WaPo: When American Public Diplomacy Wears Combat Boots, we waste money and opportunities

Dana Hedgpeth at the Washington Post describes U.S. public diplomacy as it used to be, except the context is today, in Iraq, and instead of USIA officers, it’s the American military. Instead of cultural or public affairs funding, it’s the Commander’s Emergency Response Program. The purpose of CERP is to fund “short-term, small-scale urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction.”

Army documents show that $48,000 was spent on 6,000 pairs of children’s shoes; an additional $50,000 bought 625 sheep for people described in records as "starving poor locals" in a Baghdad neighborhood. Soldiers ordered $100,000 worth of dolls and $500,000 in action figures made to look like Iraqi Security Forces. About $14,250 was spent on "I Love Iraq" T-shirts. More than $75,000 sent a delegation to a women’s and civil rights conference in Cairo. And $12,800 was spent for two pools to cool bears and tigers at Zawra Park Zoo in Baghdad.

In truth, the news story highlights a significant problem when American public diplomacy wears combat boots.

Redevelopment experts say the military is ill-equipped to check in on how CERP projects are sustained. The Pentagon has addressed the issue in recent changes to CERP regulations. Among the changes: Requiring commanders to have a "formal, highly visible transfer" of projects to Iraqi control. A May update to the "Money as a Weapon System" manual tells commanders to work directly with the local government to guarantee that Iraq will accept the work once it’s done.

When auditors for the Government Accountability Office surveyed commanders, they were told that many projects executed by their predecessors had been abandoned by the Iraqi government, been vandalized or simply disappeared. There is no requirement for regular monitoring of earlier projects, the GAO said, so there was no way to assess the success of the projects.

"We’re Army guys," said Strickland, who helped distribute CERP money in Ramadi. "We’re not civil engineers. We’re not economists. We can’t gut-check a lot of these programs."

This article is just one more example of how our current approach to securing the peace is fractured at the core. Well meaning, the CERP undermines local support for the mission. The United States is seen as flaky, unreliable, and easily taken advantage of. Not attributes that instill confidence and motivate the creation of a stable and secure environment. Not only that, but we’re hemorrhaging money when we just can’t afford it. 

The Secretary of Defense knows this, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs knows this. Congress and the State Department need to get on the ball and fix this. State needs the push and Congress needs to give them the support, money, and (deep breath) oversight.

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