Hearts and Minds and Empire

While there is no doubt that President Barack Obama is winning hearts around world, the jury is still out on whether he can convince skeptical intellectuals. A surge in Afghanistan, residual troops in Iraq and the resumption of renditions in the Horn of Africa conjure up fears of quagmires.

These fears, however, shouldn’t detract from the conciliation campaign launched by the administration. There is obviously an effort to change the tone, language, and image of the United States. The executive orders on interrogations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to China, plans to close the prison in Guantánamo, and the pledge to close secret detention sites abroad all signal a change in tone.

But do they indicate a fundamental shift away from militarism?

Origin of Hearts and Minds

Lyndon Baines Johnson used the phrase “hearts and minds” in an infamous May 1965 speech. In the midst of a U.S. escalation of violence in Vietnam, he said victory would depend on the “hearts and minds of the people who actually live out there. By helping to bring them hope and electricity you are also striking a very important blow for the cause of freedom throughout the world.” Johnson was referring to military counterinsurgency efforts to turn the people of southern Vietnam against the guerrillas by participating in development projects such as providing electricity.

Under Johnson, the U.S. committed itself to “pacification” of South Vietnam by providing both security and development support. U.S. officials would provide “advice” and resources for economic development projects, such as rebuilding roads and bridges, while the military would train and equip South Vietnam’s police and paramilitary groups to hunt down insurgents. Some scholars trace the strategy to the British counterinsurgency model practiced in the 1940s in Malaysia and Kenya, and later in Northern Ireland. This strategy created secure zones and used minimum force so as to turn the populations against the insurgents, but also implemented draconian measures outside these secure zones. In the case of Kenya, the colonial power confined potential insurgents to “reeducation camps” for “detribalization,” primarily through Christian doctrine. These ideas and experiences influenced U.S. concepts of low-intensity conflict (pacification) designed to deal with wars, insurgencies, and liberation movements in developing countries. Pacification, however, didn’t live up to its promise. The United States invested little in the program and could not force the government of South Vietnam to accept its advice. The merger of civil and military programs under a military commander was also highly problematic.

While LBJ’s “hearts and minds” project was a military strategy, it should be distinguished from “soft power” or the use of diplomacy, cultural dialogue, development assistance, and propaganda to persuade others to resolve conflicts without resort to violence. The term “soft power” is associated with Harvard scholar Joseph Nye, who argued in The Powers to Lead (2008) that leaders project this type of power by drawing on resources such as charisma, symbolism, and the ability to attract others to dialogue. “Hard power,” on the other hand, is coercive, using instruments such as the military and sanctions to achieve its ends. The Bush administration’s shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later attitude is a version of “hard power.”

Bush largely lacked charisma and communication skills, which diminished his ability to use soft power. Obama, however, could use his charm, empathy, and oratorical ability to bring adversaries to the negotiating table. With an economy on life support, two wars in progress, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and actual weapons in shaky India and lawless Pakistan, the president obviously has a full plate. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her confirmation hearing that the United States would combine soft and hard power into a new policy of “smart power.” The question, however, is whether this “smart power” is merely an appendage to the defense department’s goals of pacification or a fundamental reversal of the militarism of the last decades. All presidents since FDR, for instance, have started a war. Will Obama be the first since WWII to end instead of start wars?

Obama’s Soft Power

At the end of February, on the “NewsHour with Jim Lehrer” program, Obama said that the United States would balance force with diplomacy and development in Afghanistan. During the interview, he signaled a new 3D strategy combining defense, diplomacy, and development. “We’ve been thinking very militarily,” Obama told Lehrer, “but we haven’t been as effective in thinking diplomatically, we haven’t been thinking effectively around the development side of the equation.”

At the same time, the president announced a new Iraq strategy centered around the withdrawal of combat troops. The policy promised a shift to nation-building by providing resources to strengthen institutions such as the legislature, judiciary and local government and to help Iraq reestablish trade relations with neighboring countries. Obama said the removal of combat troops would change the mission from combat to supporting the (nonsectarian) Iraqi government secure the country. The “transitional force” will train, equip, and advise Iraqi forces in counterinsurgency techniques while also conducting counterterrorism missions and protecting U.S. civilians in the country.

This counterinsurgency strategy is consistent with the low-intensity conflict perspectives of Vietnam War-era pacification programs. During the Bush administration, a team led by General David Petraeus revised and rewrote this counterinsurgency doctrine. The newly published Counterinsurgency Guide outlines U.S. plans to support “friendly” governments manage insurgencies. The guide anticipates a future dominated by insurgencies in developing countries rather than big-power conflicts. It seems consistent with the emerging 3D strategy of the Obama administration in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Horn of Africa.

The opening statement of this new emphasis was Obama’s January 26 interview with Al-Arabiya in which he outlined the 3D policy. The president called for cooperation, promised to speak to the Arab world from an Arab capital, and vowed to “hunt [al-Qaeda] down.” Obama indicated his interest in re-engaging the Israeli-Palestinian peace process from a regional perspective. Obama said that it was possible to envision a Palestinian state that is contiguous and allows freedom of movement and trade with other countries. The bottom line, however, is that he talked about poverty, education, and health rather than Bush’s patronizing codes of freedom and democracy. Thus, although he insisted that Israel’s security is paramount, there was an unmistakable message that the new administration would welcome a dialogue with moderate forces.

Africa in 3D

The United States first tested the 3D strategy in the Horn of Africa, where the new Africa Command, AFRICOM, became operational in October 2008. AFRICOM is part of four U.S. “combatant commands” headed by General David Patraeus. AFRICOM initially announced that it would oversee military and humanitarian programs in Africa. Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace said, at the time, that the challenge was to help Africa build governance institutions because “ungoverned areas” provided opportunities for terrorists. The Pentagon billed AFRICOM as a humanitarian effort that would train African forces to fight insurgents while providing support for humanitarian activities such as delivering food aid and rebuilding infrastructure.

Africans, however, were highly skeptical of AFRICOM. Many saw it as a further militarization of U.S. foreign policy toward Africa. There were credible fears about Pentagon’s plans to subcontract humanitarian and peacekeeping activities in Africa to “private security firms” such as DynCorp, Pacific Engineers, and Blackwater. These contractors were lining up to provide base logistics, construction management, helicopters, and vehicles for peacekeepers. Under the Bush administration, AFRICOM took over responsibility for the $100 million East African Counter-Terrorism Initiative based in Djibouti and involving Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, and Eritrea. It also coordinates the Trans-Sahara initiative involving numerous countries in West and Central Africa.

Although Clinton indicated in her confirmation hearing that the State Department would retain control of humanitarian operations, the 3D strategy continues to drive U.S. foreign policies in the region. AFRICOM is engaged in advising, training, and equipping armies in the region in counterinsurgency techniques. Marines based in Djibouti are rebuilding schools, hospitals, and churches destroyed during Kenya’s post-election violence in January 2008.

Training and equipping African militaries in counterterrorism may have unintended consequences. AFRICOM should learn from the British who are embroiled in allegations of training an elite company of Kenyan soldiers accused of torture and rape. The British Operation Monogram trained an elite unit “20 Para” to stop extremists from crossing Kenya’s border with Somalia. In March, the Kenyan government decided to move the unit to Mt. Elgon where an insurgency escalated two years ago. Last week, UN special envoy Philip Alston accused Kenya’s security forces of extrajudicial killings and called on the attorney general and the police commissioner to resign. Kenya has emphatically denied the claims. Human Rights Watch is calling on Britain to stop training Kenya’s security forces. Britain is now reportedly reviewing its counterinsurgency program. Its Operation Monogram also funds counterinsurgency programs in Yemen, Ethiopia, and Morocco, all governments that have been accused of using torture and excessive force.

The Future of 3D

As Obama put it, the United States has not “been thinking effectively” about diplomacy and development. The previous administration focused on the first “D” defense and managed only to increase anti-Americanism in much of the world. For the 3D strategy to work there would have to be a massive investment in development, an unlikely prospect in these uncertain economic times.

Without such an investment, the new administration’s 3D rhetoric is in danger of going down in history as yet another example of empty and cynical propaganda in the midst of a surge in violence and repression. It’s also difficult to imagine an effective coordination of military and civilian projects in places such as Afghanistan and Somalia. Even if a good-faith effort is made to provide security and development support to “friendly” governments, the records of counterinsurgency programs in Vietnam — and more recently in Kenya, Yemen, and Ethiopia — show that it’s difficult to stop these regimes using such support for nefarious purposes.

Militarizing development is not the answer. The prudent direction would be to divorce development assistance from defense and invest resources in building relations with nongovernmental and civil society organizations instead of militaries. The United States would have a more positive impact if it focused on supporting the institutionalization of conflict resolution processes in multilateral organizations such as the United Nations. Such multilateral institutions have been starved of resources and recognition during the last two decades. In the final analysis, it’s much cheaper and more effective to address the root causes of conflict, and seek nonviolent means of resolution such as conciliation, mediation, and negotiation.

Francis Njubi Nesbitt is a Foreign Policy In Focus contributor and teaches African politics and conflict resolution at San Diego State University. He is the author of Race for Sanctions (Indiana University Press, 2004) and is completing a book on peacemaking in the Horn of Africa.