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Diplomacy in Action

World Affairs Council US Response to Global Conflict: New Thinking in Syria, Kenya and Burma

Rick Barton
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations
San Francisco, CA
May 28, 2013


Thank you very much. It’s really a pleasure to be here. I’d like to introduce my wife, Kit Lunney, who’s here as well, and Raphael Carland, from our office in Washington. Some of Kit’s relatives and a few old friends are here, too. This might be the most distinguished audience I’ve had, with a dog in it as well! So I hope he (or she) will be appreciative. (Laughter) We’re great dog lovers.

I’d like to just give you a sense of why this new bureau was created in the State Department, explain some of the things we’re trying to do, maybe give you a taste of the bureaucratic challenges that creating something new in an established institution can present, and then move to your questions and answers as quickly as possible.

I think we all recognize that every president for the last 30 or 40 years has somehow managed to get stuck, more or less, in one of these crises or conflict cases. What we’ve seen is secretaries of state – one after another, irrespective of party – who have felt that the civilian side of the U.S. government, in particular the State Department, hasn’t been as well prepared to deal with these cases as it could have been.

So, Secretary Clinton – about three and a half years ago – created a review process called the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review [QDDR]. It was sort of a copy of something that the Defense Department does. The QDDR board recommended that the Department devise a better way to deal with these crises and conflicts. They said that we needed to improve our effectiveness and our coherence. And that we needed to have a bureau that would be at a level equal to the traditional powerhouses – which are the geographic bureaus. So CSO was created with the mission of making the U.S. government more effective and coherent in crisis and conflict cases in order to break cycles of violence.

We decided, as a new bureau, about a year and a half ago, that we’d better focus our efforts. There are a lot of choices in the world. Eighty percent of our activity ought to be directed at four cases that are important to the United States government. The criteria that we used [to choose] were: places that matter, are they ripe, can we actually work in the place?

And then we need to identify what’s most important within the country. What’s the priority? Oftentimes when the U.S. government arrives, it arrives in all of its splendor. It’s not as effective as it could be; it’s not as targeted. If you ask a counterterrorism person to go out and analyze a case, you usually get back that there’s a terrorism problem there. If you ask a refugee person to go out, he comes back and says there’s a refugee problem. And so sometimes the U.S. government is not as strategic or as focused as it could be.

So that became our challenge.

The four countries that we chose a year and a half ago were Syria, Kenya, Burma, and Honduras, North Central America. What I thought I’d do is give you a quick taste of each of those to serve as an appetizer, and then we can have a further discussion if you’d like.

In Kenya the issue was election-related violence. Five years ago, Kenya had a very difficult election. Over 1,300 people died; hundreds of thousands were chased from their homes, not to return. And it surprised virtually everyone who was an observer of Kenya. There had always been violence, but there had never been this “out of control” violence.

We sent a team quite early – again, with a range of other people from the U.S. government. We were able to bring the U.S. government together right at the front end. We would have joint, independent analysis rather than each agency analyzing it from its own bureaucratic perspective.

It was universally agreed that the biggest challenge facing Kenya in the past year was election-related violence. Then the issue was: Where did it come from? It seemed to have come from a few of the political elite, and they were coming back for another round in the presidential election. We thought there would be two hotspots in particular – the Rift Valley and the Coast. We were also told that the police and other authorities were in no position to do much about violence if it broke out again.

That was the case we were presented with. And we tried to figure out, okay, what can we do?

We were very lucky that AID [U.S. Agency for International Development] – on one of my visits out there – one of their democracy and governance officers pulled together the 15 largest recipients of U.S. assistance. As it turned out, we are spending about $800 million a year in Kenya – most of it to fight AIDS and for other health purposes. So virtually none of it was directed at the biggest problem that the country was facing at that particular moment.

Among the people in the room happened to be all those who were running the health care programs. We had a conversation that went something like this:

What do you think is the most difficult problem facing your country this year?

Election-related violence.

Are you doing everything that you could to help with that problem?


Would you like to do more?


What might you bring to this particular challenge?

The first person to speak was the person running the horticulture program in the Rift Valley. He said, “I have only 4,000 farmers that I work with.” So we knew that we were looking at a pretty rich asset base to start with.

The next person to speak was the person running the AIDS program. And these were all Kenyans. She said, “We only visit 200,000 households a week in the Rift Valley.”

So we started to identify all of these seemingly apolitical assets that could be directed to the great challenge that the country was facing.

What we then recognized was that the police and the elections system both needed all the help they could get. And that these, literally, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans, when connected to the Roman Catholic bishop, to the Episcopal bishop, the local Coca-Cola bottler--a whole range of people--could really make a difference.

The difference that they made was that right away, the police – who really had no early warning system of any kind – suddenly had tens of thousands of citizens who had cell phones, who were tied to social media, to a series of other assets that need to be directed at this particular problem, and they became engaged. And there was also an expectation that they [the police] would have to respond. They weren’t just there to be warned; they had a responsibility to help prevent violence.

The other thing the citizens did is that they surrounded the political elite – at virtually every political rally – with anti-hate speech as the center of their commitment. So, if a politician had a very large rally, there would be hundreds of people in the audience to oppose hate speech.

We’ve obviously had a very successful election in Kenya. You can argue about the results of who won and who lost. But, in terms of the society promoting a peaceful election, it was something that I think we all feel great about. Kenya is, in fact, the anchor for most of the international community in that part of Africa.

Syria is a really tough, tough case. It has multiple challenges. You cannot work inside of Syria; you have to set up in Turkey or in Jordan to work with Syrians. That alone is more than a bureaucratic hurdle. It’s a very real day-to-day challenge because the Turks want us to help out, but they don’t want to draw too much attention to work being done in Turkey. We also had a unique challenge in that the Syrian revolution was started by a group of people that the U.S. government did not know. So it was a genuine, spontaneous, street-driven event directed by a younger group of people. And just as it happened, the U.S. embassy –which would normally be our way of getting comfortable with a place – was evacuated.

So we had multiple challenges. The first one was to get to know more Syrians and get to know them better. Because at the heart of an awful lot of U.S. failures – and you could probably put Iraq and Afghanistan in this category – was a genuine lack of knowledge of the place. We didn’t know many people, we didn’t know the place particularly well, and we stepped in in a really aggressive fashion. So, our job, with this particular bureau, has been to get to know the Syrian opposition, to make them more capable – for today and for tomorrow.

There’s an overriding challenge with the Syrian opposition in that the number-one thing they want is to stop the bombing. And that is obviously something that U.S. policymakers have not chosen to do at this time. But there’s an awful lot that we can do to get to know the people better and make them more capable.

And, since you’re from this region, one of the examples I’d like to talk about involves what we’ve been doing with the media because not only are we training and equipping the non-violent Syrian opposition, but we’re also providing them the ability to magnify their messages to the Syrian opposition inside the country.

We’ve been doing that by providing FM radio stations. So there’s now, effectively, an FM radio network. It doesn’t operate as a network, but there are FM stations in every part of Syria now. They’re portable. They’re small. They tend to move around during the day because we don’t want the people running them to get killed. We’ve had to give them special training in how to use them. They oftentimes can stay on the air for only about half an hour because they can be located at that point. But, we’ve given them that ability.

We’ve given the opposition the ability to get on the Internet when the regime shuts it down. They have satellite-connected Internet now. Every time the regime has tried to shut down the Internet, there’s been an explosion of use of our equipment, which we can track.

And we’re trying to use things like Facebook, which has 1.8 million users inside Syria. We’ve tried to communicate with that audience in a way that they are then able to find some of the videos, the cartoons, the commentary that the Syrian opposition is very capable of producing. We don’t have to do anything with the editorial content. What we’re doing is giving them the ability to get in touch with more people.

And we’ve also run television advertising in the satellite community of the Syrian opposition’s own produced materials so that they have a way of coming on soap operas that are being broadcast to larger audiences inside of Syria.

So, we’ve tried to use all forms of communications to give greater lift to whatever they’re doing on a day-to-day basis.

In Burma, the challenge is that U.S. policy is trying to achieve three things. The first one is a political opening, the second is to deal with the ethnic conflicts that have lasted for decades, and the third is to do more business with Burma. It turns out that the toughest of those three is the ethnic conflict. That’s the piece that we’ve taken on.

The peace process is very narrow and very fragile. And it’s worrisome because there is fear that the generals who have run the country for decades might show up at any moment and reverse the direction of the reform that the country has been enjoying.

We have tried to expand the peace process by finding a common concern, which we identified as humanitarian mine action. In each of these conflicted areas, both parties placed a tremendous number of landmines. And now, while there’s no agreement on the removal of these landmines, there’s great agreement that the public should be more aware of them, that there should be some mapping so that the more-senseless-than-usual violence will be curtailed.

We’ve picked a single state with a promising peace process. Kayah State is small--about the size of Rhode Island. In that state, we are managing to bring together the military, local leaders, civil society, rebel factions, and ethnic groups in a conversation that they just have not had for decades, around an issue that they can talk about comfortably--and with the expectation that if this goes well, we can do it in other states and we can also use it to expand the peace process along the eastern border of Burma.

Since we got started there we’ve picked up an additional challenge: the Rohingya problem that has arisen in Rakhine State. That is something that we are not as directly involved in, but we are trying to help the embassy understand it better because we have this area of expertise.

The final case is Honduras.

Honduras has the highest homicide rate outside of a war zone of any country on Earth. This problem has been undermining the remaining confidence in the central government. So that is what we are trying to address. We want to give the Hondurans the feeling that they can actually take on this problem, make progress on it, and stabilize the society – in which 70 percent of Hondurans feel they will be a victim of a violent crime in the coming year. That is not the reality of Honduras, but that’s the public’s perception.

We’ve found some wonderful opportunities that the Hondurans were pursuing, but that we didn’t feel were very likely to succeed.

They had passed a new tax on the business community that they expected would raise $50 million to $100 million to fight violence in their communities. We felt that it was quite striking for their Congress to have passed such a tax, unexpectedly. But we believed that the likelihood of their collecting the money, appropriating it particularly well, or spending it wisely, was not very great.

So we went to work. We found a strong and credible coalition of civil society that was run by the director of the university. Her son had been kidnapped by the police a couple of years ago and had been found dead three days later. She had tremendous standing in the community. And she had pulled together a coalition of civil society to address this issue of homicides and police corruption and impunity and the various elements that go with this kind of challenge. We decided that working with that group and giving them the ability to lobby their Congress, to drive the presidency, to pursue the attorney general, to help with the vetting of police and the removal of dishonest police—which was their agenda – and then the appropriate spending of the new tax money – could lead to huge progress.

And it has been an unbelievable year. It’s a run-up to a presidential election where legislation has been passed, the attorney general is suspended, and they have kicked out 100 upper-level policemen. That’s a significant series of actions. It’s a combination of the leading party needing to be more credible and civil society being very active, with the additional pressures of members of Congress running for the presidency. So I think they’re showing greater concern.

It was a good moment to come in on the right issue, and we feel it’s something that the Hondurans are making progress on.

I should say that we don’t believe that the U.S. should become the owners of these problems. We believe that local ownership is absolutely fundamental to not only identifying the appropriate solution, but to making it sustainable. We also believe that is, by far, the most affordable way of doing this.

For example, in Kenya, all these organizations recognized that they needed help in order to mobilize the assets they had – the tens of thousands of people in their organizations. And the help they needed was so simple. They needed an additional Kenyan or two or three to mobilize their networks around election-related violence. And all we did was pay for those Kenyans for four or five months. That totaled about $600,000, which is what it would cost to have two Americans for a slightly longer period of time. We were able to mobilize almost 200 Kenyans; 100 directly into these organizations. And again, the Kenyans didn’t need to discover the organizations; they didn’t need to discover the country they were working in. No matter how talented the people are who we send, it always takes a few months to find their way and to make the connections and the rest of it.

I wanted to start with that, to just give you a sense that conflict and crises are going to continue to happen. The United States is trying to take what we think is a more creative and more appropriate approach to these problems. And I believe that we’re making a difference. We’re gaining a foothold inside the Department of State. The White House is looking to us as a critical new player in this space. I don’t want to overstate this because we are in our first year and, as you can imagine, the State Department is a very well-established bureaucracy. It does have a number of habits. And a new institution is not immediately embraced. But we have decided that the way that we will approach this challenge is that we will be the bureau that’s most likely to help everybody else succeed. So it means we’re bringing something to them [the bureaus and embassies] that they otherwise would not have. We’re finding that is very much appreciated by our colleagues in the State Department.

I hope that gives you a taste of what we are doing and leaves enough time for a conversation. I’d be happy to talk about some of the other places we’re working or some of the other conflict cases in the world that might be of interest to you.

Thank you very much.

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