Commentary Magazine


Topic: USAID

Of Military and Humanitarian Missions

Using military assets to rescue the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria has become the crie du jour among the broader policy community. Admittedly, I am sympathetic as well to using tools in the American arsenal, although under no circumstances should that include boots on the ground: Nigeria is a corrupt morass and a major part of the story there—that the first lady of Nigeria at first denied the kidnapping and then targeted and had arrested family members of the kidnapped girls, accusing them of manufacturing the crisis to embarrass her husband—hasn’t fully made it into the Western press.

Nevertheless, if U.S. drones can survey territory not easily accessible and locate the girls or their captors, and if that enables the ability of Nigerian Special Forces to rescue them, it’s an excellent use of U.S. resources. If Ospreys are needed to ferry troops or provide transport, perhaps that further involvement would be worth it. The goodwill brokered by enabling such a rescue against a group so roundly hated in Nigeria and more broadly in Africa would be a great investment.

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Using military assets to rescue the school girls kidnapped in Nigeria has become the crie du jour among the broader policy community. Admittedly, I am sympathetic as well to using tools in the American arsenal, although under no circumstances should that include boots on the ground: Nigeria is a corrupt morass and a major part of the story there—that the first lady of Nigeria at first denied the kidnapping and then targeted and had arrested family members of the kidnapped girls, accusing them of manufacturing the crisis to embarrass her husband—hasn’t fully made it into the Western press.

Nevertheless, if U.S. drones can survey territory not easily accessible and locate the girls or their captors, and if that enables the ability of Nigerian Special Forces to rescue them, it’s an excellent use of U.S. resources. If Ospreys are needed to ferry troops or provide transport, perhaps that further involvement would be worth it. The goodwill brokered by enabling such a rescue against a group so roundly hated in Nigeria and more broadly in Africa would be a great investment.

Faced with criticism regarding how the United States distributes and spends foreign aid, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) often complain that the United States spends just a tiny proportion of its budget on foreign assistance, and that USAID should actually have a larger budget. A successful rescue of the school girls in Nigeria, however, could bring greater benefit to America’s image than all the money the State Department has spent in Nigeria over the past two decades.

When it comes to goodwill and effectiveness, such reality is the rule rather than the exception. The U.S. military is the largest and most effective humanitarian organization in the world. Nation-building should not be its mission—much of what the public complains about in Iraq and Afghanistan are actually the result of ill-advised nation-building and mission creep, not the military’s initial goals—but the military has often been used in rescues and emergency relief. The United States received tremendous goodwill for its emergency relief in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Once again, the weeks of work the U.S. Navy and Marines did trumped decades of U.S. foreign assistance to countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The Navy was likewise on the front lines of operations in the wake of the Japan earthquake and tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake. Again, in each instance, the military exercised a capability neither the United Nations nor any NGO has, and the help offered by the military was far more effective and created greater goodwill than decades of work by the State Department and USAID. The video of rescues of Iranian fisherman likewise are a huge boon to the image of America.

How ironic it is that the Obama administration wants to trim the Marine Expeditionary Units and the Carrier Strike Groups so responsible for these successes, or that it seems to want to double down on an aid agency that has decades of expensive failure to its name. Perhaps it is time to value and enhance the capability of the military to do work that so promotes pro-American sentiment rather than throw good money after bad.

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Is the U.S. Waging a War of Ideas?

I was struck by two recent, seemingly unrelated news articles that have unexpected relevance to the struggle against violent jihadism.

The first of these concerns revelations from a new book about how in the 1950s the CIA helped disseminate Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago to undermine the appeal of communism.  

The second concerns efforts by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to retool his outfit, born of the Cold War, to meet new challenges.

In my view the first article implicitly suggests what the CIA and other agencies of the US government should be doing today to wage the current version of the Cold War–a struggle not against communism (whose appeal does not extend beyond a few Western college campuses) but against Islamism. In the Cold War, the CIA saw its mission as waging ideological war, which meant publishing “subversive” books among other things. Is the CIA doing anything similar today?

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I was struck by two recent, seemingly unrelated news articles that have unexpected relevance to the struggle against violent jihadism.

The first of these concerns revelations from a new book about how in the 1950s the CIA helped disseminate Boris Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago to undermine the appeal of communism.  

The second concerns efforts by Rajiv Shah, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, to retool his outfit, born of the Cold War, to meet new challenges.

In my view the first article implicitly suggests what the CIA and other agencies of the US government should be doing today to wage the current version of the Cold War–a struggle not against communism (whose appeal does not extend beyond a few Western college campuses) but against Islamism. In the Cold War, the CIA saw its mission as waging ideological war, which meant publishing “subversive” books among other things. Is the CIA doing anything similar today?

It’s hard to know for sure, since such programs are necessarily covert, but I doubt there is anything approaching the scale of the Cold War efforts. If it isn’t doing so already, the CIA and other organs of the U.S. government should be paying to translate great works on liberty, from novels to philosophical tracts, from Western languages into Arabic, Pashto, Farsi and other relevant languages while also spreading the work of liberal Muslim writers. I know I know: Books are so 20th century. So, sure, we should also be propagating such ideas in cyberspace but even today books have resonance that is hard to match for spreading ideas.

As for the second article, it suggests that we are currently wasting some of the scarce funds that could be going to wage political warfare for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. While the article’s focus is on how Rajiv Shah is changing USAID’s focus away from simply funding contractors toward using loan guarantees to enable efforts by private industry–a good idea, no doubt–the lead example is a bit discomfiting: “Here in South Africa, in one of the signature new deals for the agency, Dr. Shah brought in corporate America — General Electric — to guarantee a portion of a bank loan to help buy $30 million in much-needed equipment” for a new children’s hospital.

The hospital is no doubt a laudable undertaking, one that will benefit the children of South Africa. But how exactly does this project benefit the foreign policy of the United States? South Africa is already one of the most prosperous and stable states in Africa; it is not home to terrorist groups or other developments that threaten U.S. security. So why is USAID spending any portion of its $20 billion budget in South Africa instead of concentrating on countries such as Mali, Libya and Yemen–to pick three at random–which are threatened by jihadist groups that are also enemies of the United States?

USAID should be focusing on nation-building in those front-line states as part of a coordinated counterinsurgency strategy worked out with the CIA, the U.S. military, the State Department and other agencies of government; it should leave purely charitable work to private institutions such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for which Shah used to work.

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Dissolve USAID and Revamp Foreign Aid

Last month, I wrote about how much money the United States has wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan—not in terms of the military mission, which I continue to support, but rather because of the misguided notion that development assistance and foreign assistance bring security.

The problem with foreign assistance runs deeper. Many proponents of aid point out that the United States gives a smaller percentage of its GDP to foreign assistance than many smaller states. Speaking at the National Defense University last month, President Obama bought into this trope.

I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is. That’s true for Democrats and Republicans–I’ve seen the polling–even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. In fact, a lot of folks think it’s 25 percent, if you ask people on the streets. Less than one percent–still wildly unpopular. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security. And it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. 

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Last month, I wrote about how much money the United States has wasted in Iraq and Afghanistan—not in terms of the military mission, which I continue to support, but rather because of the misguided notion that development assistance and foreign assistance bring security.

The problem with foreign assistance runs deeper. Many proponents of aid point out that the United States gives a smaller percentage of its GDP to foreign assistance than many smaller states. Speaking at the National Defense University last month, President Obama bought into this trope.

I know that foreign aid is one of the least popular expenditures that there is. That’s true for Democrats and Republicans–I’ve seen the polling–even though it amounts to less than one percent of the federal budget. In fact, a lot of folks think it’s 25 percent, if you ask people on the streets. Less than one percent–still wildly unpopular. But foreign assistance cannot be viewed as charity. It is fundamental to our national security. And it’s fundamental to any sensible long-term strategy to battle extremism. 

The complaint about foreign aid is dishonest for several reasons.

  • First, Americans give far more in charity than do their European counterparts: Just because aid is not coming from the government does not mean it is not American assistance.
  • Second, Sweden may at first glance give a higher proportion of both its GDP and budget, but when push comes to shove, America still gives more. To be blunt: the U.S. military does more to save people than to kill them. The U.S. military formed the backbone of tsunami relief in the Indian Ocean basin during the 2004 tsunami, and restored airport operations to enable relief in Haiti following that country’s devastating 2010 earthquake. If the cost of such operations is factored in, then the United States gives much more. (As an aside, sequestration and the resulting lack of naval readiness will mean that victims of the next massive natural disaster may have to fend for themselves, unless Swedes, Danes, or Norwegians find their own aircraft carrier.)
  • Many extremists—and most terrorists—are actually quite well-off and educated. The 9/11 bombers, for example, came from privileged upbringings, and the Boston bombers had access to a better education than many other residents in Boston. If policy were based strictly on the data, then the path to counter-terrorism would be to de-emphasize education and encourage poverty. I say that with tongue in cheek, of course, but it is important to recognize that ideology drives terrorism, not simply grievance or poverty. Just throwing money at countries does not make America more secure.

Foreign aid may represent less than one percent of the federal budget, but that alone is not justification for waste. Simply put, neither the State Department nor the White House have, across administrations, been able to propose metrics to demonstrate that foreign aid as currently distributed actually improves American security or furthers American interests. Most of the money is simply wasted on bureaucratic bloat, ill thought-out projects, conferences, or amorphous goals that provide no lasting benefit for the people. Management of aid money is notoriously bad, especially when people like disgraced former mayor and diplomat Andrew Young is put in charge.

While American administrations across parties will often pay lip service to democratization, a major problem with foreign aid is it actually promotes poor governance. Building schools, hospitals, and housing should be the job of the government, not a foreign aid organization. If such basic responsibilities of government are assumed by outsiders, then corrupt governments have no disincentive against pursuit of counterproductive social agendas or terror sponsorship.

The simple fact is that foreign aid has:

  • Encouraged corruption and poor governance in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Been the bane of Palestinian development. The best way to encourage the Palestinians to develop a functioning economy and responsible state would be to wean them off outside assistance altogether and eliminate UNRWA.
  • Passage and implementation of the Kerry-Lugar amendment and provision of its nearly $7 billion in assistance has increased rather than decreased anti-Americanism in Pakistan.
  • Failed to promote responsible government in Egypt. Rather than throw a lifeline to the Muslim Brotherhood, it should be an American interest to see the Muslim Brotherhood fail and retire disgraced. No, Egypt is not too big to fail.

Rather than continue USAID as it is now structured, dissolve the organization. The time has come to defer items such as “capacity building” (whatever that means in practice) to endowments and NGOs, and dispense with contributing any development assistance to any state which votes with the United States less than—let’s say arbitrarily—80 percent of the time at the United Nations. There might be notable exceptions: Let the U.S. focus on disaster relief—where Washington can actually win hearts and minds—or promoting foreign direct investment by American companies which will benefit far more people at home and abroad than do USAID programs now.

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Does Development Really Bring Security?

Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.

Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.

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Critics of U.S. involvement in both Iraq and Afghanistan often make two mutually exclusive points. The first is that the wars have been tremendously costly, and the second is that the means to win security is through development.

Had the Iraq war ended soon after Saddam’s ouster—and had the Bush administration not abandoned its initial plans to withdraw after 90 days—then the cost of that war would have been tremendously reduced both in terms of blood and treasure. Iraq has made great strides in the decade since Saddam’s ouster, but most of the development in both southern and northern Iraq has more to do with the fact that Saddam is gone than with American investment. The billions spent on development (including the cost of providing those aid workers with security) have produced little if anything.

Nevertheless, soft power or peace through development remains the mantra of too many in the U.S. aid community or for that matter, among our European partners. The problem is that there’s no evidence that investment in development is worth it. What caught my eye was this report, from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In short, two USAID-funded hospitals seem unsustainable, and several others likely won’t be able to function at true capacity. In recent months, SIGAR has released a number of damning reports allegedly leading to efforts by some in the administration to muzzle it.

USAID has spent billions of dollars in conflict zones. The U.S. aid community maintains a dashboard that purports to demonstrate bang for the buck. Alas, it never achieves that goal. Take this explanation of USAID investment in Iraq, for example. Stating that money will be applied toward a certain goal does not equate with wise investment. Nor is there evidence that flooding a country with cash improves security. Indeed, Afghanistan proves quite the opposite: USAID might brag about building roads and bridges, but Afghan villagers often beg to be left off the network so as to avoid the resulting land grabs by corrupt government, security and Afghan National Army officials. As a second order effect, local villagers sometimes seek protection in the Taliban, as the very Afghans who are supposed to guard USAID bridges and roads are the ones who seek to confiscate land and livelihood. Terrorism might be a tragedy for a handful of families when bombs kill or maim loved ones, but corruption is a cancer that impacts millions and too often USAID fuels that corruption.

As the Afghanistan conflict winds down and joins the Iraq campaign in something distinctly different from nation-building, some serious introspection is long past due about what benefits if any are derived from aid as it is currently managed. This is not a reason to dispense with aid entirely. But the idea that a multi-billion dollar, bureaucracy-bloated organization is the best way to promote development is questionable at best. Nor should the conventional wisdom that aid contributes to security be accepted as fact. It is long past time for USAID to prove that its investments are worth their cost. Perhaps the lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan should not be that the cost of regime change is too high to bear, but rather than the development welfare that accompanies it is the problem. Perhaps it’s time to rebuild the infrastructure of U.S. foreign assistance from scratch.

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Fayyad and the Failure of U.S. Foreign Aid

The departure of Salam Fayyad from the Palestinian government presents an easy trap for outside observers to fall into: because nothing much will change once he’s gone, it will be assumed that nothing much would have changed had he stayed. That may be true, but American officials would be gravely mistaken to believe it was inevitable.

In truth, the great tragedy of “Fayyadism”–technocratic reform and the building of functional state institutions–is not that it failed but that it never existed. As Nathan Brown wrote for his report on Fayyadism for the Carnegie Endowment, state building under Fayyad was a mirage. Brown’s report has been widely cited ever since, but it’s worth pointing out the part of Brown’s diagnosis that was so widely ignored in favor of blaming only Israel or PA factional politics. Brown wrote:

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The departure of Salam Fayyad from the Palestinian government presents an easy trap for outside observers to fall into: because nothing much will change once he’s gone, it will be assumed that nothing much would have changed had he stayed. That may be true, but American officials would be gravely mistaken to believe it was inevitable.

In truth, the great tragedy of “Fayyadism”–technocratic reform and the building of functional state institutions–is not that it failed but that it never existed. As Nathan Brown wrote for his report on Fayyadism for the Carnegie Endowment, state building under Fayyad was a mirage. Brown’s report has been widely cited ever since, but it’s worth pointing out the part of Brown’s diagnosis that was so widely ignored in favor of blaming only Israel or PA factional politics. Brown wrote:

The focus on Fayyad’s personal virtues has obscured a series of unhealthy political developments and mistakes honest administration for sound politics. The entire program is based not simply on de-emphasizing or postponing democracy and human rights but on actively denying them for the present. The effect of this approach—taken perhaps more out of necessity than conviction—is not merely troubling but also deeply debilitating and self-defeating.

A functional Palestinian state that will accept a two-state solution, as Jonathan wrote yesterday, cannot be created through the will and declaration of a despot. The Palestinians must create a state before they can have a state. But as Brown’s report makes clear, the lack of any democratic character will impede the process of state building so effectively as to make it futile. Brown conceded that Fayyad has been able to manage the institutions currently in place since the reign of Arafat, but “he has done so in an authoritarian context that robs the results of domestic legitimacy.” Fayyad, therefore, isn’t blameless in his unpopularity.

But someone like Fayyad, who is less corrupt and much more supportive of peaceful measures than the clowns to the left of him and the jokers to his right, is still far preferable to any alternatives. Which raises the question: what is the American role in all this? The U.S. gives hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the Palestinian government, yet the institutions don’t get built, and the Palestinian government gets no more democratic from year to year. (If anything, the opposite happens, since every year that passes puts Mahmoud Abbas one year further from when his term legally ended.)

The answer is not to de-fund the Palestinian Authority, since that would only empower Hamas in the West Bank. It turns out there are some very good strings attached to U.S. aid to the PA–but not nearly enough. According to the Congressional Research Service:

USAID’s West Bank and Gaza program is subject to a specialized vetting process (for non-U.S. organizations) and to yearly audits intended to ensure that funds are not diverted to Hamas or other organizations classified as terrorist groups by the U.S. government. This vetting process has become more rigorous in recent years in response to allegations that U.S. economic assistance was indirectly supporting Palestinian terrorist groups, and following an internal audit in which USAID concluded it could not “reasonably ensure” that its money would not wind up in terrorist hands.

This is important, and hopefully it has been successful. Vetting the money for security purposes, however, is necessary to the aid process–but not sufficient. Back to that Congressional Research Service report:

In assessing whether U.S. aid to the Palestinians since the June 2007 West Bank/Fatah-Gaza Strip/Hamas split has advanced U.S. interests, Congress could evaluate how successful aid has been in

• reducing the threat of terrorism;

• inclining Palestinians towards peace with Israel;

• preparing Palestinians for self-reliance in security, political, and economic matters;

• promoting regional stability; and

• meeting humanitarian needs.

The CRS lists five categories for judging the success of aid to the PA; the first passes the test–terrorism from the West Bank is down, though how much of that is because of American aid is certainly debatable, to say the least. But even if we grant that, the other four are clear failures. By the CRS’s metrics, only anti-terrorism funds have been useful; everything else has been a waste.

That’s just not good enough. And it’s representative of a broader failure in the region. The Washington Free Beacon reports on a prominent Egyptian opposition blogger who briefed the press before meeting with State Department officials in Washington. American aid to the Islamist regime of Mohamed Morsi is enabling torture, repression, and state violence. The blogger offered a piece of advice for American financial support to Egypt: “Make it conditional on political reform. At least do something good with it.”

That should be a new working motto for the organizations tasked with distributing American foreign aid. Fayyad has been in office for nearly six years, and those six years–along with billions of dollars–have been mostly wasted. Fayyad’s resignation should be a wake-up call to the U.S., as should Morsi’s violent consolidation of power. The failure of the current American foreign aid strategy in the Middle East cannot be plausibly denied, nor harmlessly ignored.

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Iraqis Ask: Why Didn’t USAID Do That?

The Bush administration’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein involved not one choice, but rather four:

  • First, the decision to use military force against Iraq
  • Second, the decision to occupy Iraq rather than to oust Saddam and leave as many Iraqis had advised.
  • Third, the decision to aim for democracy rather than install a general as a new dictator;
  • And, fourth, the decision to reconstruct and develop Iraq.

The first and third choices George W. Bush made were wise; the second and fourth were not. The occupation of Iraq—pushed at the policy level by those who believed the U.S. would have more influence to shape governance with boots on the ground rather than by working to form a coherent coalition prior to the invasion—was disastrous. Once the Americans established themselves in Baghdad, mission creep cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Few USAID and Coalition Provisional Authority projects had any discernible impact; to this day, Iraqis identify conversion to a new currency as the only truly successful American project beyond ousting Saddam.

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The Bush administration’s decision to oust Saddam Hussein involved not one choice, but rather four:

  • First, the decision to use military force against Iraq
  • Second, the decision to occupy Iraq rather than to oust Saddam and leave as many Iraqis had advised.
  • Third, the decision to aim for democracy rather than install a general as a new dictator;
  • And, fourth, the decision to reconstruct and develop Iraq.

The first and third choices George W. Bush made were wise; the second and fourth were not. The occupation of Iraq—pushed at the policy level by those who believed the U.S. would have more influence to shape governance with boots on the ground rather than by working to form a coherent coalition prior to the invasion—was disastrous. Once the Americans established themselves in Baghdad, mission creep cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Few USAID and Coalition Provisional Authority projects had any discernible impact; to this day, Iraqis identify conversion to a new currency as the only truly successful American project beyond ousting Saddam.

Despite small-scale investment and development in Baghdad—new shops, car dealerships, restaurants, etc.—the lack of construction cranes in the city is marked. I challenged the prime minister’s office to demonstrate that the government itself was improving the lives of ordinary citizens in Iraq’s capital city. After all, both under Saddam Hussein and today, the government has applied most of Iraq’s oil wealth toward the salaries of an inflated civil service. By providing jobs, even unnecessary ones, the government provides security and stability to its people. Such patronage is not a wise long-term political strategy. So long as the price of oil is high, the strategy will work. But when oil declines—as it inevitably will—there will be trouble.

On Sunday, the Iraqi government agreed to show me some of their latest projects. The first was nearly complete—a huge water intake and treatment station on the Tigris River that should supply most of Baghdad with chlorinated drinking water. The project involves state-of-the-art purification and laboratory facilities, the largest covered reservoirs in Iraq, and a compound for workers and their families—including not only apartments, but also schools, shops, laundries, and entertainment centers—so that the workers can be on call 24/7 if problems develop.

True, Americans tried to develop small-scale water plants, but not on this scale. Frankly, even this should not have been an American responsibility; water plants are an Iraqi job, but one for which American businesses should have competed. The largest American component is the Caterpillar backup generators. It is a shame that those who boycott Caterpillar would so willingly sacrifice the health of Iraqi children on the altar of the activists’ animosity toward Israel.

Other projects are underway in Baghdad. The government is five months into an amusement center and park complex alongside man-made lakes near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. They may not be the multibillion projects attempted by USAID, but they do better fulfill an Iraqi demand.

I also drove along the Qanat al-Jaysh (Army Canal), an 18-mile irrigation canal that runs across Baghdad connecting the Tigris to the Diyala Rivers. Progress to clean and transform the canal from a dusty, trash- and sludge-strewn strip into a park and refuge and leisure center is well underway. Crews were landscaping, planting trees, laying stone walkways and a corniche. Pedestrian bridges spanning busy roadways already connect the strip to adjacent neighborhoods. When the park is complete, the strip of green through Baghdad will be something which young and old, rich and poor Iraqis can enjoy, regardless of religion or ethnicity. It will be dotted with restaurants, ice cream stands, and tea houses and will become Baghdad’s equivalent of the Beirut or Doha corniches, Tel Aviv beach, or the stream-side parks of northern Tehran.

This is the type of project the United States should have executed for the Iraqis: It would be eminently doable, difficult for insurgents to destroy, and would have won hearts and minds immediately. Perhaps had USAID embraced metrics other than that of money spent, Iraqis might not look at their experience with the United States as the lost years. For the first time since the brief honeymoon period following Saddam’s ouster, Iraqis once again have hope. The question for President Obama and Governor Romney is whether they have any true plans to cement the partnership, not with tanks and troops, but with investment and commerce leading the way.

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Life Returning to Normal in Baghdad

It has been almost ten months since the last U.S. troops departed Iraq. Many Iraqis—including many in the Iraqi government—had hoped American forces would stay in one form or another, but as some Iraqi government advisors have made clear in informal chats with me, it was obvious that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would not take “yes” for an answer when they asked if an agreement was possible.

So how goes life in Iraq? It has been a couple years since I have been to either southern Iraq or northern Iraq but, by all accounts, both are booming, in the figurative rather than literal way. Basra’s new governor has been, according to many Iraqis with whom I have spoken, a breath of fresh air. Investment continues in Basra, Najaf, and their environs. Oil wealth is sparking real estate investment, the hotel and tourist sector, and leading Iraqis to invest in automobile dealerships, among other businesses.

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It has been almost ten months since the last U.S. troops departed Iraq. Many Iraqis—including many in the Iraqi government—had hoped American forces would stay in one form or another, but as some Iraqi government advisors have made clear in informal chats with me, it was obvious that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton would not take “yes” for an answer when they asked if an agreement was possible.

So how goes life in Iraq? It has been a couple years since I have been to either southern Iraq or northern Iraq but, by all accounts, both are booming, in the figurative rather than literal way. Basra’s new governor has been, according to many Iraqis with whom I have spoken, a breath of fresh air. Investment continues in Basra, Najaf, and their environs. Oil wealth is sparking real estate investment, the hotel and tourist sector, and leading Iraqis to invest in automobile dealerships, among other businesses.

Iraqi Kurdistan is also doing well, although haphazard planning and corruption has led to the region having the hotels, restaurants, and clubs of Europe, with hospitals and schools reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa.

For the past several years, however, Baghdad has been a pretty depressing place. After decades of war, it has long had a tired feel. While construction cranes dot the north and south of Iraq, there has not been equivalent development inside the capital city, much to the frustration of city residents.

Still, there is now more reason to be optimistic than in the past. The juxtaposition between the international zone, where American diplomats and many Iraqi politicians hole themselves up, and the rest of Baghdad is striking. While the International Zone is dead, the rest of Baghdad is alive. During both day and night, Iraqis are out and about. As several Iraqis have pointed out, so long as you are not a target (i.e., a politician or someone working for a politician or a foreigner), then life is now normal.

Baghdad is not a pretty town, but the streets are crowded and the restaurants are thriving. At the restaurants, those eating include both men and women. Most women are covered, but not everyone is. I visited one new place—built just recently—with multilevel outdoor dining along the banks of the Tigris River. Wild ducks swam around the lowest platform which jutted out into the river, hoping for scraps from the patrons. Some little girls obliged them. October is the perfect time in Baghdad. The days can still be uncomfortably warm—though no worse than Phoenix, Arizona—but the nights are downright pleasant. Every ice cream café I passed was packed full, with couples and teenagers milling around waiting for tables. It is a scene, alas, that American diplomats will not experience: They seldom emerge from behind the embassy’s walls.

The local government is also starting to take baby steps toward beautifying the city. There is a concerted effort to plant trees, curbs are painted, and fountains were working. So, too, were traffic lights, although no one paid any attention to them. There were no new bridges and roads were still in poor condition.

Larger developments—at least in the central neighborhoods where I was going—are still lacking. Sure, there were some nice new homes that looked like they had been transplanted from Kuwait (and designed by the same tasteless architects) and new car dealerships, but the one distinguishing feature of the Baghdad skyline—if you can call this city of overwhelmingly squat structures a skyline—is that working construction cranes are noticeably absent. The Iraqi budget may be huge, but most of the money goes toward the salaries of the inflated state bureaucracy, not to actual development. That may be fine so long as the price of oil is high, but if it ever drops precipitously, there will be trouble.

The State Department and USAID have never been as serious about lessons-learned as the Pentagon is, but the Iraq situation may be a good place to start. It is worth asking—and discussing in far more than passing—what USAID and American development income achieved in Baghdad. Almost a year after the American military presence officially ended, and more than eight years since Iraqi sovereignty was fully restored, there is precious little ordinary Iraqis can point to in terms of physical infrastructure and say, “The Americans did that.”

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U.S.-Russia Relations Keep Plummeting

Now that Moscow has expelled USAID from Russia and announced it will not renew one of the pillars of U.S.-Russia post-Soviet cooperation–the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program–the Obama administration and other disappointed actors will be looking for a silver lining.

At least the Obama administration can take solace in the fact that while Putin is thoroughly dedicated to publicly and without consequence bullying Obama in the last month of the presidential election, he isn’t only isolating the U.S. As usual, Putin reserved some of his ire for NATO as well. Reuters reports:

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Now that Moscow has expelled USAID from Russia and announced it will not renew one of the pillars of U.S.-Russia post-Soviet cooperation–the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program–the Obama administration and other disappointed actors will be looking for a silver lining.

At least the Obama administration can take solace in the fact that while Putin is thoroughly dedicated to publicly and without consequence bullying Obama in the last month of the presidential election, he isn’t only isolating the U.S. As usual, Putin reserved some of his ire for NATO as well. Reuters reports:

Russia will stop cooperating with NATO over Afghanistan after 2014 unless the alliance gets U.N. Security Council authorization for its new training mission in Afghanistan, a senior Russian diplomat said on Wednesday.

A NATO official said only that it would be “helpful” to have a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the post-2014 training mission, but stopped short of saying it was essential.

Nikolay Korchunov, Russia’s acting ambassador to NATO, did not specify what any halt to Russian cooperation with NATO on Afghanistan after 2014 would mean, but Russia will be an important transit route for NATO as it ships out billions of dollars of equipment from Afghanistan in the next few years.

This morning, the New York Times also reported that Turkish authorities forced a Syrian plane en route from Moscow to land in Ankara, and the Russians–perhaps feeling they were caught red-handed–lashed out in response. “I think that tension will now develop in the relationship between Russia and Turkey,” a Russian Foreign Ministry official told the Times.

Turkey claims there were materials on the plane that violate international regulations, but there were also passengers on the plane, leading a Russian arms export official to offer a quote that is both amusingly arrogant and ominous: “If it had been necessary to ship any military hardware or weapons to Syria, this would have been done through the established procedure rather than in an illegal way.”

Of course Russia will help a dictator murder thousands of his own people in broad daylight–but they’d never do anything illegal.

The question lingers, however: What does Putin want from Obama? The answer is, the last concession remaining: the plans for a missile shield in Europe. Yet regardless of Obama’s decision on that front, Putin’s habit has been to simply pocket concessions and then renegotiate. Which means despite the administration’s attempts to placate Putin, the U.S.-Russia relationship, at a low point during the first Obama term and in many ways since the fall of the Soviet empire, will remain where it is. The new low will become the new normal.

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To Save Aid, Cut Aides

Max Boot last month argued that the State Department and USAID should largely be spared budget cuts. That may be true of the State Department, although (like the Pentagon), the Department has layers of bureaucratic fat and unnecessary positions. Various undersecretaries, for example, have their own press advisers, a wholly unnecessary position that not only might come with a six-figure salary, but also can run up hundreds of thousands of dollars each in flight, hotel, and benefit cost. Simply put, if a Foreign Service officer or a political appointee is smart enough to become an undersecretary, then they should be smart enough to handle their own press. And if they are not up to the task, there are dozens of ambitious diplomats or politicos who probably are. This might, indeed, make for more skilled diplomats because it would benefit those who have a broader array of experiences than simply passing a “trivial pursuit”-like written exam and then a contrived oral exam upon leaving college and entering the State Department’s bubble. It would enable those who have backgrounds in business or law, for example, to apply a skill set to their careers which would benefit everybody.

To be fair, the same is true for the Pentagon. Last month, I attended a conference in Europe in which a senior U.S. general spoke. The general was worth his stars, but came to Europe from Washington with a delegation of aides and assistants whose sole mission was to ensure that the general hewed close to a script which they developed. “We don’t want him to make any comment which the press might pick up on,” one explained. Now, these aides duplicated the work of the defense attaché and American embassy which was also working overtime to babysit the three-star. Surely, there are better uses for taxpayer money than hiring press aides and minders whose sole job is to obfuscate and do damage control. If a general is able to navigate the politics of the Pentagon, then he can understand the minefield of the fourth estate without spending millions of dollars to ensure that he says nothing.

Max Boot last month argued that the State Department and USAID should largely be spared budget cuts. That may be true of the State Department, although (like the Pentagon), the Department has layers of bureaucratic fat and unnecessary positions. Various undersecretaries, for example, have their own press advisers, a wholly unnecessary position that not only might come with a six-figure salary, but also can run up hundreds of thousands of dollars each in flight, hotel, and benefit cost. Simply put, if a Foreign Service officer or a political appointee is smart enough to become an undersecretary, then they should be smart enough to handle their own press. And if they are not up to the task, there are dozens of ambitious diplomats or politicos who probably are. This might, indeed, make for more skilled diplomats because it would benefit those who have a broader array of experiences than simply passing a “trivial pursuit”-like written exam and then a contrived oral exam upon leaving college and entering the State Department’s bubble. It would enable those who have backgrounds in business or law, for example, to apply a skill set to their careers which would benefit everybody.

To be fair, the same is true for the Pentagon. Last month, I attended a conference in Europe in which a senior U.S. general spoke. The general was worth his stars, but came to Europe from Washington with a delegation of aides and assistants whose sole mission was to ensure that the general hewed close to a script which they developed. “We don’t want him to make any comment which the press might pick up on,” one explained. Now, these aides duplicated the work of the defense attaché and American embassy which was also working overtime to babysit the three-star. Surely, there are better uses for taxpayer money than hiring press aides and minders whose sole job is to obfuscate and do damage control. If a general is able to navigate the politics of the Pentagon, then he can understand the minefield of the fourth estate without spending millions of dollars to ensure that he says nothing.

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Where’s the “Made in America” at USAID?

The State Department laid out an ambitious budget for the forthcoming year and, on Wednesday, Rep. Steve Chabot, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, held a hearing to discuss U.S. assistance. Among those testifying was Mara Rudman, the assistant administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Middle East bureau. While Rudman might brag about the supposed achievements of USAID, few aid organizations are so inefficient and self-defeating.

Take branding: Throughout the Middle East, especially in areas where anti-American sentiment is especially strong, the USAID refuses to put the USAID logo on its projects. To do so might lead insurgents to target USAID-funded schools, wells, or medical clinics. The problem is that skipping branding reduces to almost zero the benefit of the project. The goal of U.S. aid should not altruistic, but rather to bolster U.S. interests and influence. Diplomats talk about the need to win hearts and minds, but the multibillion dollar organization at the forefront of the battle too often surrenders before the fight. Nothing is more frustrating than to drive around Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing signs crediting Japan, Kuwait, the Badr Corps’ Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee for visible projects—gardens in traffic circles; housing projects; clinics; and electrical substations—but see no branding for USAID.

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The State Department laid out an ambitious budget for the forthcoming year and, on Wednesday, Rep. Steve Chabot, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, held a hearing to discuss U.S. assistance. Among those testifying was Mara Rudman, the assistant administrator for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) Middle East bureau. While Rudman might brag about the supposed achievements of USAID, few aid organizations are so inefficient and self-defeating.

Take branding: Throughout the Middle East, especially in areas where anti-American sentiment is especially strong, the USAID refuses to put the USAID logo on its projects. To do so might lead insurgents to target USAID-funded schools, wells, or medical clinics. The problem is that skipping branding reduces to almost zero the benefit of the project. The goal of U.S. aid should not altruistic, but rather to bolster U.S. interests and influence. Diplomats talk about the need to win hearts and minds, but the multibillion dollar organization at the forefront of the battle too often surrenders before the fight. Nothing is more frustrating than to drive around Iraq and Afghanistan, seeing signs crediting Japan, Kuwait, the Badr Corps’ Shahid al-Mihrab Foundation or the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee for visible projects—gardens in traffic circles; housing projects; clinics; and electrical substations—but see no branding for USAID.

Compounding the problem is the fiscal irresponsibility of USAID. In Afghanistan, USAID would hire three times the local staff—drivers, cooks, and cleaners—instead of NGOs or contractors performing the same functions, and would spend more money on furniture, televisions, and equipment for offices. Rather than abide by the local market, USAID often would try to outbid contractors by offering landlords 300 percent more rent—a waste of taxpayer money that compounded itself as other U.S.-funded projects would have to keep up. Then, again, when the metric is money spent rather than results achieved, it’s easy to throw money around.

It’s time for USAID to do some real soul-searching about whether the organization does anything that smaller, leaner NGOs can’t do cheaper and better; whether they get bang for the taxpayer buck; and whether a failure to seek credit where credit is due undercuts their utility to U.S. foreign policy. If there’s one organization that’s in serious need of reform, USAID is it.

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