Wednesday, May 14, 2008

To be or to do - that is the question

A couple of days ago, in a report that barely made a blip in the national screen, two former State Department employees, Arthur Brennan and James Mattil, alleged that this administration repeatedly ignored corruption at the highest levels within the Iraqi government and kept secret potentially embarrassing information so as not to undermine its relationship with Baghdad. You can read the Government Executive piece here.

Arthur Brennan served in Iraq in 2007 as the Director of the Department of State’s Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT). OAT was established by the Department of State in January 2007 to lead U.S. anti-corruption efforts. Judge Brennan formerly served for 15 years on the New Hampshire Superior Court. He was a Major with the 82nd Airborne Division and served in the Army Reserve for 17 years. In 1995, he worked with the Cambodian government to set up provincial courts. James Mattil served as the Chief of Staff at the State Department’s Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT) in Iraq for one year, from October 2006 to October 2007. In that capacity, he served as an advisor to Judge Radhi al-Rahdi, the Director of the Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity, in his efforts to investigate systemic corruption in the Iraqi government.

Judge Brennan in his prepared testimony says that the OAT team “soon discovered that the Department of State’s actual policies not only contradicted the anticorruption mission but indirectly contributed to and has allowed corruption to fester at the highest levels of the Iraqi Government. The Embassy effort against corruption, including its new centerpiece, the now defunct Office of Accountability and Transparency (OAT), was little more than “window dressing.” You can read Judge Brennan’s testimony here.

Mr. Mattil, in a prepared testimony addressing several problems with OAT also cites the issues of Iraqi refugees and political asylum: “I must add that the U.S. response to Judge Radhi’s departure from CPI is personally disturbing to me and others. It has been a shameful national disgrace.”

He went on to say that “after Judge Radhi and his associates applied for political asylum, the State Department provided no assistance or support to 24 Iraqi men, women and children in dire need. Worse yet, State directed all OAT employees to avoid any contact with these Iraqis. State issued a memo prohibiting embassy staff from writing reference letters on behalf of these Iraqis. I confess; I disobeyed these orders and brought food and clothing, took the families to doctors and bought medicine for their children. I solicited help from dozens of NGOs, refugee assistance groups and churches. … Judge Radhi and his associates, Mr. Salam, Mr. Amer, and military translators Mr. Atheer and Mr. Latif have earned and deserve America’s support. Instead, they have all been abandoned. If we refuse to stand by those who stand by us, we undermine all future efforts to build coalitions and win friends and allies.” You can read Mr. Mattil’s full testimony here.

Judge al-Radhi, the former Director of the Iraqi Commission on Public Integrity and current asylum seeker in the United States has been covered by Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes earlier this month. His testimony before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform last October 2007 can be accessed here. Christopher Stewart in “The Betrayal of Judge Radhi” in the April issue of Conde` Nast Portfolio also reports on al-Radhi’s journey into a man without a country: “His asylum proceedings stalled as the State Department instructed employees not to support the judge in his flight from Iraq. "Team, I have ordered our current C.P.I. staff not to write any letters in support of Judge Radhi," one email read. When I called the State Department, no one wanted to comment on the judge. Once a key U.S. partner in rebuilding Iraq, Radhi had implausibly become both a wanted man and a castaway.”

As I read these, it is hard not to feel any pain for these men but - it is not too hard to understand why no one wanted to comment on the judge from the corridors of Foggy Bottom either. If the folks inside do not like the policy, any policy for that matter, they’re supposed to hunker down or, they walk away – a fork on the road. Stepping into that fork on the road, of course, is easier said than done.

As I think about that email sender ordering his/her staff not to offer any support to al-Radhi, I can’t get away from the speech that Secretary Gates gave at the Air War College in Maxwell, Alabama on April 21st this year. In that speech, he used the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd as a historical exemplar for the Air Force graduating class (you can read Secretary Gates’ entire speech here):

“As a 30-year-old captain, he (Boyd) rewrote the manual for air-to-air combat. Boyd and the reformers he inspired would later go on to design and advocate for the F-16 and the A-10. After retiring, he would develop the principals of maneuver warfare that were credited by a former Marine Corps Commandant and a Secretary of Defense for the lightning victory of the first Gulf War.

.... In accomplishing all these things, Boyd – a brilliant, eccentric, and stubborn character – had to overcome a large measure of bureaucratic resistance and institutional hostility. He had some advice that he used to pass on to his colleagues and subordinates that is worth sharing with you. Boyd would say, and I quote: “one day you will take a fork in the road, and you’re going to have to make a decision about which direction you want to go. If you go [one] way, you can be somebody. You will have to make compromises and you will have to turn your back on your friends. But you will be a member of the club and you will get promoted and get good assignments. Or you can go [the other] way and you can do something – something for your country and for your Air Force and for yourself … If you decide to do something, you may not get promoted and you may not get good assignments and you certainly will not be a favorite of your superiors. But you won’t have to compromise yourself … To be somebody or to do something. In life there is often a roll call. That’s when you have to make a decision. To be or to do?”

... For the kinds of challenges America will face, the Armed Forces will need principled, creative, reform-minded leaders – men and women who, as Boyd put it, want to do something, not be somebody. An unconventional era of warfare requires unconventional thinkers.”

To be or to do - that is the question, and not just for the Air Force.

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