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Villagers from Casamacoa, Honduras, carry relief supplies away from a U.S. Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter on Nov. 20, 1998. [Departement of Defense Photo]

Lessons Learned from U.S. Humanitarian Interventions Abroad

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 30

Published – May 9, 2000

Edited by Thomas S. Blanton

For more information contact:
Thomas S. Blanton 202/994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

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Washington, D.C., May 9, 2000 – Late last month, the U.S. Department of State released under the Freedom of Information Act an interagency study of recent U.S. humanitarian interventions titled, "Interagency Review of U.S. Government Civilian Humanitarian & Transition Programs."  Under this turgid bureaucratic title lies an extraordinarily blunt, even scathing, "lessons learned" report from inside the U.S. government on the successes and failures of the most recent U.S. humanitarian interventions abroad, including Kosovo, Sudan, Afghanistan, and the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch in Central America.  The document is 86 pages long (not counting a National Intelligence Council annex that was not released).  Two points jumped out from the document, and informed readers may see others:

1. This is the way to make policy.  Chaired by AID's James Michel and State's policy planning director Morton Halperin, the interagency group did its work from July to December 1999, wrote this report in January 2000 in unclassified (!) form, and released it under the Freedom of Information Act at the end of April 2000.  It is remarkable so soon after the events to have such an inside critique; it is even more remarkable in the foreign affairs world to have this critique written as an unclassified document; and it is most remarkable of all to have State promptly release the document within 20 days of when I requested it -- the letter of the FOIA law, but honored more often in the breach than in the observance.

By comparison, that same final week in April we received after 39 years (!) the Taylor Report investigation of the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961.  Among the Taylor findings was that the CIA believed its own myths about the smoke-and-mirrors Guatemala coup of 1954, and repeated the same mistakes, first as tragedy, then as farce, for the Bay of Pigs.  Afterwards, the CIA locked up its Inspector General's report for three decades.  The contrast with this document leads me to conclude that State intends this report to inform the current policy debate over humanitarian relief programs, and that State is sophisticated enough to understand that the debate cannot take place in secret, within cleared offices of the U.S. government, precisely because humanitarian interventions abroad by definition involve multiple actors outside the government, ranging from the U.N. to charities and NGO's to other nations' relief agencies.

2. Close attention to bureaucratic arrangements can expose the policy fault lines.  It is probably no accident that this study was co-chaired by a man who wrote the book, literally, on bureaucratic politics, Morton Halperin.  Half of the study is couched in purely organizational terms, options with pros and cons, as to whose turf would shrink and whose would expand.  This does have the effect of making everybody come to the table.  The report concludes that "the most important impediment to improved humanitarian effectiveness is lack of unified leadership within the USG" (p. 9, Section I), and spends Section II detailing a full range of bureaucratic reforms, such as discrete measures for better cooperation, options for clarifying who's in charge, all the way up to full consolidation of U.S. humanitarian functions into a single entity.

But right behind the process marches the substance.  In the Kosovo case study, you will see the kind of language policymakers usually avoid in public, phrases like "deficient pre-planning," "UNHCR's weak leadership," "Macedonia's intransigence," "faulty assumptions," and "intelligence deficiencies" and "gaps."  With more self-criticism like this, and more openness like this, maybe we are not doomed simply to repeat the past, or fight the last war.

Interagency Review of U.S. Government Civilian Humanitarian & Transition Programs

U.S. Department of State, January 2000

Released under the Freedom of Information Act, April 24, 2000

Section I: Cover Page and Overview
    - Background to the Review
    - Summary of Conclusions

Section II: Options
    A. Discrete Measures
    B. Clarifying who is in Charge
    C. Consolidation of State & USAID Civilian Humanitarian Programs

Annexes (Index)
    Annex 1. Kosovo Case Study
    Annex 2. Hurricane Mitch Case Study
    Annex 3. Sudan Case Study
    Annex 4. Afghanistan Case Study
    Annex 5. National Intelligence Council Report: "Global Humanitarian Emergencies: Trends and Projections, 1999-2000 [Not Released]
    Annex 6. Enhancing Donor Coordination
    Annex 7. Enhancing Operational Coordination
    Annex 8. Linking Emergency and Transition Programming to U.S. Development Assistance
    Annex 9. Resources for USG Humanitarian Assistance
    Annex 10. Summary of Agency Authorities


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