Rick Barton
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
SID Plenary Session
Washington, DC
June 21, 2013

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ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: Good afternoon and thank you all for being here. Thanks to John, Daniel, Rodney Bent, and to everyone who put this together. Thanks most of all to all of you here for all of your years of fine work in this field. I had a chance to meet with you when this was a much smaller group, and there were these Saturday workshops, and there seemed to be only about 25 people in the room. Now they have me in front of a blinding spotlight, in front of thousands, so you’ve been doing well. It’s a sign of the great work you’ve been doing.

I thought I would try to spend ten minutes, and sadly, I don’t have a watch because I’ve got poison ivy, but you’ll give me a signal here. I want to bring you up to date on what we’ve been doing to just set the table for a conversation, because I see you’ve had keynote speeches and keynote addresses, and I thought maybe a keynote conversation would be the best we could do in this slot right after your break.

I’ll give you a brief update on this one year that we’ve been in existence, because I think it’s quite telling in a lot of ways, and give you a sense of how we’re gaining traction. I’ll also talk about a couple of the nagging problems that we’re facing that some of you, obviously, are addressing, and then, just quickly summarize what the ambition is going forward. I’ll put them all in a summary fashion so that it sets up the question and answer and the conversation with all of you.

This new bureau, CSO, was created at the State Department a year ago, as part of the QDDR process with a very simple mission, which was to make the U.S. Government more effective and more coherent in addressing conflict and crisis cases in order to break cycles of violence. So it’s a pretty ambitious mission. What we’ve tried to do this year is focus 80 percent of our effort in four major engagements—Kenya and election-related violence, Syria, Burma—the peace process—and Honduras, Northern Central America’s issue with the proliferation of homicide and the loss of state control. I know that many of you work in these spaces, but we’ve also been in ten other countries to try to work across the conflict spectrum in every part of the world with a range of initiatives, always looking for multiple partners and being as opportunistic in that regard as possible, and with a default position that is to build on the best available local opportunities.

I think we’ve gained traction in doing that by really emphasizing a few things. First, we try to go into places that really matter to the U.S. Government as opposed to spreading ourselves all over the world at the same time with something relatively new. So we’ve focused on places that matter, and when we’ve looked at those places, we’ve tried to see if there is a “ripeness of place,” whether going in at this time would actually make any difference. We also make sure that we have rigorous, joint, independent analysis. I’m sure that we all know that if we send in an agronomist, the answer may well be that there’s an agronomy problem. If we send in a refugee person, there are always refugees. If we send in a counterterrorism person, the answer might well be terrorism. The United States should avoid showing up in a place in all of our splendor; it makes more sense to focus on what’s most important, where we can make the greatest progress. That’s what we’ve been trying to bring to the policy and strategy-shaping side of this conversation. Make sure that we have an emphasis on what appears to be the most important issue. Then we want to see the implementation being done by those who are the most capable. That’s not a default position to anybody, no sense of entitlement. We’re not trying to elbow our way into the room, but we look for who is the best placed to do the necessary work. It can be anyone from one of our international partners, to a private firm, to obviously, USAID, who is our most common, most regular partner, but also the Department of Defense or whoever seems to be best placed at the UN.

One brief example I’d like to give you involves Kenya. I think almost everyone realized that if Kenya went back in to a cycle that it had faced five years ago when its last election occurred, when over a thousand people were killed, hundreds of thousands left their homes, and really the political elite that had driven that very negative process were back in the same place that they had been four years before, that Kenya, the country that we all count on as an anchor in the region, and is really an anchor in Africa, would be at risk.

AID’s Democracy and Governance office put together a meeting for us in the Rift Valley, which we had looked at as one of the two hot spots in the country. At that meeting, they had the 15 or so critical partners of the U.S. Government. Since over $600 million of our $800 million portfolio there was really in the health space, we needed to have some of the people who were working on AIDS, as well as agronomy, and the range of issues that AID and the U.S. Government were advancing. When we had that conversation, it was a slightly different one than usual. We didn’t ask people to give us their portfolios to describe their own work. Instead, the conversation started off with: “What do you think is the most important problem in your country this year?” And every single Kenyan in the room, said: “Election-related violence. If Kenya falls into violence, everything that we’re doing will not matter.”

Then we asked, “Are you doing everything that you can to help prevent that?” And they all said no. So we said, “Would you like to do more?” And they replied, “Yes, of course, because this is what’s most important to our country.” Then we got to: “What might you bring to this particular challenge—hot spots, a police capacity that is not able to respond, a very rich civil society that might not be engaged in this problem, a political elite that seems to be manipulating people, and obviously the problem of idle youth and a labor force that was available if needed.” The first person to speak was the agronomist, and he said, “You know, I don’t really have much that I can bring to this problem. I have only 4,000 people involved in my program in this area of the country.” I said to him, as a former politician, that you can get elected governor of any state in the United States except for Texas with 4,000 people.

The next person to speak was from the AIDS program, and he said that he visits just 200,000 households in this area a week, and didn’t know if that would be of any value. We had two people on the ground who were meeting with the Catholic and Episcopal bishops; they were meeting with the elders, systematically going around, and we had a number of wonderful AID programs, and OTI had some great activities out there. But the opportunity that quickly presented itself was that there was this immense wealth of talent, they all knew what the most critical problem was, and all they really needed was to take their asset base—their connections, their communities—and direct them toward the biggest problem in the country without totally interrupting their own work and compromising that.

What they needed was additional Kenyan help to use their resource base to direct it to that problem. So that’s something we were able to contribute, in a very timely fashion. Part of what we do is to look at that 12-to-18 month period—when it’s hard for some of the more normal programs to get going and to really accelerate what we’re doing.

Very quickly, here are a couple of nagging problems that I know some of you are working on—to stimulate the conversation. The first one is near-term public safety. I think all of us find that this is a real challenge in trying to do our work; it’s obviously the consuming interest of any local citizen. Part of what we’ve started to find is that there really are capabilities in the local police, in particular, that we are underestimating, and we have to find ways to take advantage of. In Kenya all of those citizen groups became an early-warning system for the police, but they also created a demand on the police, so that the police knew they were not only getting help from the community, but there was an expectation that they would actually have to do something.

We found the same thing in Honduras, where a new tax has been passed. But the likelihood that the tax would be collected well, appropriated wisely, and spent appropriately was not that great. So that was a chance to take advantage of another local opportunity.

The final thing I’d like to say about nagging problems involves our ability to generate fresh ideas. From the time I had with the UN, this particular administration was being welcomed back into the world community in a way that we may have drifted away from during the first part of this century. But then the expectation was very quickly about what ideas we have to solve these nagging problems. So it’s not enough just to be there and have people thinking favorably of you, but what are you doing?

I think that some of our own behavior continues to get in the way of our being the idea generators that we need to be. In particular, I think that we have a sense of entitlement to certain spaces, with the sense that “I do that work, why are you in this space?” Whether it’s policy discussions, and oftentimes, the State Department has an off-putting way with AID, the Department of Defense, by saying that we’ll handle the policy and the strategy, or whether it’s in implementation, where I’ve had people say to me, “I’m not sure we need you in this country, I think we’ve got this problem solved,” and I’m thinking that this person, with six Greek gods, would still be overwhelmed. But there is this sense of a proprietary interest which is keeping us from solving problems.

So what I’d like to do is offer a new metaphor for how we should think about these things: One of the ways that we’ve looked at these problems in the government is by saying: “Stay in your lane,” and my feeling about staying in your lane these days is that this is a very 20th century idea. Now, staying in your lane brings to my mind the picture of a swim meet and people swimming up and down in their lanes, but the games that we’re playing look an awful lot more like water polo. It’s the same pool, it takes many of the same skills, but people are pushing you to the bottom of the pool on regular occasions, there is a net at the end, there is a ball…there are significant differences, it’s much more chaotic, much more dynamic, and we’ve got to get out of this “stay in your lane” mentality.

I remember being at the White House for a meeting with Samantha Power, and she started off her comments by saying, “Well, I know this is way outside of my lane.” As it turned out, this was the most valuable contribution that anyone made throughout the meeting. And I remember saying to her after the meeting, “Samantha, please stay out of your lane from here on out.” So I invite all of you to do the same because I think we clearly need that if we’re going to fulfill the potential we have in these places.

Finally, I would say that I think we can make a difference in these conflict places. Obviously, I felt this over the 18 years that I’ve worked in this space and in the conflicts that I’ve been in. But to do that, we’re going to have to get more coherent, we’re going to have to get more effective, we’re going to have to get more inclusive of each other, and I think if we do, this will be a more peaceful world. I look forward to your questions and comments, and this conversation. Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thanks Rick, thank you so much. You can see why Rick is such a beloved and missed figure at CSIS. He’s smart, he understands the politics, he’s also got lots of ideas and I think it’s great he’s in public service, and I admire your public service very much, Rick, so thanks for being with us today. There are a lot of smart people in this room who think about the issues of conflict and development—I’m looking at Arthur Keys, I’m looking at Rodney Bent, I’m looking at Matt McLean, I’m also thinking of…there are a number of groups here who do community policing work, there are some folks here from ICMA, I know Creative Associates does that, but first, Arthur, I’m going to put you on the spot, everyone knows I’m doing this now. Could you bring up the microphone to Arthur Keys, who’s the CEO of IRD. Arthur, you think quite a lot about the issue of conflict and development. If you would, just kick off the conversation.

ARTHUR KEYS: Rick, I’m going to put you on the spot. It seems like a real hot spot in Syria. What creative and positive scenarios do you see there from the U.S. Government and NGO perspective?

MODERATOR: Why don’t I bunch a couple? Matt, you’ve been part of a small business thinking about the intersection between civil-military affairs and government for a long time, as well. Both at AID as a member of the National Security Council, and perhaps other government agencies in another life, but I won’t say which ones. I can’t remember at this point what the other ones were. Can we get a microphone over here to my friend Matt McLean? … Matt? And Rodney, I’m going to ask you to comment, as well.

MATT MCLEAN: Rick, good to see you again. Recalling my NSC days, one of my chief responsibilities at the White House was to integrate different agency activities and keep the policy in line, so in that capacity you’re dealing with a number of different conflict and post-conflict places around the world. Really, there are two parts to the question. One, what are the key instruments that the US government brings to bear? And two, how do you get that coordinated across different agencies and what are some of the challenges there?

MODERATOR: And let me just do one more—we’re doing this World Bank style.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: Make sure I heard that, Matt. I’m sorry.

MODERATOR: Matt, could you just repeat that?

MATT MCLEAN: Sure—the question is what are some of the key instruments that the U.S. Government can bring to bear in conflict and post-conflict situations? Particularly, there are some that are going to be tier 1, and some places that are not so tier 1. And secondly, how do you at the State Department help leverage, or encourage, or motivate, or whip up different agencies into their “swim lanes,” if you will, so we’re working toward a common objective?

MODERATOR: Okay, Rodney, Alonzo, I’m going to want you to comment, as well. Please, Rodney.

RODNEY BENT: (laughs) This feels like a collective punishment.


RODNEY BENT: Never sit in the front of the classroom.

MODERATOR: I know, exactly. I can see you guys, you’re in my line of fire because of the bright lights.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: If he does this just right, I’ll get all the questions, and we’ll run out of time.

MODERATOR: (laughs) Exactly!

RODNEY BENT: That would be the typical Congressional appropriator move. Rick, it’s great to see you again. Congratulations on your job. I want to latch together two parts of your past—your UN work, and piggy-backing a little bit on Matt’s question, it’s not just using UN agencies—I’m sorry—U.S. Government agencies, what do you see as the possibilities, and going back to Arthur’s question about Syria, of working more internationally. What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of either group?

MODERATOR: Okay, Alonzo? Could I ask you also to comment as the former mission director in Afghanistan, among the many other jobs you’ve held?

ALONZO: Rick, once again, I want to echo the comments of Dan, and thank you for your continued government service at an excellent level. One of the questions I have is that we learned a lot of lessons from 2005, or 2004-2010 in regards to intergovernmental relations, trying to do a whole-of-government approach to addressing the problems we’re having in a lot of conflict areas. It seems as though over the past couple of years that that whole approach has gone away. Clearly there were a lot of lessons learned over that process, and I want to get a sense from you of how much of that we’ve taken away if the demand goes up again and we have another Afghanistan situation.

MODERATOR: Those will be the questions, Rick. Those four. I promise.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: Okay, thank you. Let me see if I can get through these. How much time do we have?

MODERATOR: Five minutes.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BARTON: Okay, so concise answers to good, tough questions.

Syria obviously is just a brutal challenge right now, and I want to set up the challenge in a slightly different way. When the revolution started, we didn’t really know the people who started it, so we didn’t have a good base of knowledge of the place, and I’ve believed for some time that one of the critical weaknesses in the way that the US has approached many of these interventions is that we didn’t know the places we went into. Afghanistan and Iraq were good examples of getting ahead of our familiarity with a place. And aside from knowledge, you have to have a common view of what the case is—which I felt we lacked in Afghanistan, where we were fighting terrorism and we were building a model democracy, and we would compromise one for the other at almost any moment. That’s not a particularly good way to move ahead.

In Syria, the problem was compounded by closing the embassy and having to work out of neighboring countries. So we didn’t really know the people, we didn’t know the place that well, and then we’re not able to work in the country because of the nature of the conflict. So over the last year we’ve tried to broaden our knowledge of the Syrians, and the depth of our familiarity with them. We’ve used a number of methods to do that, but basically training and equipping the non-violent opposition, the people who had started the revolution. We’ve done that to make them more capable for today and for tomorrow, so we want them to be more capable as a means of bringing an end to the conflict, but also when the conflict ends so that there will be some base of people who are going to be able to continue furthering some of the goals of the revolution when it started. I think right now, as people look at this, they see fragmentation as being the logical outcome of the conflict, and I think that part of it is that you have to prepare for the best-case scenario, because if you go the current direction of the status quo, the situation probably isn’t going to be getting better. I think we have a better idea of what to do if things really go to hell, so you have to imagine what would be a positive scenario.

My feeling now is that the most positive scenario is a fragmentation, with part of the people who are really dedicated to some of the founding ideals of the revolution, which is to function in a more open, more democratic, and more peaceful way. I think that is a possibility, and what we are trying to prepare for. Part of that is to give the training and equipping for communications, so we’ve helped to establish a nation-wide FM network so that the opposition can talk to the people without networking through the regime. We’ve done a lot of other mass media stuff that we think is useful, and we have a base of over 500 Syrians that we’re working with on a regular basis. We’re also looking at going to Congress for more flexibility to help pay for stipends for the defected police and others who are providing for public safety in some of those pockets that the opposition has taken control of. There is still the larger problem of the conflict, which as you know, is obviously the overriding concern. But within that, there is an awful lot that can be done, and that is what we’re trying to do, but the bombing is still the first thing that every Syrian talks to you about, and obviously that issue is still hanging out there.

I think I can do Matt and Rodney’s questions together. One of the key instruments the U.S. Government has is the ability to mobilize—to mobilize its allies, to mobilize the organizations that we’re a part of, and to mobilize our own government. But sometimes one of the problems when we get mobilized is that everyone brings their favorite toy, what they’re used to bringing. I think that comes back to having some greater coherence, and if we really do insist on what is the most important challenge of the place as opposed to everyone showing up in their splendor. I’ve been in endless meetings over the years where people say—the first question that’s asked is we’ve got a terrible situation, what can the United States do? I happen to think that’s the wrong problem, the wrong set of questions. The right question is: What is most needed? Because if we can actually get the people working on the place motivated around what’s most needed, we have a much greater chance of success than if we just bring the splendor of all of our own programs.

Up until about two weeks ago when Van Cliburn died, I described it as the Van Cliburn effect, and there he was on the front page of The New York Times, and I had to stop using his name. Does anybody remember who Van Cliburn was? Remember, he looked like the central casting concert pianist—he had the white hair, he had the tails, he looked spectacular. And he’d sit down, flip up the tails, and he’d sit down—that’s sort of what the U.S. Government does. We arrive in these places, and we have all of this talent, and some money…remember there were some people who said we’d have been better off in Bosnia if we had everything in play, so we put everything in play in Iraq, and it didn’t turn out to be that much more successful, but we’re doing cross finger drills and a whole variety of other things. I think these are places that are just so complex and so difficult to work in—tougher than Washington—and how tough is it to get anything done in Washington? Brutally difficult. So let’s focus on the two or three things that can be felt by the people of the country, because they generally have something that matters more to them than everything else. It’s not like we have a gigantic matrix—we’re not going to get everything right in that country, so we have got to give them hope, we’ve got to give them confidence, we’ve got to get some momentum going, and that’s why focusing on what’s most important to them is what is going to make us the most successful. I think that’s something the United States Government has a real capacity to do, but we’ve got to have self-discipline to do that, as well.

Obviously, the international community is a natural partner. We have about seven countries that are looking at these problems the same way we are and putting money to it, but we’re all fairly small still, and the league is just developing, but I think that’s one way we’ll get more influence.

Alonzo, just finally—I’m sorry to go over a minute or two, here—in terms of the whole of government, I’m finding that there’s tremendous openness to working in partnership within the U.S. Government, and very few people who want to lone-wolf any one of these problems right now. What we’re trying to do is to say: Let’s try to do something concrete. Let’s not just build rosters. This is not a bureaucratic exercise, building capacities…let’s take a real problem, and show that by working together, we can actually have more impact on it. And let’s show the capacity as a result of successes, rather than the more bureaucratic way, which is to say, you give me 300 million bucks, you give me 300 people, and I’ll deliver this for you tomorrow. I think that this model is not going to work quite as well these days as taking on real cases, finding how we complement each other, and then making sure that the people who are best suited have the most leadership responsibility, and has more implementation responsibility, and not a natural default to either a bureau, or an agency or any other part of the government.

It’s hard to do that. It doesn’t sit quite right with our practices, but our practices have not been so endearing that every taxpayer in the country is cheering us right now. I think we have an opportunity to try something a little bit different and probably build more support.

Thank you.

MODERATOR: Thank you all very much. Please join me in thanking Rick Barton.