‘We don’t want to own a problem; we want to catalyze the solution’

Contributor:  Rick Barton
Posted:  09/18/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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Ambassador Rick Barton, Ass. Sec for Conflict Stabilization Operations (CSO) defines his work as the ‘toughest and most rewarding work on earth’, admitting that the greatest satisfaction comes from the impact seen in the lives of those encountered in various countries. In the following interview, Ambassador Barton speaks exclusively with IDGA on the role CSO plays in conflict prevention and stabilization, how CSO influences peacekeeping in key regions (including Burma, Kenya, Syria, and the Northern Tier of Central America) and how the department is meeting the multitude of challenges each day. Read more…


Highlight CSO’s [Conflict & Stabilization] role in conflict prevention and stabilization…

Our approach is to focus the U.S. government on the most important cases and to drive U.S. strategy and initiatives to the most critical issues.  We look for opportunities in which we can catalyze local actors to analyze aspects of their problems, contribute to planning solutions, and sustain the response once U.S. assistance has run its course. Our task is to review urgent priorities, select a few in which CSO can make a significant contribution, and develop an engagement that facilitates locally-driven responses.

Our time horizon is short-term: what can we accomplish in a year, or in 30 to 90 days? We are not engaging in expensive or expansive nation-building tasks, but we focus on matching resources—personnel, financial, U.S., other donors’, and indigenous—with the local will to resolve problems that give rise to the conflict. We may lend specific personnel from a government agency or other partners to help local authorities address internal conflicts and other threats to stability, and enhance civilian security. The major innovation is the choice of intervention tools. If you tell me which agency is responding to a particular crisis, I can predict the character of its response. Our approach is to start with the broadest possible set of tools and then define the task narrowly enough so that we choose only those tools that can achieve measurable results in the short term.

Bureau geographic focus: how does CSO influence peacekeeping in these regions?

CSO created three offices of overseas operations, deliberately fewer than State’s and USAID’s geographic bureaus or DoD’s geographic combatant commands. We intend to prove the concept of expeditionary diplomacy in conflict prevention and stabilization by focusing on only a few countries at a time. We have identified four challenging areas: Burma, Kenya, Syria, and the Northern Tier of Central America (Belize, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). Each challenge differs—we do not apply a single template to every problem—and the response differs accordingly. Commonalities exist nevertheless.  One commonality is that we seek locally-based analysis in determining the issues to tackle and the vehicles by which to achieve a breakthrough.  Let’s look at a few specifics.

In the Northern Tier of Central America, we seek to reduce the levels of violence perpetuated by gangs and transnational criminal networks. Nested within a larger Central America Regional Security Initiative, CSO’s response seeks a measurable reduction in violence and an increase in public communication of security improvements. In Honduras, CSO is supporting a public-security reform commission and expanding judicial and investigative capacity. To ensure the public is aware of the improvements in security, we support a mass media transformation in the national narrative from fear to hope and empowerment. Although about four percent of Hondurans are likely to be victims of violence in a given year, 60 percent are afraid they will become victims. Fear thus overshadows reality, and we can help change that perception, in part via a broad communications plan.

In Kenya, election-related violence in 2007 cost 1,300 lives and displaced 660,000.  Much of the violence is attributable to politicians’ stirring up ethnic solidarity in violent expression of frustration over legitimate grievances. Judicial and electoral reforms are underway, so targeted support can be particularly helpful. To help Kenya hold peaceful, transparent elections; advance police, judicial, and land reform; and prevent or mitigate violence, we have identified specific hot spots outside the capital that will benefit from coordinated programs. Supporting an Elections and Reform Task Force, we are facilitating international coordination of Kenyan efforts in election reform and conflict prevention. With staff deployed to several locations, we are supporting early-warning, early-response mechanisms to mitigate violence, implementing state and sub-national peace conference initiatives, helping community leaders counter-act ethnic incitement, encouraging inter-community dialogue, and supporting communication of reform achievements.

What are the main challenges being faced by the CSO department and how are you meeting them?

Our first priority is to provide a proof of concept for the expeditionary application of smart power. To do so, we have set as goals for 2012:

  1. To demonstrate impact in priority countries of strategic significance.
  2. To build a respected team and trusted partnerships.
  3. To work in agile, innovative ways.

We examine candidate engagements to determine: (1) if they offer an opportunity for strategic impact within 12 months, (2) if they address national-security priorities and other significant interests and present an urgent need for solutions unique to CSO, and (3) if we can obtain sustainable results through local partnerships.

To build a respected team, we are focusing, internally, on examining our personnel strengths and ensuring that staff capabilities are widely recognized and employed. Because we are evolving from a “just-in-case” model of U.S. government skills to a “just-in-time” model of identifying and deploying the right personnel at the right time from global sources, we need to build relationships with a number of organizations that offer the right partnerships for specific challenges in specific countries. These will differ depending on circumstances.

More than speed, agility demands flexibility in choosing the tools to apply in each situation and adapting them as necessary. An aspect of this agility bears repeating because it is a lesson noted but not learned across government responses to foreign challenges: we must avoid addressing a problem with a preconceived set of programmatic responses. Instead, we must empower local actors to develop analyses and execute solutions. A key aspect of innovation is to look for appropriate public-private interactions that ensure sustainability without the need for long-term investment of our resources. We don’t want to own a problem; we want to catalyze the solution.

On Bartons’ comment at Brookings Institute - “We have to obviously have better preparation and anticipation combined with genuine modesty. This is the toughest work on Earth”…how does this comment relate to preparing for peacekeeping and stability operations?

Improving our preparation for peacekeeping and stability operations requires both an expansive view and a focus on priorities. First, we cannot overly parse the terms and confine peacekeeping to a security-sector set of responsibilities. Peacebuilding addresses many of the issues we can identify as stabilization, but the term “stabilization” is one of those terms that does not enjoy common understanding across the players. Afghanistan offers a good example. When I was at CSIS, we interviewed scores of personnel and heard hundreds of success stories. But the sum of all the small successes was questionable strategically. The preparation for a stabilization operation should not be to throw resources at a problem and let the actors see how their pieces fit the larger picture. It requires an analysis of the overall challenge that will identify perhaps two or three priorities that we—the U.S. government or the international community—can address to achieve success that the local populace perceives. The humility we bring to the task has to start by seeking locally-informed analysis and locally-identified priorities. We have all heard about local ownership, but “ownership” should not be buy-in to our ideas; it should be our facilitation of solutions appropriate to the locality, so we need to identify local interlocutors. It’s remarkable that donors’ spending priorities remain consistent whether the country at issue is at peace, in conflict, or recovering from war. This misplaced consistency tells us that the donors have a toolbox at hand and are selling a particular solution because that is their familiar product.

Most rewarding part of the job as A/S for CSO? Where are we winning?

We just characterized CSO’s tasks as the “toughest work on Earth.” It’s also the most rewarding. We also take great satisfaction from our relationships both within the State Department’s Washington offices and with our relationships with embassies abroad. The greatest satisfaction will come, of course, from the impact we will see on the lives of those we encounter in various countries. We are shaping an organization to help the U.S. government become more effective in places that really matter to our country. We’re getting a presence in the heart of the Department, as an integral part of the new office of the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero, and we’re called by the Secretary’s office to be a key participant in critical conversations. Beyond Washington, we are building trusted relationships with ambassadors in countries we need to work in. We are helping selected missions with innovative approaches that are the essence of smart power. We want CSO to become known for its commitment to helping others succeed.

Rick Barton Contributor:   Rick Barton

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