A Visit to Schawarmaritaville

In American embassies in days of yore, the Marine Security Guard detachment, usually a half-dozen or so very young men plus one middle-aged Gunnery Sergeant, had the nicest house in the community. They had a big pool, a big bar, a huge common room with all the video equipment you ever heard of, a gym, and so on. And they were generally pretty much open house to the American community. Not just diplomats but Peace Corps volunteers (especially female ones), students, Fulbrighters, business people, and so on. Movie nights on a regular basis, parties, the Marine Birthday Ball on the 10th of November was the highlight of the social year for Americans.

Then, came the terrorist attacks in Beirut, then in Tanzania and Kenya, then 9/11, and US embassies around the world were moved out of downtown areas to the suburbs and turned into large, defensible compounds. Here’s a link to the Inman report, that kicked off the process of relocating and fortifying American embassies after the Beirut truck bomb attacks of the 1980s. Here’s the new US Embassy in Ouagadougou:


(Image credit diplomacy.state.gov)

It’s not entirely a fortress, but it is a very well-protected building. And on the compound, there’s the Marine house. You can’t get in there without a security clearance or somebody escorting you. Ordinary American citizens; even Peace Corps volunteers and hangers-on like myself have trouble getting to the place. I’m sure it’s rough on the Marines’ social lives and there is a loss in terms of social cohesion of the larger American community.

But yesterday, I went to the Marine House for margaritas and shawarmas (shawarmas are Lebanese wrap sandwiches with lamb meat roasted on a skewer, similar to gyros). The embassy had a big awards ceremony in which various folks I’ve worked with got awards – congratulations to Mark, the guy who rousted me out of my house on the eve of the army intervention in the coup and moved me (and the rest of the American community) to what passed for safety in Ouaga 2000, and to Yolande Kaboré, the Burkinabè lady in the Public Diplomacy section who has been my principal contact during my time here. And tons of other folk. The State Department is big on handing out these awards to encourage people who are dealing with tough situations.

The Marines were fine hosts. The bar was well-stocked, the food excellent, the company interesting. I sat with Fr. Mathieu Béré, a Jesuit and former Fulbright grantee himself, who just got a job with USAID’s “Countering Violent Extremism” program, and his supervisor. The program is interesting. As I said in my post on Burkina’s 9/11 recently, the answer to the problem of terrorism is not more guys with guns in front of every conceivable target. For one thing, the security precautions you take remind everybody of the attack and do some of the terrorists’ work for them (of terrorizing people by reminding them over and over again of their vulnerability). And the terrorists can always find another way to cause harm. The key is convincing the vast majority of the people that doing harm in this way doesn’t advance the cause and/or that the cause is a lie in and of itself. The tiny left-wing terrorist movement in western Europe in the 1970s – Baader/Meinhof Gang, Brigadi Rossi, Japanese Red Army – were able to do some harm. They killed a prime minister in Italy, if I remember correctly, robbed some banks, shot up an airport and killed several dozen people, set off some bombs. What they didn’t do was substantially advance their cause of communist revolution, or really, terrorize people very much. This is because the big success that their opposition had was in delegitimizing their violent acts and through that, their cause itself. There are very few Maoists in Europe or Japan today.

So USAID’s program is very valuable and could do much more good than another bag check and wanding at the entrance to another restaurant. (I got wanded and bag-checked at the grocery store this afternoon, and they had an armed guard stationed inside the door, cleverly out of range of a bomber stopped by security at the entrance). They provide training and some equipment support to civil society organizations that are trying to improve the lives of ordinary people, they fund small development projects, and they work with Burkina government agencies to help build sensitivity to these issues and help improve the government’s ability to respond to its own people’s needs. Mathieu has been hired on a one-year contract to oversee a transformation in the project, a transformation which I hope doesn’t spell a downgrading of the Countering Violent Extremism portfolio in the USAID agenda here. His supervisor, an American direct-hire officer, is preparing for a transfer to another region.

Bureaucracy no doubt has something to do with it. CVE, as the bureaucratic lingo calls it, is kind of old hat now. Maybe there is something new that the USAID mission is going to try. Maybe a new approach will be more fruitful, who knows? Or maybe they are just giving up institutions they have nurtured so far, and this will end up like those Libyan classrooms I noted a few weeks ago – a development project that did some stuff, but when the foreign funding and expat technical advisors were gone, the ability to keep things up at the national level fades slowly away. I sure hope not. Burkina Faso has been very successful so far at avoiding extremist violence, in large measure because Burkinabè don’t really dislike each other for religious or ethnic reasons. Much. I get the impression that even the folks who dress their women in black tents are not really as grimly serious about “restoring” their fantasy of how people lived in the Prophet’s days as Salafists in Saudi Arabia or Algeria. It is significant that the attackers at the Hotel Splendid and Cappuccino came from outside the country – apparently Mali.

We need to keep it that way.

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