State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors. Whatabout Iraq?

Below is an excerpt from Andrew Exum’s piece in Abu Muqawama: State, USAID Must Learn From Afghanistan Errors.

The State Department rarely garners similar praise from the American people or its elected leaders. Republican congressmen on Capitol Hill talk a big game on national security and vow never to cut the military’s budget, while at the same time threatening to slash the International Affairs budget by 20 percent. U.S. military officers and troops are held up as the best of what America has to offer, while diplomats . . . well, few Americans are quite sure of what diplomats even do.
Unfortunately, the State Department is not very good at telling its story to either the U.S. Congress or the American people. When people effectively stand up for the budget of the State Department and make the case for a larger International Affairs budget, it is too often either U.S. military officers or conservative, “pro-military” defense intellectuals.  The State Department and its foreign service officers deserve some of the blame here. I recently finished John Lewis Gaddis’ biography of George F. Kennan, and Kennan’s life is a reminder that those Americans who are most knowledgeable about other cultures can often be the most contemptuous and ignorant of U.S. domestic political culture. Foreign service officers who do not hesitate to spend endless afternoons drinking chai with Central Asian warlords somehow can’t, by and large, stomach the occasional coffee with a junior congressman from Nebraska.

The result is that the State Department as an organization constantly feels that it is under pressure and underappreciated by its appropriators. We should not wonder, then, why such an organization fails to be introspective or critical of itself. That shortchanges both America and the State Department, though, because as Chandrasekaran’s book details, much of the civilian effort promised by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Afghanistan has been an embarrassment.

Actually he’s quite nice about this even when he called the Afghanistan civilian effort by HRC “an embarrassment.” He could have written something a lot worse, like — did you not learn anything from Iraq?

The State Department has been doing stuff in Iraq. Is the Baghdafication of Kabul really any better?  Did State learn anything from what went down in Iraq? And if it did, how come we’re now reading  Chandrasekaran’s Afghanistan edition of Imperial Life in the Emerald City?

As to being not particularly “very good at telling its story,” the State Department has no one else to blame for this. It insists on telling only the happy talk stories. The real world is not all happy talk. 21st century information consumers will not just swallow hook, line and sinker, everything that the 21st century statecraft machine puts out. Oh, wait, that’s the same 21st century statecraft message machine that is all confused and eating crap statistics anyway. You should hear the back story about that multimillion, excuse me, $16.5 million multi-year Kindle acquisition.  Secretary Clinton and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos were supposed to hold hands on the 7th floor, but it never happened.  I bet you want to know how come that’s indefinitely postponed. No, it’s not because she was traveling, silly!

The State Department, by the way, has some quite talented storytellers — authentic and even pee in your pants funny writers. But State is in such a schizo mess when it comes to social media that it runs after bloggers (well, not all of them, just some of them).  Sometimes it wields a large hammer, and whacks a mole or two just so everyone can appreciate its whack-a-mole ability and the “friendly” warning to those who potentially can be whacked also.

How can one help but … you know …. 🙄

Finally, introspection and self criticism, like innovation, (oh, that favorite 21st century statecraft word) are all by-products of an organizational culture that positively recognize the value of mistakes in the learning process.

Kipling writes in If

         If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same

Except that no one makes mistakes at State. Triumph is always crowned king and no one has ever heard of Disaster — except in one’s nightmares, or in very few instances, in OIG reports. But wait, those are redacted. Right. So technically, we are only acquainted with Triumph.

Domani Spero