The Duck of Minerva

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Evaluating Galbraith’s dissent

October 1, 2009

Peter Galbraith is now officially out as Kai Eide’s deputy in Kabul. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon announced Galbraith’s recall/firing this afternoon after he received a letter of dissent from Galbraith about Eide’s performance in investigating allegations of fraud. Here’s a portion of the letter from tonight’s NYTimes:

“For a long time after the elections, Kai denied that significant fraud had taken place, even going to the extreme of ordering U.N. staff not to discuss the matter,” Mr. Galbraith wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The New York Times.

“And, at critical stages in the process,” he wrote, “he blocked me and other U.N.A.M.A. professional staff from taking effective action that might have limited the fraud or enabled the Afghan electoral institutions to address it more effectively.” U.N.A.M.A. refers to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

… “Given our mandate to support ‘free, fair and transparent elections, I felt U.N.A.M.A. could not overlook the fraud without compromising our neutrality and becoming complicit in a cover-up,” Mr. Galbraith wrote.

Peter has long been a pain to much of the US foreign policy establishment and I have always liked and respected him — even when I’ve disagreed with him. He is impassioned and principled and refuses to back down when he sees injustices — characteristics that don’t always play so well at Foggy Bottom. He pressed harder and more aggressively than anyone in the late 1980s for a robust response to Saddam Hussein’s systematic attacks on the Kurds. He directly challenged Croatian President Franjo Tudjman about Zagreb’s role in both the Bosnian conflict and the purging of Serbs from Krajina region of Croatia in 1995. He was a very vocal critic of the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq — especially the constraints he saw being placed on Kurdish autonomy after Saddam’s removal.

So, his outrage over the election fraud and Eide’s handling of it are not much of a surprise.

But, I am really curious about what happens next on this story. This type of policy dissent often gets quite a bit of attention with all kinds of speculation about how it does, or does not, influence policy considerations. I have long wondered whether or not there are any credible methods or measures to assess the independent effects of this type of policy dissent (This would make for an interesting dissertation for some aspiring grad student). So here are a few questions I have:

1) What will Galbraith do now? Will he go on the talk show circuit to challenge the United Nations and Karzai? Would that have any discernible effect public opinion and elite opinion?

2) Dissenters almost always become the darlings of the media and a wide range of policy critics. My hunch (and experience) is that dissent can have some limited influence on policy considerations but its role in effecting events on the ground is almost always more limited than is, or will be, portrayed by the media and by policy critics. So, how will his dissent and his removal affect events on the ground in Afghanistan — i.e., how will Afghan citizens and elites respond — and what evidence should we be looking for to make judgments on this?

3) I’ll wager that we’ll see several stories that assert Galbraith’s dissent and firing will “completely undermine the legitimacy” of both the elections and the United Nations in Afghanistan. But, is this really what we are likely to see and how would we measure it in this context?

4) And, finally, how does this influence the internal discussions within the Obama administration? Galbraith is known to be close to Holbrooke — what does this do, if anything, to Holbrooke’s position vis-a-vis the McChrystal recommendations?


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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.