A Faith-Based Initiative of Another Kind

According to AP, the U.S. government is considering deepening its ties with Myanmar’s military again, to include a re-up of the human-rights training programs American soldiers and lawyers do with scores of other countries and have done in Myanmar before.

With the backing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. defense legal experts last week made their second trip to Myanmar in two months, scoping out what help they can provide on teaching about human rights and the rule of law…

With a quasi-civilian government in place and national elections due in 2015, the Obama administration argues that talking “soldier-to-soldier” with Myanmar on issues like military justice and military-civilian relations can encourage reform and help the U.S. build ties with a military it knows little about…

Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. charge d’affaires in Yangon, says standing on the sidelines doesn’t serve U.S. interests. “We need to reach into the organization of the military and help educate people and expose them to new ideas,” she said.

The idea that these training programs deepen the recipient military’s commitment to democracy and human rights is essentially a matter of faith. As a GAO report referenced in the AP story makes clear, we have no idea how effective these programs are because we haven’t really tried to measure their impact.

Since 1976, the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program has provided education and training to foreign military personnel. The program’s objectives include professionalizing military forces and increasing respect for democratic values and human rights…

State and DOD’s ability to assess IMET’s effectiveness is limited by several weaknesses in program monitoring and evaluation. First, State and DOD have not established a performance plan for IMET that explains how the program is expected to achieve its goals and how progress can be assessed through performance measures and targets. Second, State and DOD have limited information on most IMET graduates, due to weaknesses in efforts to monitor these graduates’ careers after training…Third, the agencies’ current evaluation efforts include few of the evaluation elements commonly accepted as appropriate for measuring progress of training programs, and do not objectively measure how IMET contributes to long-term, desired program outcomes.

Even in the absence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation, a cursory review of relevant cases makes it hard to accept the premise that these programs are having the presumed effect. Egypt’s military has been the beneficiary of these programs (and much, much more) from the U.S. for many years, and they’ve just perpetrated a coup and a mass killing in the span of a single summer. As the Washington Post reported last year, the leader of Mali’s 2012 coup, then-Capt. Amadou Sanogo, “received military training in the U.S. on ‘several occasions’,” as did many of his compatriots. A high-profile murder trial underway right now in Indonesia involves a dozen troops from a special-forces unit that received training and assistance from the U.S. for many years, even as they were committing gross human-rights violations. So far, I haven’t even mentioned the School of the Americas. The list goes on and on and on.

And, of course, there’s the profound irony that the U.S. did exactly this kind of training in Myanmar before, for eight years. As that AP story notes,

The U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales delivered to Myanmar between 1980 and 1988, and trained 167 officers at American military schools under [IMET].

Why did those sales and training suddenly stop in 1988? Oh, yeah

Near the start of this post, I claimed that American officials’ and officers’ belief in these programs’ effectiveness is a matter of faith. A cynic might point out that effectiveness depends on the goal. If the goal is to discourage military partners from intervening in their home countries’ politics and committing gross human-rights violations, the litany of historical counter-examples makes it hard for a civilian social scientist like me to understand how that faith is sustained. If, however, the goal is to provide a fig leaf for partnerships our government pursues for other reasons, then IMET seems to be working just fine.

Leave a comment


  1. Oral Hazard

     /  September 5, 2013

    Goals include:
    1) Introducing future military leaders to the amazing (and suprisingly affordable!) array of US-made military technology;

    2) Introducing future military leaders to contemporary theories of how to use these amazing-and-affordable systems on the modern battlefield through extensive exchange-student course offerings at the Army or Navy War Colleges;

    3) Introducing future military leaders to, and forging strong relationships with, their handlers;

    4) Stressing the public-relations importance of repeatedly and prominently employing the terms “rule of law” and “laws of war” in all ex-post justifications of questionable acts against civilians or captured foreign/insurgency combatants.

  2. Hi Jay,

    While I concur with your skepticism, particularly wrt Myanmar’s military, there are some instances where Western military cooperation may have helped improve domestic outcomes. Some, for example, note that NATO’s Partnership for Peace program and the IMET program contributed to pro-democracy sentiments within the Ukrainian armed forces, which may have helped convince the military to refrain from shooting protesters during the largely peaceful Orange Revolution.

    I don’t think we have anything close to a definitive answer, but a couple of studies attempt to get at parts of the question:



  3. http://ejt.sagepub.com/content/16/3/339.short
    both showing how different types of military aid might .help avert coups (and, so goes Gibler,s argument) contribute to democratization..
    On the other hand,
    might also be of interest… in short, not sure whetehr there is any straight forwrad effect of military aid on receiving countries…it likely depends on the type of aid given…

  4. Gyre

     /  September 5, 2013

    There may be cases where it’s more effective if the nation is genuinely transitioning to democracy and leadership at the top is committed to rule of law (whether or not Burma fits is a good question). However that also might be looking too far for specific examples in a relatively short space of time.

  5. Jay – great food for thought. Here’s a few additional points:
    1) Need for assessment not unique to SFA. If you take a close look at how State, DoD, and USAID assistance is measured, it tends to be in terms of outputs rather than outcomes.
    2) Analysis of SFA really needs to differentiate between short term training like the now-General Sanogo had and long term indoctrination, as in enrollment in the National War College or the Naval Postgraduate School. I suspect that longer term PME would have better outcomes than several rounds of one-off training like Sanogo had. But as you have alluded above, where’s the data to support/refute that point?
    3) At least in Africa, many countries only receive enough IMET to send 2-3 officers to full year PME in the US. In militaries of 25K or 150K, how much impact can this really have – even over decades?
    4) Lastly, even if you have assessments on the impact of programs like IMET, I would argue that it’s easier to measure negative events like coups and human rights violations than it is to measure the absence of these things. For example, just because there’s no coup, does that mean our investment in IMET is working?

  6. Joe and Lesley and others, I wonder if this is one of those situations where the academic idea of effectiveness differs greatly from the policy and lay ideas of effectiveness, and that difference is leading us to talk past each other a bit.

    As scholars, we’re trained to look for marginal effects and statistically significant differences. In that context, the difference between 0 and 5% can be a big deal, and it feels like the possible effects you’re underscoring fall in this kind of range.

    In the policy world and among lay people, though, I suspect that a difference that small would prompt a “So what?” response on a topic like this one. In public, officials pitch these programs at the levels they’re actually funded as if they were more like an inoculation than a marginal hedge, and that’s because these programs are sometimes used to provide political cover for support to militaries many of us would regard as unsavory.

    Under these circumstances, I think it’s fair to expect a much bigger effect as the standard for accepting the claim that the programs are effective, and the anecdotal evidence I can see tells me that these programs are failing to that standard.

  7. Oral Hazard

     /  September 9, 2013

    Jay, I would just add that “lay people” includes engineers, health care professionals, bookkeepers, accountants and financial managers — people whose livelihoods are linked to data collection and accurate measurements of outcomes using math and stuff…

    But I take your point that “political cover” relies a great deal on willing suspension of disbelief based on partisan affiliations. On a different but related note, the public debate over the rationale for a Syrian strike is surprisingly informed. I was impressed by the audience member at the McCain town hall meeting who accused the gov’t of engaging in “the politics of distraction” around a planned Syrian strike.

  8. I wonder also if there are certain selection effects going on here. Many of the militaries the US assists already have a higher probability of abusing human rights.


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