President Obama has signaled a "new phase" in the fight against the Islamic State as we send 1,500 additional Americans into Iraq to train and advise the Iraqi army to "start going on some offense." Doing so will be no small task for the ill-equipped Iraqi troops as witnessed by many divisions falling apart over the past several months. Recent reports also suggest that the US is no longer coordinating with the Free Syria Army, rather, we are now told we're building "a new ground force" to focus on fighting the Islamic State.
Whether our efforts are to "destroy" or "contain" the Islamic State, with every passing day we wade a little deeper into this conflict with little local support. Our presence will only be constructive if we are seen to support local stakeholders and real progress will only be made if these groups are sufficiently well-aligned, well-equipped, and well-trained.
Let's take a step back. With the success of the U.S. Marshall Plan after World War II, international aid and development became a cornerstone of American foreign policy. The establishment of USAID in 1961 represented another milestone, and, over the past several decades, U.S. policy has slowly but steadily broadened to encompass a commitment to building democratic institutions and strengthening the citizenry of countries around the world. According to the White House, the Obama administration has invested more than $2.7 billion in efforts to strengthen civil society since 2010.
In spite of this momentum, however, as described above, a less promising trend is emerging. Foreign policy wonks bemoan our lack of influence in faraway lands as we attempt to "lead from behind" in crisis after crisis. The uprising in the Ukraine, the Arab Spring, the Green movement in Iran, and the current humanitarian disasters in Iraq and Syria, lay bare a stark truth: we cannot affect change internationally without reliable or well-reputed allies on the ground. A country spending billions of dollars promoting democratic institutions and strengthening civil society cannot afford to find itself in this predicament.
Alliances with stakeholders are complicated and involve players nationally and internationally with different and often conflicting agendas. In the paragraphs below, I propose a simple but not simplistic approach to nurturing a more fertile ground for effective and impactful partnerships with local groups leading to stronger alliances and less instability when crises develop.
1. HUMILITY - Our credibility is at an all-time low. Many parts of the world no longer welcome nor seek our input. An acknowledgment that our errors have led to undesirable outcomes, hurting not only our national security but also costing other countries dearly is a necessary and key element. Regaining our credibility begins with a significant dose of humility and a recognition of our shortcomings.
2. DIVERSITY - The second critical ingredient is a re-evaluation of our approach to identifying potential partners. Too often, U.S. organizations working on the ground engage with groups representing shared interests. The world is diverse and our partners need to reflect the different voices of their communities. Our embassies must work diligently to identify new and reliable sources that will in turn introduce us to a wider range of actors on the ground.
If we are committed to piecing together the landscapes in which we operate this element cannot be undermined. Unless this diversity is represented at the discussion table, we will not be able to contribute to lasting peace and growth in these countries.
3. INCLUSIVITY - Many countries around the world are highly divisive, especially along ethnic and religious lines and the U.S. cannot be seen as further polarizing these environments. Every effort must be made to be as inclusive of different interest groups as possible. Unless power sharing is recognized and supported, our efforts will not be sustainable. We must encourage national dialogues, build coalitions and support a distribution of power at every level of our work.
4. COMPASSIONATE LISTENING - The final ingredient for this recipe and the most critical for establishing trust and respect is the ability to listen. I have worked with development experts from all over the world and it is a fair observation that none engage the voices of local partners as poorly as colleagues from the U.S. It is astonishing how little we seek guidance, input, or feedback from local CSOs. We often make assumptions about the needs on the ground and devise smart but prescriptive programs.
The technical expertise involved in strengthening civil society, supporting the growth of democratic institutions, transparency, and accountability is an area of strength for the US. We are fortunate to have highly skilled organizations and individuals committed to providing the very best methodologies available. But the effectiveness and impact of this expertise is compromised when it does not respond to the needs of the environments in which we operate. For instance, the feedback we receive from partners by way of local needs assessments or national development strategies are fundamental to our ability to design and implement programs that respond to their priorities.
While maintaining our national security interests, we must earn back the respect of the community of nations by demonstrating that the priorities of other countries are relevant to our long-term strategic thinking. Only then - after investing in humility, diversity, inclusivity and compassionate listening - can we seed relations based on mutual trust and respect. And, only then, will our engagement foster the commonality and consensus of the civil society ideal in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.