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Do corrupt governments breed political violence?

Review of "Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security" by Sarah Chayes

Shoes and accessories that once belonged to the wife of former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali went up for auction in a Tunis suburb in 2012. Author Sarah Chayes places the Tunisian leader among several corrupt figures from Egypt, Uzbekistan and elsewhere who have stirred public revulsion. Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

THIEVES OF STATE: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security

By Sarah Chayes

Norton. 262 pp. $26.95

It must be exhausting to live in a state of constant indignation. Indignant that those around you don’t grasp the problem, that your proposed fixes don’t win support, that matters are only getting worse each day.

Welcome to Sarah Chayes’s world. Yet somehow Chayes doesn’t seem exhausted. In “Thieves of State,” she is determined.

The target of her zeal is government corruption around the world — an old challenge but one she recasts in urgent and novel terms. The trouble with fraud and bribery and the rest is not simply their moral evil or economic toll, Chayes argues. The real danger is that an abusive government can elicit violent responses, including religious extremism, putting the survival of the state at risk. The case she makes is anecdotal but alarming.

Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, is something of a rarity among Washington analysts. The places she writes about (Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, Uzbekistan and Nigeria, among others) she knows well, not in the fly-in-for-a-week-then-pitch-an-op-ed kind of way. A former NPR correspondent who covered Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s and the fall of the Taliban after 9/11, Chayes went on to launch a business in Afghanistan, advise coalition forces there and work for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. She’s been on all sides of the problem — at times, she admits, even inadvertently causing it.

Her corruption travelogue centers on Afghanistan, where she saw how even low-level abuses alienated the population. She begins with Nurallah, a former policeman whose brother was struck by a police officer because he refused to pay a bribe. “My sacred oath,” Nurallah seethes. “If I see someone planting an IED on a road, and then I see a police truck coming, I will turn away. I will not warn them.” Chayes points to the fraudulent 2009 Afghan elections, which so discouraged citizens that the vote may have boosted support for the insurgency. And she shares her own story of working with the family of then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai in the early 2000s, hoping to establish a nonprofit group only to conclude that, through her indifference to murky accounting practices, “I had enabled the development of a corrupt system under my very eyes.”

Chayes scatters her tale with passages from old political tracts warning rulers of the consequences of corrupt behavior. “Being rapacious and arrogating subjects’ goods and women is what, above all else . . . renders [the prince] hateful,” Machiavelli wrote, and “leaves a mind obstinate to vengeance.” Eleventh-century Persian writer Nizam al-Mulk cautioned that a government’s ability to administer justice and hold officials accountable was key to its survival. Such works of advice for rulers, written by state officials or clerics, have historically been known as “mirrors,” and “Thieves of State” reflects that tradition.

The Arab Spring, Chayes contends, “amounted to a mass uprising against kleptocratic practices.” She singles out a few characters who crystallized popular revulsion, such as Hosni Mubarak’s son Gamal, who with a clique “hijacked” the Egyptian state, “rewriting the laws, awarding themselves privileged access to land and other public resources.” Or Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi, dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s second wife, whose clan manipulated the customs agency and the Finance Ministry.

In Uzbekistan, where Chayes says the aging dictator’s eldest daughter is involved in faux charities, telecom sector bribery and possibly even sex trafficking, parts of the population are turning to religion. “People are becoming more devoted because they are more and more frustrated with the government,” a local human rights activist told Chayes. “They are turning to God for recourse.” The same has occurred in Nigeria, Chayes reports, where the battle for oil riches has wrought a “generalized ethical collapse.” Among the country’s Christians and Muslims, the “puritanical focus on personal behavior has increased in recent decades, as corruption metastasized beyond the confines of officialdom to infect nearly all Nigerians’ behavior.”

Chayes contends that governments in such countries, so often dismissed as weak or failed states, are in fact powerful and organized — but for crime rather than social services. The government of Afghanistan “could best be understood not as a government at all but as a vertically integrated criminal organization,” she writes, “whose core activity was not in fact exercising the functions of a state but rather extracting resources for personal gain.” The Egyptian government is described in similar terms, except with two networks, the military and Mubarak’s, vying for power. We know which prevailed.

Chayes’s descriptions can be vivid — she writes of “the emaciated bundle of torqued nerves that was General Stanley McChrystal” — but also overwrought. She is not just disappointed by the Karzai brothers; she feels “the laceration of shattered illusions.” Chayes doesn’t just make calls after a police chief is assassinated, but “pacing hard, my blood oddly cold, phone welded to the side of my head, I quested for facts.” Quested?

Her outrage isn’t directed only at corrupt officials but at their enablers in the West, too. She writes that CIA payments to Karzai and to his younger brother Ahmed Wali — “I had watched officers hand him a tinfoil-wrapped package of bills when I was over at his house for dinner one 2003 night” — undercut anti-corruption efforts targeting their networks. But even sympathetic Western officials have it backward, she says: They think, “First let’s establish security, then we can worry about governance.” What if corruption is causing insecurity?

Few U.S. officials, military or civilian, get much love from Chayes. She admired McChrystal and his team that took over the Afghan war in 2009, “but I had underestimated the accompanying arrogance.” When Gen. David Petraeus succeeded McChrystal the following year, Chayes was initially encouraged by his commitment to the corruption fight but then baffled when he seemed to lose interest. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton submitted a memo to the Obama administration’s national security team addressing corruption in Afghanistan, but Chayes dismisses it as “faulty analysis” and “an attempted end run around the whole issue,” in part because it punted most of the responsibility to the Pentagon. Only Adm. Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, comes off well. (In the acknowledgments, she thanks him “for being a prince and tolerating my jagged shards of mirror.”)

Like all books about one big idea, “Thieves of State” is a bit obsessive. In Chayes’s eyes, revolts against corruption explain the origins of democracy, the Protestant Reformation, even the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “Perhaps Al Qaeda’s main intent was not to kill a large number of Americans so much as to visit a spectacular symbolic punishment upon the manifestations of what it saw as a criminal kleptocracy that controlled the most powerful instruments of force on earth,” she writes. That’s a big bite of perhaps.

Chayes concludes with a litany of policy recommendations: The United States and other governments should establish clear anti-corruption policies. Intelligence agencies should include systemic corruption in their annual assessments of U.S. security threats. Corrupt officials should have their visas denied or delayed, and should be the targets of financial sanctions. Contracting guidelines, monitoring and evaluation for aid packages should be strengthened. And in order to create an “international climate of disapproval,” important multilateral meetings should not be held in corrupt countries.

Given the scope of the challenge Chayes outlines, these proposals feel somewhat muted. She admits that she has been “struggling over the years to tone down my off-putting stridency.” I hope she doesn’t tone it down too much. Righteous Sarah Chayes is more interesting than wonky Sarah Chayes. A clearer mirror.

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