Thursday, May 29, 2003

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The merits of American diplomacy

Critics of U.S. foreign policy tend to focus on the statements/actions of policy principals (i.e., cabinet secretaries) and their immediate deputies. However, a signal virtue of U.S. diplomacy is the ingrained habit of trusting subordinates to innovate and adapt to local circumstances, and then copying those innovations when they work. This is true even in the most centralized and hierarchical foreign policy organization -- the U.S. military.

Two examples. The first should make the guys at OxBlog happy. According to the Chicago Tribune, in Afghanistan the U.S. military has modified its position on how to deal with incidents that lead to civilian causalties:

One night last month, an American bomb killed all of Mawiz Khan's children.....

The U.S. military says it is not liable for death and damage suffered by civilians in combat. Publicly, it says it does not compensate families for the deaths of relatives, even in cases like the one in Shkin, when the bombing was a result of American mistakes.

Yet here, U.S. military officers did something they have rarely, if ever, done in Afghanistan. They went to Mawiz Khan's house, apologized and promised to rebuild it, relatives and Afghan officials say.

"They came and visited, about 40 people including the Americans, and they said, `Please forgive us,'" Khan said. "I said, `What can I do? I am not a powerful man. I forgive you. That's all I can do. It's already happened. It's over. It's finished.'"

The apology represents a subtle shift in the way American forces are dealing with civilian casualties here, 19 months after the U.S.-led coalition began bombing Afghanistan. No longer are the dead labeled collateral damage. Quietly, the U.S. government is searching for ways to win back those who have suffered--by rebuilding their homes and villages, giving them money and gifts or simply expressing condolences.

"It is a big change," said Mohammad Ali Paktiawal, governor of Paktika province, where the Shkin bombing occurred.

Another example is the extent to which local commanders in Iraq are fostering the beginning tendrils of democratic institutions. First it was Mosul -- now it's Kirkuk:

Voting in an election that U.S. officials are calling an early but significant step in the democratization of Iraq, a council of community leaders selected Abdulrahman Mustafa, a mild-mannered lawyer, as the interim leader of Kirkuk, a vital oil town plagued by conflict between Arabs and Kurds.

The landmark poll took place even as U.S. intelligence reports indicate that high-level fugitives from Hussein's crumbled regime--including figures on Washington's list of 55 most wanted Iraqis--may be hiding out on boats southwest of the city, on an isolated tributary of the Tigris River.

"I believe this is a true historic moment for Kirkuk," Army Maj. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of the 4th Infantry Division, told an auditorium filled with delegates after the often-raucous election. "For the first time in nearly 30 years, you have the new freedom to determine your future."

The 4th Infantry Division organized the vote as part of a U.S. program to return a degree of political control to the Iraqi people as a means of preparing the country for national elections and as an escape valve for anti-U.S. sentiments.

Such makeshift experiments in democracy have been carried out in Mosul, Basra and a handful of other major Iraqi cities, with mixed success.

Both of these examples are small steps. They'll probably have a mixed record of success. However, actions like these by local foreign policy operators are a key way in which the wellspring of successful American foreign policy is constantly replenished.

posted by Dan on 05.29.03 at 11:24 AM