book: Chasing the Flame: Sergio Vieira de Mello and the Fight to Save the World
Perhaps the greatest weakness of Power’s book is her failure to present a methodical comparison of the disagreements over the role of the local population during the UN’s administration of East Timor and during the US occupation of Iraq. Both were tectonic struggles with historical implications affecting state-building efforts generally, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan specifically. Power’s treatment of de Mello in East Timor and Iraq is only half the story.
Power’s oversight is all the more surprising given the detailed nature of the book, which is replete with microscopic anecdotal information. It is odd, therefore, to have missed out the critical aspects of pivotal world events that the struggle for local participation in both East Timor and Iraq represent. Both instances became public knowledge and considerable material is available in the public domain.
Power describes step-by-step how de Mello tried to influence Paul Bremer when, as `governor’ of Iraq, he was excluding a meaningful role for the Iraqis during the occupation. She casts de Mello as a champion of Iraqi participation. What Power does not describe is the eerie parallel of arguments made to de Mello when he was the Transitional Administrator in East Timor by the UN’s Head of District Administration and the original inventor of the transitional administration model, Jarat Chopra. Just as Bremer resisted de Mello in Iraq, de Mello had previously resisted Chopra in East Timor–both with disastrous consequences.
Throughout the 1990s, Chopra had pioneered the means of exercising political authority in transitions, also called “peace-maintenance”. At the time, East Timor would prove to be the most extreme case of international administration, with the UN assuming sovereign as well as executive, legislative and judicial powers. Chopra, a planner of the mission in East Timor, recognized that he had not built in safeguards for local participation or checks and balances on an absolutist form of power that his peace-maintenance work had produced. Consequently, according to his account, he began to take corrective action in the field.
The UN mission as the government of the country had completely excluded any Timorese role. Yet, power-sharing was unacceptable to de Mello and rejected by him and his inner circle–who are one-sidedly interviewed by Power. Chopra’s arguments mirror those made by de Mello to Bremer in Iraq. It would have been fascinating for Power to compare in both instances the back-and-forth debates over such issues as early elections, consultative bodies, timetables for transfers of power, and space for peaceful opposition to avoid future violence.
De Mello’s reversal of roles, from resisting power-sharing in East Timor to arguing for it in Iraq, is to his credit, for it reflects that he learnt his lesson. It would have been compelling for Power to explain the evolution of this story.
Similarly, in many ways, de Mello was undermined in Iraq by the very image of success in East Timor that he had been instrumental in crafting. Bremer, in his own account (My Year in Iraq), explains that he did not have available to him luxuries of local participation that de Mello had in East Timor. This view is a misunderstanding of events in East Timor, where local participation was not a luxury but had to be forced on de Mello by Chopra, the World Bank and Timorese pressure. Bremer’s view rests on an image of success that obscured the underlying failures of the UN in East Timor, failures that would explode into violence in 2006. One can only wonder if Bremer might have been less dismissive of de Mello had the parallels been made more apparent much earlier.
Chopra’s press interviews and subsequent writings presciently predicted how events would unfold in East Timor. He was also self-critical of the mechanisms for international administration that he had designed and identified the shortcomings of external governorship–even in East Timor, which had unparalleled conditions for success. It would have been interesting for Power to investigate what impact a more honest appraisal by de Mello of the East Timor mission might have had at the time. If the US Administration had absorbed, not an image of success, but a more sober assessment of the East Timor experience, would political/military occupation still have been seen as the way to go in Afghanistan and Iraq, places which entirely lacked conditions for success?
The fallout from the Chopra-de Mello and de-Mello-Bremer dynamics regarding how to deal with local populations in transitions is playing out, not only in the reorientation of state-building, but also at the frontlines through the Pentagon’s controversial Human Terrain System that embeds social scientists with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Tragically and coincidentally, the first casualty of the program was one of Chopra’s own protégés, Michael Bhatia.) The debate over the program between anthropologists and the military add a degree of urgency to the missing part of Power’s book, since the high politics of local participation were the antecedents to the current disagreements.