Ambassador Rick Barton brought his experiences with the State Department's Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO) to the World Affairs Council last month. I've heard the military talk about its role in DIME (diplomatic, information, military, economic) interagency projects plenty of times. I had to hear what Foggy Bottom does on the team.
Amb. Barton laid out the origin of CSO in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review that articulated a need for a government entity to bring a cross-disciplinary focus to country studies. Syria, Kenya, Burma, and Honduras have been this agency's trial by fire. The US can't work directly in Syria so CSO trained refugees who made it to neighboring countries. CSO discovered that most of the US's $800M in aid to Kenya went to anti-AIDS programs rather than to counter the election violence tearing up the place. CSO thus shifted the US focus in Kenya to broad governance support. Burma suffers from tough ethnic conflicts and a fragile peace process, but countering land mines is one problem every party wants to solve. CSO worked on getting support for de-mining from several factions. Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, so CSO saw an opportunity to build respect for the rule of law by helping with tax reform.
I submitted a question for the ambassador about how CSO works DIME in the interagency process, although I suspect my question was subsumed with others that were similar. The closest answer Amb. Barton gave was that the interagency effort can be contentious but there's always room for more opinions. That's quite a diplomatic answer.
Amb. Barton's work in Afghanistan collected structured interviews with Afghans to establish a baseline assessment of US progress there. The idea was to make the US interagency effort more self-critical. He shared his thoughts about Afghanistan in 2003. Great ideas published in think-tank reports get discarded easily without a well-connected change champion to evangelize them, and eventually the report itself becomes a dead link buried on a website. It is safe to say the US has made little progress in Afghanistan since 2003. It is too late to ask whether anyone in the NATO/ISAF high command used that project's baseline assessment. The lack of progress shows just how much the US needs CSO. It can play the same role for State that TRADOC plays for the US Army. State needs CSO to institutionalize its doctrine so future operators have templates for projects they can take to the field.
There's a lesson here for policymakers who are eager to deploy US military forces to every humanitarian crisis and failed state. Plenty of smart people at State, USAID, USDA, and other agencies have experience running intervention projects. They need to publish the results of their projects with firm ROIs so Americans can see that X-amount spent on Kenyan governance resulted in Y-amount of US exports to that country. It's a start, and politicians need to claim they created jobs.
CSO's successes also beg questions about how good governance should work at home. It boggles the mind that the US funds transparent elections abroad while many US states allow voters to draw ballots at polling stations without displaying identification. Our foreign pupils can read English-language news media. They will eventually point out contradictions like this to our diplomats, after they've accepted our development money.
I hope CSO gets the Cabinet-level support it will need to survive indefinitely. My earliest impression of Foreign Service career employees was a '90s-era comment from a well-known foreign affairs author: "Most of them just want to make it through the day." Putting CSO on par with State's geographic bureaus is a challenge to many well-trod career paths. It also fills a capability gap at end of the US's current wars.