Is it surprising or just obvious that our decisions to overthrow regimes and assume responsibility for their successors comes with a large and often wasted investment and a legacy of enmity? Imperial palaces that cost a mint but are underused and may be torn down? Local populations that are unhappy with our presence and policies?
The wastes of empire are once again made clear by two recent reports. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported on July 8 that the Army had spent $34 million to construct, in Kandahar, a 64,000 sq. ft. regional command headquarters for 1,200-1,500 military personnel that it no longer needed.
In fact, according to SIGAR, as early as May 2013 (two months after asking for the money), the Marines, whose division headquarters was to have used the building, determined it no longer needed it and asked for the project to be stopped. The Army went right on building it. Now they have to decide whether to tear it down or turn it over to the Afghans (with more renovation costs).
The State Department, however, makes the Army look like a fiscal piker. As the U.S. military occupied Iraq and planned for a lengthy presence, State designed and built the largest U.S. embassy anywhere in the world, at a minimal cost of $750 million dollars. The building includes a huge dining facility, a six-lane swimming pool, workout rooms and a basketball court, as well as living quarters. The major diplomatic facilities we have in Iraq, including the embassy, occupy 350 acres.
According to the State Department's Inspector General, as revealed by diplomacy blogger Diplopundit, the building was originally intended to house 11,500 people. In January 2014, there will be less than half that in the facility -- easier access to those swimming lanes.
And the residents will want to stay indoors, too, because the streets of Baghdad are still not safe. It costs nearly $50 million to keep the staff safe, according to the IG. Or they could just fly, using the embassy's airline, artfully known as "Embassy Air," which costs $128 million a year to operate. And if injured, we spend $85 million a year on hospitals and health facilities throughout Iraq to support them. But don't get in trouble with the locals; less than half the consular staff speaks Arabic, making communications difficult.
Overall, the IG says, the United States allocated more than $3 billion in FY 2012 to fund our diplomatic presence in Iraq and, among other things, administer another $1.3 billion in assistance.
Inevitably, the expansion of our military and diplomatic activities over the past decade, especially in these two countries, has drawn fire, literally. The insurgency and IED attacks against the military are well known. Those against our diplomats are less public.
According to the other significant report, from the Bureau of Diplomatic Security at State and aptly entitled "Significant Attacks Against U.S. Diplomatic Facilities and Personnel, 1998-2012" there have been 265 "significant attacks" against U.S. diplomatic facilities since 1998.
Maybe that's a lot; maybe that's a little. No, it's a lot, because the rate is growing. Grouped in five year periods, the rate has gone from about 9 a year over the first five years, to nearly 17 a year over the next five, to an average of 27 attacks a year between 2008 and 2012.
Moreover, so many of the attacks in the last four years have been against the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad that the Diplomatic Service counted them all as one attack in the data. So If you count the 41 Baghdad embassy attacks in 2009, the 50 in 2010, the 35 in 2011, and the 41 in 2012 (the year after our forces were all gone), the average number of attacks worldwide over the past five years is more than double -- 60, not 27. And over half of the 298 attacks over those five years were against that white elephant in Baghdad.
Ah, well, you say, the wages of trying to keep global peace and stability. Maybe we should keep doing these things until we get it right. Surprisingly, Iraq Special Inspector General Stuart Bowen, who has been a merciless critic of wasteful spending in Iraq, and Amb. John Herbst, the director of the Center for Complex Operations of the National Defense University, seem to want to encourage such behavior.
In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on July 9, they called for the United States to create an entirely new, separate agency to handle major reconstruction operations. Set aside whether we, or any occupying power, has the capacity to reconstruct and govern another country. Sounds like the definition of insanity -- doing the same thing over and over thinking the outcome will change.
Maybe we need to think about whether it is wise to continue down this expensive and wasteful road.
George Little, the Pentagon spokesperson, appeared to make an important announcement last week, saying "strategic communication" had been banned from the Pentagon's lexicon. Sounded like a good thing; strategic communication was a brainchild of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in full flower of his moment when the Pentagon could not only "do it all," it should "do it all." But when USA Today picked up his memo announcing the language change, feathers flew at the Pentagon.
My Foreign Policy colleague Rosa Brooks thinks this is all a tempest in a turf-infested teapot.
There is a deeper issue at stake here, though, even if George Little was just asserting turf and some kind of language control. Over the past decade, the Department of Defense has fallen into, fallen prey to, or just chosen to take on an expanded sense of mission. Rumsfeld pushed the department to become, as far as possible, the integrator of stabilization, reconstruction, development, governance, and, yes, messaging for America's overseas engagement, wherever force was present. "Strategic Communication" was very much part of that expansion, aiming to reshape hearts, minds, and governments abroad to behave and understand our benign intent. As Rosa says, it became part of the "war of ideas."
Rosa's view is that the Obama administration got this effort under control. She defines the new focus this way: "'strategic communication' refers to the thoughtful integration of issues of stakeholder perception and response into policymaking, planning, and operations at every level...Strategic communication, in this view, is less about what we have to say than it is about considering how others may interpret our words and actions."
I would like to think Rosa is right in saying that this bloated mission creep has been reigned in over the past four years. I would like to think that today it is a benign willingness to take the sensitivities of others overseas into account when we shape a national message and overseas operations. But I doubt it.
There is some evidence that an institutional reigning in of "strategic communication" has taken place. A new report -- The Pentagon as Pitchman -- by Russell Rumbaugh and Matthew Leatherman, both at the Stimson Center, cautions us that much of what Rumsfeld tried to do has not been embedded at DOD. "There has been no widespread institutionalization of public diplomacy-like activities throughout the Defense Department despite a great deal of rhetoric and effort," they write.
But the desire to "shape" the views of others, win hearts and minds, and get the message out there is far from dead at DOD. As the Stimson report notes, it is alive and well at the Combatant Commands, and, especially, at Special Operations Command. These organizations are "substantially invested in multi-year programs whose core is a series of news websites built for civilians in regions around the world." While this program is not yet large -- it is about half of what the State Department spends on public diplomacy -- it is very like our civilian public diplomacy.
What makes this worth keeping an eye on is that this kind of communications management, or "strategic communication," is seen as a very integral part of the broader COCOM and Special Forces mission of "building partner capacity," in which our military works in small teams in close interaction with partner militaries and governments. Sounds benign, but it is the kind of program that can get us in deep pretty fast in a lot of countries around the globe. And it is a program, and a mission, that the Pentagon has enthusiastically signed up for, with strong White House support.
The potential downside? The military doesn't do these things terribly well -- it's not a core competence. Giving the forces this mission, moreover, weakens support for the civilian programs at State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors, whose core competence it actually is. And, most worrisome of all, it puts a uniform on America's message -- not always well received abroad, and confusing to other militaries that we keep telling to stay out of government, the economy, and politics.
The language may be dead, and a good part of DOD not involved, but the programs that can get us in deep are still very connected to the notion of "strategic communication," whatever George Little says.
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Gordon Adams tracks the budget and the national security establishment for FP.