Peace Works: America's Unifying Role in a Turbulent World (Book Review)

By Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler PRISM Volume 7 no. 4

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Peace Works: America’s Unifying Role in a Turbulent World

By Ambassador Frederick D. Barton
Rowman & Littlefield, 2018
312 pp., $35.00
ISBN: 978-1-5381-1300-4

Reviewed By Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler

Ambassador Lawrence E. Butler (ret.) worked across the spectrum of peace and conflict management with U.S. diplomacy, NATO, and OSCE in Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, and the Balkans. His last assignment was as the U.S. European Commander’s Civilian Deputy and Foreign Policy Advisor.

Peace Works is two things: an impassioned argument on why the United States should involve itself in conflict prevention, management and peace-making; and an important contribution to the practitioner’s tool box for dealing with conflict situations. Ambassador Barton’s first-person description of efforts in places like Rwanda, Bosnia, Haiti, and Syria merits study for use in responding to future humanitarian tragedies. While Peace Works has two obvious weaknesses—a political partisan bias and a predilection for humanitarian intervention, even when by his own guidelines, we should not—the book should be required reading for conflict management practitioners (diplomats, development experts, NGOs, the military—especially components most likely to be confronted with stabilization tasks) and Congressional staff.

Ambassador Barton, a political appointee in Democratic administrations including two international organizations, created two potentially important and more agile tools for conflict prevention and management, USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives (OTI) and the State Department’s Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations (CSO). Peace Works draws on his quarter century of experience in seeking solutions for 40 conflicts. He offers a survey of academic and real world thought on America’s experience with waging peace, from post-WWII to a rich retelling of his personal involvement from the transitional aftermath of the Cold War through Syria in 2016. Peace Works provides a bold, if unrealizable, policy recommendation for a new way to organize the nation’s response to crisis, and argues that Washington has not done enough to engage the American people on why we (should) engage in foreign conflicts.

However, this reviewer cringed at parts of the book, such as his critique of U.S. assistance to Pakistan that went mainly to the military, which he believed doomed that country, but then admitting that his predictions were not borne out. And, ironically, I read Peace Works as news broke of the Israelis rescuing “Syrian White Helmets” fleeing President Assad’s forces as rebel resistance collapsed. Ironic because Ambassador Barton devotes a large portion of book to the role CSO played in supporting the creation of the renowned and courageous civilian first responders in rebel-held parts of Syria. Barton recognizes the ambivalence of Obama Administration in playing a decisive role against Assad, which meant he was relegated to working at the margin to save lives while hoping for arrival of the cavalry. Undaunted, Barton saw the positive, impressed at the commitment and risks his Syrian interlocutors took in helping their communities and building off of experience in Pakistan, Bosnia, Haiti, Central America and Rwanda, zeroes in on doing what OTI and CSO could by supporting local initiatives, especially amplifying communication and reconciliation. However this sadly echoes of the well-intentioned efforts of the international community to feed besieged Sarajevans while not addressing their vulnerability to Serbian snipers and mortars.

What is makes this book especially valuable is Barton’s insider’s view of Washington bureaucratic warfare: creating USAID’s Office of Transitional Initiatives (OTI) in 1994, intended to support democratic transitions in the former Soviet Bloc; and transforming the Secretary of State’s Iraq-era Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS) into the Bureau of Conflict and Stability Operations (CSO) in late 2011, giving this well-intentioned effort a more solid bureaucratic footing shortly after the fall of Gaddafi in Libya and just in time for the Syrian Conflict.

The author implicitly understands that the scale of today’s crises exceeds any one organization’s ability to handle, hence focus on “micro” responses to events, arguing America should be the catalyst, arriving early, identifying and supporting local initiatives and jump-starting change. He urges listening to locals, prioritizing, avoiding taking over, measuring effectiveness, seeking public support via communication, and circumventing institutional/bureaucratic inertia.

Peace Works is organized into five parts, with a powerful introduction: Syria represents America’s hand wringing, “wicked” dilemma, proliferating conflicts that baffle policy-makers. Barton notes that “our record in the last 25 years is a powerful argument for humility” as the United States has little to show for expenditures of billions of dollars and sacrifice of American lives. This despite the United States having the resources, and implicitly the obligation, to make the world more peaceful and (he believes) that the rest of the world will follow our lead.

Part one leads with a survey of peace making highlighting Syria and Pakistan with insights into the challenges facing the United States with proliferating international conflicts, and makes the case that the United States is poorly organized or prepared to get ahead of the curve. He highlights developments, such as the challenge posed by technological miniaturization and social media.

Part two, the 1990s, features Barton’s first-hand and moving engagement in post–genocide efforts to rebuild Rwanda. His retelling of OTI’s work in Haiti, where his people seemed to have partnered with Special Forces detachments, is must reading. The OTI’s efforts in Bosnia were peripheral given that 100,000 people perished despite UN and NATO military presence, including the genocide of 7,000 men and boys of Srebrenica. OTI identified methods to empower the opponents of the Serbian effort to dominate Bosnia with media outreach to citizens, with collateral damage: a brave newspaper publisher OTI backed had his legs blown off in an assassination attempt. The U.S. eventually intervened in August 1995 to stop the slaughter, but a gap was exposed between traditional development with decades-long horizons, and the need to get after near term issues. In short, Barton belatedly re-discovers Maslow’s basic building block of human needs: security.

In part three Barton provides an outsider’s perspective on Afghanistan and Iraq. Working for CSIS, he engaged with locals in both countries. His lessons were that the U.S must clarify goals before intervening, commit to real-time measurements of progress, and follow through to promote systemic changes. Unfortunately the author does not appear to appreciate the geo-political dimensions or the scale of the challenges in either country, but does back away from the idea that the United States should engage in nation-building.

In addressing Syria in part four, Barton again urges policymakers to state purpose and remove ambiguity (implicit criticism of the Obama Administration), which hampered CSO throughout his tenure in getting Washington to make and resource decisions, and address concerns of local communities, and then rely on their courage and ingenuity. CSO’s contributions (White Helmets) were noble for saving countless lives while waiting for Washington to act. As in Bosnia.

Part five features his policy proposal—building off frustrations to get CSO a leading role in crisis response, he proposes that the USG accept more risk to its people; create a stand-by bench that can be called up to lead a crisis-response team; put that person in charge of the interagency response; and get the Congress and the American public involved.

Throughout the book, Ambassador Barton provides painfully learned lessons of being an innovator in hide-bound organizations like the State Department as he sought to make CSO relevant and effective by building personal relations with counterparts at U.S. embassies and in the geographic bureaus. Among the things that the author decries is the increasingly isolated American diplomat who lives and works on a heavily fortified compound with limited local contact because of a risk averse Washington. Barton cites OTI and CSO’s willingness to engage with local audiences as an organizational strength. In short, greater tolerance for (policy and personal) risk is vital to making peace, more akin to small Special Forces team working with local populations. Barton, however, hand waves the killing of Ambassador Stevens and three others as the cost of doing business.

Which inadvertently spotlights the pass he gives Obama administration on its role in Libyan regime change that lacked a post-conflict stabilization plan, a repeat of Afghanistan and Iraq, and came as the U.S. military was winding down its presence in Iraq. Ironic because he lambastes the Bush Administration for ignoring the work that he did at a think tank ahead of the 2003 Iraq invasion to prepare for the aftermath. Ambassador Barton cites “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P—non-binding commitment made at the 2005 UN World summit) as well as the Obama-era Atrocities Prevention Board for why we intervened with the bombing campaign that led to Gaddafi’s overthrow and killing. In the case of Libya his view is that the Europeans had the lead post-Gaddafi, which took CSO off of the hook.

The post–Libya fiasco confirms the author’s argument that the United States needs to be thoughtful in its determination of when and where to intervene, and that we need to act as a catalyst—where we go, others will follow, and when we are not present, things do not go (as) well. Ambassador Barton provides noble and practical examples of how to intervene on the margins of conflict but—no matter how compelling the humanitarian grounds for getting involved to stop the killing of innocents—our efforts are feel-good Band-Aids that prolong the suffering and may actually worsen matters absent an all-in, whole-of-government commitment with a clear strategy. PRISM