to USAID’s squandered resources: The United States spent $67 billion on civilian-aid programs in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and yet USAID workers themselves think there’s little to show for their work. One reason, of course, is that America’s military campaigns destroyed civilian life faster than USAID could rebuild it. Another culprit, in Rohde’s telling, is again the private-contracting system. Just as the American military increasingly contracts out for its advisers and gunmen, USAID hires other companies to run its aid projects. After September 11, Rohde observes, the agency was flooded with money, but not with employees; the staff couldn’t manage such large sums. “In Afghanistan in 1977, one hundred Americans managed roughly $250,000 in spending each,” Rohde writes. “In 2004, sixty Americans managed roughly $80 million each.”

Aid organizations that have too much money rush to spend it, and the easiest way to do that is to quickly give the projects to someone else. So, for example, USAID officials decide to build a medical clinic. But instead of erecting it themselves, they hire Louis Berger Group to do so. Louis Berger Group is then free to hire a whole slew of subcontractors. As a result, ultimate accountability vanishes into the recursive transactions: When the windows in the clinic don’t close in winter, is it the responsibility of USAID or of some corporation? Aid is a difficult, flawed enterprise, even for NGOs with decades of experience, foreign employees, and experienced professionals who have spent years on hardship tours in the field. And that is another reason why Americans might be particularly bad at aid: general ignorance of cultural differences. As the historian Joshua B. Freeman has written, “the United States had developed far-reaching global interests while remaining parochial in its domestic culture, leaving it ill-equipped for old-fashioned, on-the-ground imperialism.” And in the face of such a vacuum of foreign expertise, Americans instinctively revert to their own culturally approved nostrums. In the case of the inextricably linked challenges of aid and military occupation, they fall to the vagaries of the free market.

In his chapter on the Iraq invasion, Rohde recounts the now-infamous story of the Bush administration’s failure to adequately plan for an interim Iraqi police force. He revisits the arrogant, provincial insanity of sending a New York City police commissioner to Iraq. He reminds us of the average Americans who arrived from North Carolina to be “part of an emerging democracy, part of history.” It is surreal and important to relive these events now, when almost no one writes about Iraq and few Americans care about the country’s fate. Yet in a book about getting beyond military action, the tone of this chapter feels off-kilter. It’s one thing if Rohde merely wants to prove that America screwed up in Iraq, but since that is indisputable, one gets the sense he’s rehashed these missteps because he thinks Iraq’s collapse wouldn’t have happened had the United States employed sharper operational tactics. That could be true, but it’s also beside the point; the tactics would still be in the service of policy aims that were themselves fundamentally unsound.

In his discussion of the conflict in Pakistan, Rohde is far more compelling. Instead of declaring outright war, President Obama has launched hundreds of clandestine, unilateral drone strikes at the country’s remote Swat Valley. Americans, Rohde writes, underestimate how much these attacks have enraged the Pakistani people. But it isn’t just the drones; with them come hundreds of CIA agents and contractors, and, as was the case in both Afghanistan and Iraq, this conspicuous corps of American paramilitary forces leaves Pakistanis feeling that their country is under siege.

Much of this chapter centers on the Obama administration, and an important, chilling effect of Rohde’s book is that the current president doesn’t appear all that much better than George W. Bush. Obama’s drone program feels at least as mendacious and ill-conceived as the campaign for the invasion of Iraq—if not, in fact, more so. The program also comes off as a natural step in America’s military evolution: For US policy hands, drones are a painless and easy means of killing supposed enemies, while diplomacy is controversial and hard and involves negotiating with real enemies.

Rohde also devotes a chapter to the apparently heroic diplomatic efforts of Richard Holbrooke to bring stability to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In a line that demonstrates just how low the bar is for American diplomats these days, Rohde writes that “unlike his predecessors, [Holbrooke] expressed interest in the long-term welfare of the Pakistani people.” When Holbrooke accepted his post as special envoy to the region, he “vowed to implement a robust civilian surge.” During his two years in office, he encouraged Afghans to govern themselves, personally reviewed all USAID and State Department contracts, and hired staffers who developed innovative approaches to the region’s diplomatic challenges. Rather than stepping up military efforts in Afghanistan, Holbrooke advocated for negotiating with the Taliban and devoting funds to a comprehensive, long-term recovery program for the country.

But many of his efforts met with a deafening silence in Washington. Instead of engaging with the Taliban on the diplomatic front, Obama sent in more troops and set a withdrawal deadline, forcing aid programs to frantically speed up complicated projects. In Pakistan, meanwhile, Holbrooke wanted to help stabilize the government and rebuild trust between the Pakistani leaders and the United States. He succeeded to some degree, but then came the increase in drones. Holbrooke, who passed away more than two years ago, felt tormented by the Obama administration. As the policy expert and Holbrooke aide Vali Nasr writes in a new book, “Pakistan is a failure of American policy, a failure of the sort that comes from the president handing foreign policy over to the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies.” The state of American diplomacy does not bode well for Rohde’s thesis or prescriptions.

Meanwhile, Rohde overlooks an abundance of inconvenient truths in laying out his path forward for American policy in the Middle East. At the outset of his discussion, he heralds Turkey as a relatively stable and democratic force in the region, echoing a now-common refrain among wishful Western observers of Middle Eastern political turmoil. He is mindful that even though Turkey appears to be stable, confident, and modernizing, it is run by a paranoid government that persecutes its enemies and tramples over free speech. Not surprisingly, Rohde recommends that the United States be sure to discourage the latter trends, while promoting the former.

But in important ways, this analysis hinges on a false dichotomy. It’s true that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has imprisoned many of his ideological opponents, but Turkey has always been an authoritarian country. Erdoğan’s own strongman streak signifies a disappointing continuation of the old order. All that makes Erdoğan’s era different is the thing that Rohde praises: its embrace of neoliberal policies that have made a visible few very rich, a handful of others rich enough, and an authoritarian-minded government absolutely unstoppable.

Nonetheless, Rohde writes that if countries in the Middle East can nurture middle-class businessmen, moderation will follow. But this process took at least thirty years in Turkey. For decades the economy was statist and insular, and saw very little international investment. In the 1980s, Turkey’s former president Turgut Özal opened up the economy, and encouraged citizens in the Anatolian heartland to gain a greater share in a Turkish economic order once dominated by the state’s favorite elites. Erdoğan benefited from this process more than he created it.

Other historical factors make Turkey different. Islam has always been subordinate to the state there—even in Ottoman times. In the twentieth century, the Turkish military not only brutally prevented the emergence of radical groups—essentially eradicating both radical Islamism and socialism forever, as well as a genuine Left—but it also fostered a specifically Turkish brand of Islam in the nation’s schools. This version of the faith was bound up as much in Atatürk’s dogmatic nationalism as it was in Islamic orthodoxy. What’s more, Turkey was never colonized by foreign powers, or humiliated by Israel, and it never appeared to be overly subservient to the United States. Even with four military coups and decades of violence, a certain confidence and pride in Turkishness prevailed. Rohde wants the American government to put more pressure on Erdoğan for his abuses, but I’m not sure America has that power anymore. The true (and, some Turks may argue, unfortunate) achievement of Turkey is its independence.

This model of secular-minded Islamic nationalism and a robust economy of middle-class entrepreneurs can’t be replicated overnight in places like Tunisia, Egypt, or Pakistan. Rohde’s central suggestion is that America should encourage investment in the Middle East, and foster entrepreneurship among its young. He quotes young Tunisian and Egyptian businessmen who wish the West would invest in Middle Eastern companies, and he’s right to point out that American financial backers are far too skittish about supposed “instability” in these places. But are businessmen the answer to everything? It’s an odd turn of argument for a book that has spent so much time detailing the squalor of the free market. American companies want to be assured of quick and easy profits, and even those dedicated to long-term investment would offer jobs to only a privileged handful of the population. Rohde also argues for more civilian aid to Tunisia and Egypt, but, especially in Egypt, American aid groups are tainted by the US government’s track record of cynically propping up Hosni Mubarak. Rohde also says very little about the elephant in the Middle Eastern room: the United States’ carte-blanche support for Israel. In the Middle East, the past will not so easily be forgotten.

After a reporting trip to Afghanistan, Rohde wrote in his notebook: “The war is not good for contractors, for journalists, for generals. The war is not good for the Afghan people. How do we create ‘The Good War’ again?” A more pertinent question might well be: Are there any good wars? For a long time, America was loved and admired because it was itself a rebel nation, because it stayed out of colonial projects and imperial wars, and because it supported—in both word and spirit—independence movements across the Middle East and Asia. World War II was an unavoidable fight against a truly world-threatening foe. But there were no good wars after that. In the 1960s, USAID may have been a more viable and effective institution, and Rohde’s reporting on its decay is worthwhile. But the fate of USAID matters little if the United States continues to flex its military might around the world. The 1960s were also just the beginning of America’s national-security-state mind-set, which had been briefly in the shadows after the unexpected collapse of the Cold War, but reasserted itself with a vengeance in 2001. It would require something far more dramatic than what Rohde recommends to root out, once and for all, our national military state’s paranoid obsession with security.

There is a nervous tendency to look back to something like a golden age of comparative American innocence on the global stage—especially at a moment like the present, when things definitely feel like they’re getting worse. Greed has superseded democracy and decency; decades of militarism have persuaded Americans of the imminent threat of annihilation. Perhaps the one thing that changed after September 11 was that these two belief systems united in a more cartoonish way than before. But America was never inherently “good.” The country was founded and sustained on many myths. If we really want to chart a new path for America in the world, the first thing we have to do is let go of them.

Suzy Hansen is a writer living in Istanbul.

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