Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Beyond War by David Rohde - Book Review

David Rohde, a distinguished journalist who has covered the Middle East extensively, has written a book examining US policy and behavior in the Middle East with a particular emphasis on post 9/11 activity. In Beyond War: ReimaginingAmerican Influence in a New Middle East (Viking, 2013, 240 Pages, $27.95) David Rohde explores the systematic failures of policy in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan which have led to worsening relations in the Middle East. He concentrates on the extensive reliance on employing military contractors to undertake activities which should be dealt with by the military, intelligence, and diplomatic arms of the government, but which have become relied upon because of reduced funding and the difficulty of responding to specific needs posed by the arcane hiring practices in today's underfunded government. The examples he presents are chilling in their depiction of the devolution of U.S. influence where success would have been achievable under different circumstances.

Military and diplomatic decision making during the G.W. Bush administration by the neo-cons influencing the President hampered military and civilian agencies from achieving their goals. Rohde's on-the-spot observation and interviews leave a feeling of the difficulties experienced by Americans on the scene, especially concerning our support of corrupt officials and reliance upon authoritarian and military solutions requiring long-term diplomatic negotiation, listening, responsiveness, and cultural respect rather than abrupt American action.

Rohde details ways the process of hiring contractors wastes money, reduces trust, weakens U.S. Policy efforts, and undercuts the direct efforts of government agencies. He describes how the contractors' profit motive led too much money to return to the U.S. while too few operational personnel were on site to achieve the difficult goals of nation building. Contracts are let on a “cost +” basis insuring that the corporations owning them make profits regardless of outcomes. Companies like Dyn Corp were referred to as “body shops,” because they provided bodies to fill slots without regard to experience or background and often based on political considerations of the Bush administration's neo-conservative leadership, undercutting goals established as policy. He says, “In the end, Dyn Corp and other contractors had little responsibility for actual outcomes of US government efforts but continued to profit enormously.” Essentially, these contractors had the “government's credit card in their pocket.”

When Barack Obama became President, he appointed Richard Holbrooke as special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Holbrooke accomplished much in improving matters by redirecting contractors and improving outcomes before working himself to death in 2010. However, Holbrooke's abrasiveness, driving style, and work ethic was a mixed blessing to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and Obama. It also turns out that the difficulty of achieving US goals lies beyond partisan politics, but more in the government structure and interagency in-fighting at home and in the field. For instance, the efforts of USAID, staffed by long-term professionals with in-country experience, local language skills, and cultural sensitivity were undercut by Congress and other agencies. Rohde points out that building on-the-ground relationships requires time, patience, and understanding. None of these qualities characterize US efforts, which are often short term and politically driven. He also takes a look at the drone program which he says has proven to be neither reliable nor accurate.

In Part II, called “A Way Forward,” Rohde considers the ways in which Islam, Democracy, modernism, and capitalism can co-exist in a contemporary society. He uses the examples of Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey, the leader in Tunisia, and the current tensions and uproar in Egypt as examples, seeing much of the current disruption as part of the revolutions of rising expectation within the Arab world. In each he sees the promise and peril of democracy to Islam. Perhaps, above all, he calls for showing respect for decisions made in a democratic fashion, regardless of whether the decisions themselves are ones which fit with US policy. He points out that we are perceived in the Arab world as having been in support of autocratic dictators for generations and are now reaping the results of that support. Meanwhile, a strong entrepreneurial spirit among the huge cohort of Muslim youth in the Middle East is going almost unnoticed. The education of women is proceeding at a hitherto unrecognized pace, and the economies, where they're working, are hi tech and media driven. He quotes Turkish moderates as arguing that the strongest weapons against militant Islam are “engagement, investment, and technology.” This is best accomplished through private-public partnerships involving businesses and USAID. He says that private sector investment supporting indigenous start-up companies is more valuable to nation building than large scale government development aide.

In discussing the tragic death of Ambassador Chris Stevens at the Benghazi legation in Libya, Rohde places it within the context of the country itself and the emerging US pollicy of limited engagement. Because the Libyans had specifically barred security contractors and US resources have been stretched to the breaking point through Congressional withholding of funds, he suggests the Benghazi incident may have been an inevitable outcome in an emerging moderate country. He says that
Ambassador Stevens opened doors and we should follow his example.

Similarly, in Egypt we face the consequences of forty years of having backed military dictators to the tune of over forty billion dollars, much of which went to create and maintain a corrupt military system of payoffs, nepotism, and favoritism which resulted in the destruction of the middle class and the neglect of education and business enterprises. The now ruling Muslim Brotherhood emerged as a counterweight to military corruption where a literate, entrepreneurial, middle class had, at best, been discouraged. The Muslim Brotherhood has become a model for Erdogen in Turkey, Ennahda in Tunisia, and Hamas in Palestine in providing health services and education for the poor where the ruling government did not do so, being propped up by the US government.

The issue of large, high profile development projects like dams, roads, and electricity versus smaller, locally needed and requested projects remains a major one. USAID and local NGO's represent the smaller approach, while US policy is often oriented to supporting the interests of congressional members' constituents through grants and programs requiring purchases from companies in their districts rather than encouraging and facilitating the efforts of local businesses. Through introducing individual USAID officers and local entrepreneurs and telling their stories, Rohde makes a strong case for encouraging local efforts through encouragement and funding. He comments that taking risks is part of the culture of business, while avoiding risk, and the attendant publicity of the media and Congress has become characteristic of US policy efforts. He describes government workers as smart and able people beaten down by constant changes of policy and lack of support. The seeding the government agencies with right wing ideologues during the eight years of the Bush neo-con ascendancy also led to a large cadre of civil service protected employees dedicated to undermining programs and policies of the new administration from within. Politics always trumps policy. 

David Rohde
Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East (Viking, 2013, 240 Pages, $27.95) by David Rohde who has born closer witness to the debacle of the American experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan than most other observers —a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times for fifteen years, eight spent in Afghanistan and Pakistan—where he was held captive  by the Taliban for seven months.

David Rohde is currently a columnist for Reuters and the Atlantic. His work is also published in the International Herald Tribune. He is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the author, with Kristen Mulvihill, of A Rope and a Prayer: A Kidnapping from Two Sides and Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica. He lives with his family in New York City.  Because of his captivity in Pakistan, he has not recently returned to the Middle East, but has relied on his extensive sources there to help in fill in necessary details. This book is essential reading for both policy makers and those interested in the dilemmas we face in the Middle East. It is written in a clear, incisive, and impassioned style that's persuasive without being ideological. I read Beyond War on my Kindle in galley form provided by the publisher through NetGalley.