By Patricia H. Kushlis
I was, to say the least, nonplussed about a New York Times front page story January 29, 2012 that described the State Department’s latest security protection toy: a fleet of drones to be deployed in Iraq to protect 11,000 American employees and 5,000 more security contractors when they make forays outside of the fortress embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone, consulates elsewhere in Iraq and, I suppose, other lesser properties that the US may have hung onto after the troop withdrawal in December.
Yes I realize that the Pentagon and especially the CIA have been at the forefront of the drone game for several years and that the Obama administration has ramped up the production and use of these miniature unmanned birds of flight in warzones – both the weaponized kind that zoom in for the kill of suspected anti-American terrorists and the silent open eyes and ears kind that search out the location of potential two footed predators but are not themselves equipped with lethal weapons – the spy drones that is. Not the predators.
But does the State Department need to acquire its very own drone fleet too?
Not only has this infuriated members of the Iraqi Government – it effectively extends State’s security perimeter well beyond the diplomatic enclaves it now occupies. State is never flush with funds after all. Wouldn’t it be better to shrink the size and rejigger the scope of the mission to conform better with the importance of the country in terms of overall American interests and perhaps devote the money to expanding the number of Consular and Public Diplomacy Officers in Iraq to meet and serve the Iraqi public one way or the other?
This reminds me of five year olds playing in a sandbox: if one government agency’s security office gets some new toy, the others think they have to have it too: Despite the fact that their missions are not the same. Why, for instance, can’t the Embassy rely on CIA or even Pentagon drones if necessary for security purposes? It’s not as if these agencies work for different governments. It’s also not as if the State Department is the only part of the US government to work in and out of our diplomatic establishments abroad.
How many political officers are needed to dance on the head of a pin in Iraq?
I can see the need for a large USAID Mission in Iraq, one that implements long term projects perhaps taking over some uncompleted ones the US military left behind – although this is a petroleum rich country which should be able to support its population quite nicely without US taxpayer largesse. But, regardless, does the US have enough qualified AID officers for the tasks assigned? That includes Arabic speakers.
And what about those “lesser” functions: Consular and Public Diplomacy?
I assume there’s a rather large Consular operation – at a minimum Consular officers should be issuing immigrant visas to those Iraqis who served the US at their personal peril during the decade of the occupation. Who knows? These people may need to make a quick exit and find a soft landing in the not too distant future. That point has certainly been raised – and not answered - before.
How’s that going? The last I read, it could and should be increased so we don’t find ourselves twenty years down the pike resettling Iraqi employees who have just been let out of internment camps years hence. Remember what happened to their Vietnamese and Cambodian equivalents after American personnel were evacuated by air leaving them to face the victors’ wrath. That was a sordid picture.
Of course, the Embassy needs a superb spokesperson to handle questions from the international and local press. That office, however, doesn’t need to be humongous. It just needs to be staffed with a few skilled press officers and assistants. It needs, therefore to be run by experienced media experts able to deal with the pushiest of foreign correspondents on the one hand and the recalcitrant and secretive State Department bureaucracy on the other.
How about the cultural/educational side of the public diplomacy ledger? There is, according to a November 22, 2011 report in The New York Times, an American Corner in the Baghdad University Library which gathers dusts and few visitors. Unlike the busy stand-alone America Centers I was involved in running elsewhere in the world - even in countries where our presence was not universally applauded - the small American Corner in Baghdad was reportedly eerily empty of visitors.
Perhaps this should be the subject of a future State Department or GAO investigation. Something’s clearly wrong with this picture. If the issue is simply Iraqis’ inability to read English, then shouldn’t the collection emphasize books and other materials in Arabic? According to Tim Arango, The NY Times reporter who wrote that story, lack of Arabic language materials may be one of the problems. This, in and of itself, may not forebode well for the future. Or perhaps the question is fundamentally a political or a structural one where the Corners approach in a torn apart country like Iraq doesn’t work.
Exchanges of people are usually major components of any American public diplomacy program and the State Department has done rather well since 1999 in retaining enough budget and staff to run them. This thanks to a bevy of contract agencies lobbying the Hill and a smart budgetary firewall that restricts funds for exchanges from being raided for other purposes, as the State Department apparently planned to do when it fought hard to take over USIA in the 1990s.
But running successful exchange programs is complex – likely the most difficult and detailed of all public diplomacy related activities. Such programs also require knowledge of and contact with well educated and trained Iraqis on a regular basis. This is what makes them fun. But how is that possible with a phalanx of drones buzzing around heavily armed convoys every trip away from America’s “secure” fortresses on the Tigris?
If that’s how public diplomacy and other State Department officers must travel when they visit an Iraqi university or go elsewhere in the country, maybe the larger question of how many official Americans should remain in the country needs to be carefully reconsidered.