Tuesday, March 27, 2007

What US Policy Makers Could - and Should - Learn from Sri Lanka's Civil Wars

Last Friday, I lectured at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. My son, who completed his undergraduate degree at AU’s School of International Service, did his MBA Degree at Wharton, specializing in finance. For years, it has been either the top ranked business school in the country, or one of the top three, exchanging positions at the top of the heap with Stanford and Harvard.

Walking through the school’s new building and talking with the occasional student – a number attended my lecture – it is easy to see why. An aura of high intelligence, self confidence and competitiveness seems to be in the air. (My students in the School of International Service, also a top-ranked institution, are similarly intelligent and self confident, but they seem to have less of a competitive edge.)

While sitting in the Wharton student lounge, reviewing my notes I called my son to reminisce about a time we had spent together when he was a student. He answered my call from Malaysia. Some years ago, he opened Dell Computer’s first office in Malaysia. Now he is international executive vice president of a health care products company, USANA. He was, I believe, meeting with his senior managers, but we talked more about personal things, over a bad connection.

My talk was sponsored by AISEC, the Association Internationale des Etudiants Economiques et Commercials, which I have learned is the largest student-run organization in the world and the Sri Lankan Students Association of the Greater Philadelphia Area. The audience included a heavy population of South Asians, but also others. Most seemed to be Wharton students along with one or two faculty and a few wider community members.

Here is the conclusion of my talk.

Protracted is an applicable label for Sri Lanka’s conflict, but the label is applicable to Iraq’s circumstances as well. In my view the protracted phase of Iraq’s conflict began about the time of President Bush’s announcement more than three years ago, that ‘major combat operations have ended. The scenario has been a complex one, however five themes stand out. Developments have been complex, but five themes stand out.

• First is the gradual emergence, in fits and starts, of a new Iraq government, with at least some pretensions to democratic practices and to including all of Iraq’s major ethnic groups in the political process. In June 2004, the US dominated coalition provisional authority transferred sovereignty to an interim government. In January more than 8 million Iraq citizens voted in elections for a transitional national assembly. Iran was given an elected President and, after a four month political deadlock, a Prime minister.
• Second is the inability of the occupying forces along with the Iraqi forces they are attempting to train, to maintaining anything approximating a reasonable level of security in the capital city and many other regions. An ill considered decision to completely disband Iraq’s army and police forces shortly after the Sadaam Hussein’s regime fell contributed to this. US forces have been plagued with problems very similar to those of Sri Lankan forces in the North and East and, indeed, with occupying forces everywhere. But the challenges of containing the insurgency in Iraq seem particularly daunting.
• Third is the slow progress being made on Iraq’s economic development, which has fallen far short of expectations. This has created a vicious cycle in which militant actions make economic development more difficult, the lack of development creates high unemployment and limited prospects for Iraqi youth and unemployed youth with limited prospects become prime recruits for militant groups.
• Fourth is the erosion of political support for the war – and for the Bush administration in the US. In November, as we all now, congressional elections ratified this erosion. Now for the first time in six years, the administration faces serious oversight by committees of the opposition party, armed with subpoena powers. Doubts about the current troop surge, even among past supporters of the intervention, is widespread.
• Fifth is the devastating impact of the war on the US budget. Initial estimates of the intervention’s cost were in the range of $60 billion. Now most cost estimates exceed 400 billion, with additional billions being requested as I speak, And, of course, there is no end in sight.

These bleak and tragic circumstances bring me back to the matter of lessons that I believe US political leaders could – and should have learned from Sri Lanka’s civil wars. Among the ten imperatives elaborated in my book, five seem particularly relevant.

◊ [1] Maintaining public order and preventing social turbulence from escalating into protracted deadly conflict are prerequisite to the success of all other development policies.
• It seems clear that the US policy makers responsible for the Iraq incursion were initially so focused on regime change that the did see themselves engaged in nation building at all and did not take potential problems of internal security seriously. Recommendations to the contrary from the state department, development practitioners and from senior military officers with experience in the Bosnian conflict, were ignored.

◊ [2] Developing countries should have internal security forces, police and paramilitary, that are generously funded, professional, apolitical and trained to meet the complex challenges of maintaining public order in a changing society.
• In my writing, I have strongly emphasized the difference between policing functions and military functions and as many know, I have been a strong advocate for the police in global south nations, including Sri Lanka.. Both the army and the police were initially disbanded. Then priority was given to rebuilding Sri Lanka’s army. The police were shortchanged, as as so often is the case. The priority and funding being given to creating and empowering an effective policing function in Iraq is still far below what is needed. I am reminded of the English phrase, in for a penny, in for a pound.

◊ [3] Meeting the needs and aspirations of fighting age young men should be the first priority of national development policies and of policies funded by international donors.
• Examining the age structure of Iraq’s population is disturbing for anyone who understands the preponderant importance of youth in militant movements. In the year 2000, 62 per-cent of Iraq’s population was aged 24 years old or younger. Unemployment among this sector has been estimated at 60 per-cent, twice the official unemployment figure of 30 percent. Providing opportunities for Iraq’s youth has been given far less attention than it deserves.

◊ [4] Polarizing political rhetoric and tactics must be foregone, however tempting their short term benefits may seem. Like mustard gas, which had to be abandoned as a weapon in world war I, this strategy has a tendency to blow back upon the user.
• All too often, polarizing rhetoric has been the norm among Iraq’s political though recent developments might may signal a change for the better. But closer to home, American’s home that is, I cannot fail to call attention to the polarizing rhetoric that has all too often been the norm for President Bush’s administration. This has been especially characteristic of Presidential Advisor and political strategist Carl Rove, of Vice President Cheney and before he was compelled to resign, facing criminal indictments, US House Majority leader Tom Delay. Now President Bush’s Administration, faces a hostile congress, low approval ratings and dwindling international support from allies, reaches out for support, it is paying dearly for the arrogant rhetoric of earlier years. Elevating the divisive “wedge issue” issue of homosexual marriage to prominence was a key in President Bush’s second term election victory. It is illuminating to note that in a time of international crisis, Bush administration leaders mooted the issues of banning homosexual marriage and banning the burning of the American flag for a week long debate in the United States senate.

◊ [5] There must be realistic, rigorous opportunity-costs analysis of military options, versus equivalent expenditures for non military options before proceeding down the slippery slope of ‘military solutions’ to complex development problems.
• As noted earlier, the initial price tag of the Iraq intervention, given to the American public was $60 billion. Administration spokespersons heaped scorn on an analyst who, in a New York Times Article, mooted a figure of $100 million. Now, the figure is more than $400 billion and climbing Moreover some American military units have faced such serious under funding that families have been asked by their sons and daughters to purchase and send them the needed protective body armor that the US defense department said it could not afford. And this says nothing, of course about the level at which the Iraqi army and police are being equipped. If the true cost of the war had been known at the outset, one could ask if debate over the intervention would not have been very different.

In the spring of 1990, I was asked by Trustees of the G.C. Mendis Foundation to give the bi-annual G.C. Mendis Memorial Lecture. This three decade old lecture series honors a scholar widely viewed as pioneering the study of modern Sri Lankan history, It was one of the first opportunities I had been offered to present my work in a major venue.

Since that time there have been uncountable opportunities to speak on conflict-terrorism- development linkages, drawing from Sri Lanka’s experiences. This evening’s opportunity, for which I am most grateful is the latest. Yet despite all those words, and the words of many others, Sri Lanka’s conflict, and many others too, remain protracted. Conflicts that could have been prevented or mitigated have metastasized.

The remarks with which I concluded that first lecture, about seventeen years ago still seem appropriate.

Unfortunately, an understanding of the causes of violent conflict does not in itself provide a sufficient basis for implementing good polices and avoiding bad ones though scholars sometimes believe this. Research can help us to understand the process by which violent conflict escalates. Promoting understanding is the role of the scholar. But effective political leadership requires a combination of understanding, toughness, vision, empathy, courage and the ability to communicate. Political leaders need the results of our theorizing. They need our understanding and our prayers as well.


Anonymous sunny said...

I'd like better to talk about Sri Lanka places to visit but not war...

10:11 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home