Sunday, November 11, 2007

Nobody could have foreseen ....

On her way out to the "western white house" for her boss's summit with Angela Merkel, Condi Rice did an interview with the Dallas Morning News. To its credit, the paper came armed with serious and sustained questions. Perhaps the most interesting concerns the period immediately after the overthrow of Saddam when the occupation of Iraq was put in the charge of the Pentagon and not, contrary to the earlier practice, the State Department. Condi is in an especially awkward position on that one, having advised the decision at the time but now in charge of the department that she then thought wasn't up to the job that she wants it to do now. So let the spinning begin --

So the truth of the matter is this country, the United States, really did not have a structure that worked particularly well for the transition from war to peace, the kind of -- we tended to think of things, there's war and there's peace. The military does war and the civilians do peace. And that's not the case. Many, many, not just Iraq and Afghanistan, but Haiti and Sudan and Liberia are all places where you find that this is more of a continuum. And so we tried in Bosnia and the Balkans to do it kind of with an international presence. Well, that worked variably. Kosovo still doesn't essentially have an economy. Bosnia-Herzegovina still isn't a real state in the way that it functions. It has three presidents. Three presidents! It has three police forces and three armies. (Laughter.) But you know, but this idea that somehow the Balkans -- we stopped the war, but the transition hasn't worked all that well ...

Now, what I think we've come to now is a recognition that you need structures that better integrate military and civilian capability. You need structures that permit large-scale civilian deployment, and we don't really have them ... And so the new structure that the President proposed in his State of the Union is something called a Civilian Response Corps, which is a civilian capability to sort of look like the National Guard capability so that you could actually sign up Americans. Let's say there's a former prosecutor or former assistant DA here in Dallas who would like to spend a year serving in Afghanistan or Iraq or Haiti or someplace doing rule of law and justice training.

The obvious problem with this is the fact that in countries like Iraq, they don't speak English, and the idea that some dude sitting around in the US with spare time on his hands can just head over there and start training people in Arabic is preposterous. There is a particular part of the US government that has people with technical specialties and language skills: the, er, State Department! So here's how Condi deals with that one --

QUESTION: One of the things that the State Department -- one of the assets that the State Department did have in 2003 was a very capable Foreign Service -- Arabic-speaking, very knowledgeable about Iraq as well as the rest of the region. They were swept aside in this decision to hand over those responsibilities to DOD.

SECRETARY RICE: That's not true.

QUESTION: Well, we've reviewed quite a few interviews on this and --

SECRETARY RICE: You know, people -- it's very interesting because that was not the assessment at the time, that State Department could somehow do this. It just wasn't the case. And yes, there were people -- I would, by the way -- who knew Iraq? Well, I planned with a lot of those people and it turns out we actually didn't know Iraq very well -- the Iraq that had existed from '91, after the first Gulf War, until 2003. I don't remember anybody knowing the degree to which the Oil-for-Food program had completely made dysfunctional agriculture in Iraq. Because if you have a food basket and you're giving people food through the Oil-for-Food program, then there isn't an agricultural market for goods. So agriculture had completely collapsed. I don't remember anybody knowing that.

Condi therefore claims that neither she or anyone around her knew that giving out free food tends to be bad for local farm producers -- a recurring theme of the food aid debate for about the last 30 years. Indeed, the concern that free food destroys local production was one of the (misguided) rationales for Britain's botched famine relief policies in Ireland in the 1840s. The depth of Condi's ability to be shocked by well known issues never ceases to amaze.

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