Bureaucrats Who Can’t Spend Money

I watched closely the Petraeus/Crocker Senate testimony.  Some of the questions made me wonder how some people get to be Senators, but others made a good point about Iraqis paying for Iraq’s development.  I am not an expert on the whole country, but I do have some local observations.  

My instructions on coming to Western Anbar and the instructions to my team stipulate that our job is to get the Iraqis to spend their own money for projects.  We don’t do anything unless the Iraqi side contributes.  Beyond that, many of our training programs from the inception of the ePRT have been on “budget execution” for Iraqi officials.

It is a lot harder for governments to spend money than we think.  In the U.S. we have no shortage of bureaucrats who have a tradition of knowing how to allocate & spend money.  We have various numbered forms, document numbers, obligations, fiscal data etc.   Our problem is often to slow down the spending.  We forget how lucky we are. Iraq lacks almost all those things we take for granted.  The British left a reasonably efficient bureaucratic tradition, but that was a long time ago and those skills have passed almost from living memory.  Saddam Hussein actively destroyed the power of intermediaries (and often the intermediaries themselves) between his desires and execution.   In Saddam’s Iraq bureaucratic execution had meanings beyond the fiscal and the rules based systems broke down and largely disappeared.  Bureaucrats remained, lots of them, but they stopped doing the things that bureaucrats, even bad ones, usually do.

This is a big difference between Iraq and Germany post WWII for example. In Germany, out of the rubble of Nuremburg, Dresden or Berlin emerged a living bureaucracy.  In those places, as often in the U.S., the challenge is/was to cut thought the red tape.  Around here we often don’t have enough red tape to hold the package together.

I have observed the rule of rules (good bureaucracy) developing in Western Anbar, but it is a painful process and the tradition of the strong man remains.  I have written in previous posts about my discomfort at seeing a big leader dispensing projects and favors to local supplicants, but at least the money gets spent this way.  The better situation is that local, provincial and national government develop budgets, set priorities and allocate funds based on the instructions of elected officials in the context of the rule of law.   We also need to see more initiative from the lower levels and less emphasis on central authorities.  I wrote a blog entry about that when I first got here.

My team and I are pushing hard to get the Iraqis in Western Anbar to allocate and spend their own money.  We are doing “good” here and many of projects help the people of Anbar.  But our purpose is not to do good.  Our purpose is to make Al Anbar a place where the insurgency and AQI cannot find a foothold.  We are spending the taxpayers’ money and risking our safety to accomplish THIS mission. Development and improving the lives of Anbaris is a happy collateral benefit.  I take great personal pleasure in seeing that our efforts will help people help themselves and I am especially gratified when we can help restore the degraded environment of this arid region.  But I recognize that these are fringe benefits.

Iraq is enjoying an oil boom.  The country is earning something like $56 billion a year in oil revenues.  They should be and will be able to pay their own way – soon. I hope that we in the ePRT can work ourselves out of a job – soon.  But it is in OUR interests that Iraq succeeds and not fall into the hands of a hostile or terrorist regime.   That is why we are still involved.

BTW – the very fact that the IRAQIS – not us – have that pile of cash indicates that all those guys who said we were in this war for oil profits were full of crap.   If we were after the oil we would … get the oil.

So I agree that Iraqis can & should pay more for their own development.   I believe they will do it.  But we have to prime the pump a little and since a secure Iraq is important to us too, it is worth it.  I regret that we get stuck with the cost and the risk but the alternative is not acceptable.