Sarah Chayes has spent most of her life analyzing and reporting about corruption. She spent more than a decade in Afghanistan arriving in Kandahar following America’s victory over the Taliban in 2001.
Americans are seeking to understand the sudden collapse of the Afghan government. This is Chayes’ comment on the Taliban victory: “And I discovered something I could never have imagined. Religious fanaticism, these men and women told me, was not driving their friends and cousins into the arms of the extremist Taliban. Indignation at their government’s corruption was—and at Americans’ role in enabling it.”
The latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction also paints a damning picture of the American war in Afghanistan: “US officials often empowered power brokers who preyed on the population or diverted U.S. assistance away from its intended recipients to enrich and empower themselves and their allies.”
Chayes later worked for Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen. Her team developed three separate plans to combat corruption in Afghanistan, but their work was ignored by General David Petraeus following Mullen’s retirement at the end of 2011.
Before retiring, Mullen asked Chayes to report on the Arab Spring in Tunisia. She observed protest banners showed photos of venal government officials behind bars. Later, on a research trip to Nigeria she “discovered that people applauded the Boko Haram militant group because of corruption, especially in the police”.
In Uzbekistan she learned from journalists and human rights activists “that anger at their government’s abusive corruption was driving some people across the border into terrorist groups.” She gathered similar stories from Lebanon, Brazil, South Korea, Iceland and Malaysia publishing “Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security” in 2015.
Chayes states, “With just a little digging, in fact, it’s not hard to find corruption at the root of most of the crises afflicting the globe, from mass migration out of Central America and Africa, to the rise of autocracy in Hungary and Turkey, to war in Sudan and environmental devastation in Cambodia—indeed the whole calamity of our slowly dying globe”.
Sarah Chayes latest book is On Corruption in America (all Chayes quotes are from this volume). She reviews the colorful history of the 19th century robber barons and political bosses ruling American cities. However, for Chayes, corruption is not a historical phenomenon. The reporting of writers like Jane Mayer (Dark Money) and Patrick Radden Keefe (Empire of Pain) reveal the scope of 21st century corruption in America. The past four decades of increasing inequality offer direct evidence of enduring corruption.
Chayes devotes several pages to the Supreme Court’s unanimous McDonnel decision in 2016 which transformed the commonsense definition of bribery into a narrow technicality gutting a broad swath of anti-corruption legislation.
Many find corruption an abstract and esoteric concept. It’s often categorized as a niche “good government” issue lacking great importance. However, the lens of corruption reveals fundamental flaws which impede progress toward realizing our nation’s founding ideals.