The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

(SBU) Snapshot of Iraq


June 18, 2006

Some interesting Sunday morning reading:

The Washington Post today reprints a rather lengthy cable from the US Embassy in Iraq to Main State. Its worth a read.

The Post introduces the Cable:

Hours before President Bush left on a surprise trip last Monday to the Green Zone in Baghdad for an upbeat assessment of the situation there, the U.S. Embassy in Iraq painted a starkly different portrait of increasing danger and hardship faced by its Iraqi employees. This cable, marked “sensitive” and obtained by The Washington Post, outlines in spare prose the daily-worsening conditions for those who live outside the heavily guarded international zone: harassment, threats and the employees’ constant fears that their neighbors will discover they work for the U.S. government.

One question / issue about Iraq is the on-ground conditions for everyday Iraqis. Bush apologists like to claim that the Media ignore all the good news of progress that Coalition forces are making. Bush critics like to claim that the Administration ignores the grim “reality” of Iraq in favor of its own propoganda.

Here you have an interesting instance of the State Department producing a piece of organizational knowledge about the conditions of every-day life in Iraq. State does this through cables, the official communications that Embassies send to Main State every day. Though “To SECSTATE” and signed “Khalilzad,” its the cable is more realistically sent by the head of the Public Affairs section to the Iraq desk officer / office director at the State Department. It might be circulated among the office and read by the front office of the Assistant Secretary. Usually, cables of this nature don’t make it up to the Secretary herself–with nearly 200 posts world-wide sending in several cables a day, there’s no way she can read them all.

The folks in the the PA section in Iraq get this information from their own employees, that is to say, Iraqi civilians working for the US Government in Baghdad. All embassies use some local labor for non-sensitive administrative tasks. In the cable, you have the Embassy personnel relating the stories of how difficulty it is to live and work with Americans in Baghdad.

It’s bad, and getting worse.

So, on the one hand, we can now claim that yes, the US government is fully aware of the situation in Baghdad, how bad it is, and that its own employees–those who work for the US and one would assume are about as pro-US as they come in Baghdad–are under constant threat because of their job.

On the other hand, had this cable not appeared in the Sunday Washington Post, reprinted in its entirety, to be read by everybody who is anybody here inside the Beltway, its doubtful that anyone above the Assistant Secretary level would have paid serious attention to the dispatch. It would have disappeared into the National Archives, to be discovered by some grad student with a FOIA and a dissertation about Iraq 20 years hence. Now, you can bet Tony Snow will get a question about it Monday (fearless prediction, lets see if I’m right!)

This gets at the complicated issue of how do organizations, such as State and the USG, really come to “know” about the world and issues toward which they make policy. Is it enough for one lone dissenter, in this case an FSO in the PA section of USEMB Baghdad with nothing better to do than talk to his/her office mates and write up that conversation in a 6-page memo, to yell into the wind that conditions in Iraq are quite bad? What scholarship shows us is that organizations build frames, operate within those frames, and ignore information outside those frames. In this case, the Administration continually frames the US as making progress in the essential and noble war in Iraq.

So, even though the government posseses a piece (or many pieces) of information that conditions in Iraq are quite poor, it still might not “know” what is actually going on over there.

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Dr. Peter Howard focuses on US foreign policy and international security. He studies how the implementation of foreign policy programs produces rule-based regional security regimes, conducting research in Estonia on NATO Expansion and US Military Exchange programs and South Korea on nuclear negotiations with North Korea.