Thursday, June 30, 2005

Beacon No. 49: The Price of Condemnation


U.S. reaction to the massacre in Andijan, Uzbekistan has been mild: It simply condemned whatever happened and has implied that certain kinds of aid to Uzbekistan could be yanked unless Islam Karimov's government conducts a "credible, transparent, independent investigation," State Dept. spokesman Sean McCormack said on June 14.

(While State is generally just repeating its independent-transparent-credible language, the European community and practically every human-rights NGO in the world is foaming.)

Considering that up to 500 people are thought to have died, the U.S. is sending relatively tame, straighten-up-and-fly-right signals to President Karimov. That's because Karimov, a mildly unstable ex-apparatchik, instantly permitted a U.S. airbase on Uzbek soil after 9/11, greatly extending U.S. reach in a hugely important part of Central Asia.

To his credit, Karimov is sending signals back. He has taken the offensive and met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow to talk Central Asian friendship. As icing, he's blaming the U.S. for plotting a rebellion, riot or whatever it was that spurred his troops to waste everyone in their line of sight, a line that's sure to play well in Russia.

Karimov's actions further complicate U.S. relations with Uzbekistan. If he just huddled in Tashkent and occasionally summoned the U.S. ambassador for a harangue, that would be one thing; but by playing for Russian favor he's telling the U.S. to back off even further, the Europeans to watch their backs, and the NGOs that they won't get into Andijan until the massacre site has been thoroughly dry-cleaned and every bullet hole spackled.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Riding the "Korean Wave"


After World War II, South Korea banned cultural imports from Japan—movies, music and the like—because of the grudge it held against its former imperial ruler. As Seoul started loosening these restrictions in the 1990s (partly in response to black-market Japanese goods that were turning up in South Korea anyway), it decided to create an indigenous culture industry to avoid being swamped by the incoming Japanese tide.

The South Korean government started heavy funding of domestic TV and film production, and apparently the music and video-game businesses as well. Seoul also created a single department, the Korea Culture and Content Agency, to encourage exports.

Today, as Norimitsu Onishi writes in "Roll Over Godzilla, Korea Rules," Seoul's soap operas and hairstyles are the rage across East Asia, and regional perceptions of South Korea and its people are increasingly favorable. Interestingly, Korean auto exports are also way up.

Onishi doesn't address whether South Korea's new popularity is partly a function of East Asia's increasing animosity towards Japan—with South Korea providing cultural products the People's Republic et al. would rather not buy from Tokyo. Also, Korean auto exports could be up in part thanks to a long-term drive by Korean auto manufacturers for higher quality.

Otherwise this short article is a textbook illustration of how a small, culturally unified country can increase its soft power.

Monday, June 27, 2005

"Love" on the Air in Iraq


The United Nations hasn't had much of a physical presence in Iraq since the 2003 truck bombing that killed Sergio Vieira de Mello and about two dozen others at the U.N.'s Baghdad compound. But out of sight doesn't mean out of mind.

Today's Lebanon Daily Star highlights an AFP story about a new women's radio station that's been on the air in Iraq for about three months. The new station, supported by the United Nations Development Fund for Women, focuses on issues like "the importance of women's rights and the new Iraqi constitution, the forthcoming general election, childhood needs as well as family problems," the Star says.

The seriousness of the station's focus and mission are undercut by its patronizing name (Al-Mahaba, or "love" in Arabic), but still: The U.N. is heeding its Charter's call to "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small. ..."

Friday, June 24, 2005

Beacon No. 48: Strange Bedfellows


Thursday, June 23 was a good day for U.S. soft power if the latest results from the Pew Global Attitudes Project are to be believed. The survey shows that, while U.S. popularity in the Muslim world remains at levels you might expect for medieval Crusaders, there are slight but statistically significant upticks in the opinions of some of America's strategic competitors—and collaborators.

In brief, an aggressive tsunami-relief campaign has helped improve Indonesians' opinions of the U.S., Russians sympathize with U.S. problems in the Muslim world, and Indians see the U.S. as a land of entrepreneurial opportunity, as their own country increasingly is.

The meat for watchers of the Muslim world lies in these paragraphs:

Positive opinions of the U.S. in Indonesia, which had plummeted to as low as 15% in 2003, also have rebounded to 38%. The U.S. tsunami aid effort has been widely hailed there; 79% of Indonesians say they have a more favorable view of the U.S. as a result of the relief efforts. With the exception of Christian opinion in Lebanon, views of the U.S. in other predominantly Muslim nations are more negative and have changed little. In Turkey, hostility toward the U.S. and the American people has intensified. Nearly half of Turks (46%) say they have a very unfavorable view of Americans, up from just 32% a year ago.

Yet there is modest optimism among Muslims that the Middle East will become more democratic. And even in countries like Jordan and Pakistan, where people have low regard for the U.S., many who believe the region will become more democratic give some credit to U.S. policies for making this possible. Roughly half of respondents in Jordan ­ and nearly two-thirds of Indonesians ­ think the U.S. favors democracy in their countries. About half of the public in Lebanon also takes that view. But on this question and others relating to opinions of the U.S., Lebanon's Muslim majority (about 60% of the population) is far more negative than its minority Christian population.

In a box called "America's Religiosity," where citizens of other nations are asked whether Americans are "not religious enough" or "too religious," a stupefying 95 percent of Jordanians surveyed said not religious enough, while 0 percent said too religious.

Clearly there's some consciousness-raising to be done in Amman, as I can't walk around my neighborhood even in heathen, "unchurched," blue-state Los Angeles without bumping into a church, synagogue or, slightly further away, a Buddhist temple or mosque.

There's a lot more to this report, whose 68 pages I haven't yet finished. (Download the PDF here.) Two chuckles: U.S. citizens were the most likely to view themselves as greedy, while the French are more likely to think Americans are hardworking than Americans themselves.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Beacon No. 47: Caution about Consistency


In "Weighing the Effects of Freely Elected Islamist Governments," National Public Radio discusses the perils of the U.S. refusing to deal with freely elected Islamist governments in the Middle East. It would be inconsistent, Jackie Northam reports, for the administration to do so after pushing so hard for democratic elections in the region.

Matters of taste aside, U.S. law would forbid dealings with, say, a Hamas administration in Ramallah, since Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department. But Northam's story doesn't mention that the Bush administration has already had nearly three years of relations with a freely elected Islamist government: that of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Justice and Development Party in Turkey.

Before his election, Erdogan was tried for reading poetry that was too "Islamic" for Turkish tastes, never mind what U.S. officials thought. But like any newly elected politicians, Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party found that campaign-trail rhetoric clashes with the need to govern. Turkish citizens' strong desire for EU membership and the threat of a veto by Turkey's secular military also moderated the new government's attitudes.

Following a low point just before the Iraq war—when Ankara refused to let its territory be used by U.S. troops or aircraft headed for Iraq—relations have improved dramatically; Prime Minister Erdogan and President Bush have even swapped visits to each others' countries.

Today the Turkish state is easier for the U.S. to deal with than its putative European allies, and I hope the Bush administration remembers this when deciding who to deal with and who to ignore.

It might even be better for State to find a way to reclassify a freely elected Hamas government out of "terrorist" status, rather than have no direct way to deal with an administration the whole Arab world will watch for decades.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Beacon No. 46: Two (African Islands) Plus Two (Contiguous Latin Republics) Equals Four


The Millennium Challenge Accounts are one of President Bush's bolder policy initiatives. An overseas version of Bill Clinton's vow to end welfare as we know it, the MCA program is supposed to "provide financial assistance to poor nations that show progress in establishing what the United States considers stable democratic governments and pursuing sound economic and social welfare policies," a June 16 New York Times article says.

The MCAs are all about accountability: "Show some determination in getting your house in order," America murmurs, "and we'll send funds to help you do it better and faster." The job of determining just how orderly another country's house is belongs to the Millennium Challenge Corporation—but it looks like MCC head Paul V. Applegarth will resign in the near future.

Applegarth, who helps determine which countries get Millennium Challenge money, said he would walk following complaints by visiting African leaders about how slowly his organization was disbursing funds. At least one news report has it that Applegarth is leaving because Congress is cutting his agency's funds, but it's also possible he had to fall on his sword because the MCC isn't disbursing money fast enough.

The MCC has been a bit stingy in its first 17 months: On the eve of the African leaders' visit, only two countries—Madagascar and Honduras—had qualified for funds out of 16 candidate nations.

Interestingly, the Millennium Challenge Corporation announced—on the very day of the Africans' complaints—that two more countries had qualified: Cape Verde and Nicaragua.

(The announcement coincided nicely with the visit of leaders from the world's poorest continent, and has the short-term effect of rewarding a Central American nation that might help out in future sparring with Venezuela. It seems strange, though, that the MCC has so far only chosen two African island states and two contiguous Latin American republics. Isn't there an Asian nation or a mainland African country like Benin or Ghana that qualifies?)

Since relatively little money has been given out, the Millennium Challenge Corporation makes the case that it's having a beneficial effect just by setting aggressive criteria for candidate nations, noting increases in those countries' anti-corruption campaigns along with drops in economically vital factors like the waiting period to start a business.

The Millennium Challenge Accounts are the carrot approach on a grand scale; countries that want relatively modest amounts of funding—the MCC's budget adds up to $2.5 billion in fiscal 2004 and 2005—have to modify some pretty large chunks of their laws and practices. I'll be interested to see how high the MCC sets the bar for candidate countries—and how their perceptions of the U.S. change over time.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

Time for a brief summer vacation. I'll be out until June 21.

Beacon No. 45: Money Well Spent


In Saturday's Los Angeles Times, "U.S. Trip Is Positively Eye-Opening for Muslims" features a group of Muslim scholars who visit the U.S. under State Department auspices:

Zeenat Shaukat Ali, an Islamic studies professor from Bombay, India, marveled at the freedom of American Muslims to practice their religion and the active role of women in mosque life. In her country, she told an interfaith crowd in Claremont, many mosques don't even allow women to enter.

"Muslims here are free to follow their own culture, dress the way they want, go to educational institutes and train themselves," she said. "American culture has not overcome the culture of Muslims but accepted it."

Quratulain Bakhteari, a Pakistani social activist, read the holy scriptures of Judaism and Christianity for the first time during visits to synagogues and churches here and said she was amazed to find deep similarities to Islamic teachings.

State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is currently spending about $14 million on a wide portfolio of exchange programs, including $550,000 to bring the South Asian group to the U.S. Not all was sweetness and light during the clerics' visit, though:

Bakhteari, for instance, urged her American audience at the Methodist church [in Claremont, Calif.] to address the nation's expanding gap between rich and poor.

Farida E. Arif, executive director of a job development agency for poor rural women in Bangladesh, expressed dismay at the waste she observed here—the widespread use of disposable plates, for instance. "With all this money, a lot of development can be done in the world," she said.

She also urged more American women to step up to more high-profile leadership roles.

The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs isn't just interested in bringing opinion leaders over, though; its Web site also lists exchange opportunities for lower socioeconomic tiers, like an au pair program that brings foreign nationals for work and at least six credit hours' worth of education.

(Thanks, per usual, to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Beacon No. 44: The U.S. "Brand" Takes Fourth Place


The U.S. is the fourth-ranked national "brand" in the world, according to a study of 10,000 international consumers' preferences. The Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index purports to measure how well-regarded a country is via six indicators: exports, governance, investment and immigration, culture and heritage, people, and tourism.

This would ordinarily be great news for the U.S.—fourth out of the world's nations!—but unfortunately, the study seems to have some substantial problems.

For one thing, it includes just 11 countries out of roughly 200. They placed like this:

1. Sweden
2. UK
3. Italy
4. Germany/USA (tie)
5. Japan
6. China
7. India
8. South Korea
9. Russia
10. Turkey

It's unclear what criteria Simon Anholt, whose work focuses on how places brand themselves, and Mercer, Wa.-based GMI used to narrow their list down to these 11 nations. If they wanted to include the world's most prominent countries, then why Sweden? And where are Brazil and Spain and Australia? Also, Anholt-GMI apparently polled from one set of countries about a second, slightly different list:

Consumers in the following countries were polled about their opinion on these nation brands: Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Japan, South Korea, United Kingdom, and the United States.

I would have had more faith in one-to-one mapping of those surveyed with the countries they were surveyed about. It's possible that tiny Denmark's preferences matter because it is the Cincinnati of northern Europe, an Everyman nation whose citizens predict world opinion. But while Anholt-GMI cared enough to ask Danes their opinions, it didn't care enough to assess Denmark as a nation. Canadians were also asked their opinions, but Canada doesn't appear to have made the list.

Third, Turkish opinions about other nations aren't mentioned in Anholt-GMI's explanation of its poll (download it here; registration required), but Nation Brands Index surveyors did ask everyone else about Turkey.

The whole exercise seems lopsided, particularly in the press release announcing the poll: "First Ever Global Poll of How the World Sees the World: USA Not Even a Runner Up in Anholt-GMI Nation Brands Index that ranks Nations as Top, Rising or Falling Brands."

Fourth behind Italy, Sweden and the UK—and neck-and-neck with Germany—is far better than I would expect from all the doomsaying about U.S. public diplomacy. I hope Anholt and GMI include many more countries in the next Nation Brands Index, and make their methodology more transparent and consistent.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

Monday, June 06, 2005

Prime Minister Blair on Throwing Pounds at Africa


In "Blair's Campaign for Africa," the Christian Science Monitor's Abraham McLaughlin delivers some surprising news about U.S. aid to Africa:

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA—The U.S. was more generous last year than it has ever been toward Africa, giving $3.2 billion in foreign aid, or about $4.50 per sub-Saharan African. That's triple what it gave in 2000—and is the most given by any nation.

But tomorrow in Washington British Prime Minister Tony Blair will ask President Bush for more—lots more. Mr. Blair wants rich countries to double their total aid to Africa to $25 billion a year.

Blair's plea, and Mr. Bush's resistance to it, highlight key gaps in their approaches. Blair's is fueled by a strong sense of moral obligation for rich nations to help poor ones—and a public more willing to spend government money on far-away problems. Bush aims to help generously on AIDS, but otherwise target aid where it won't be swallowed by corrupt or inept officials. It's one reason Washington gives foreign countries just 16 cents per $100 of gross domestic product, one of the rich world's lowest rates.

So overall American donations are healthy while per-capita donation lags, which has been the rap on the U.S. since time began. But McLaughlin goes on to write that the British are more willing to simply throw money at Africa than demand results:

Britain and the U.S. diverge on the issue of corruption. The American view is that, given widespread corruption, "dumping a pile of cash on them isn't going to help," says Stephen Morrison with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The British view is that even if some new aid money is stolen or wasted, it's "better than not having more aid, which you know would do no good," says [Michael] Peel [of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London].

It sounds like the British government, which is no stranger to budgetary problems, simply wants to throw pounds at the wall until something sticks.

Although the U.S. is has been undisciplined in its domestic and military spending since 9/11, I'm happy that the Bush administration is at least demanding accountability in foreign aid disbursement. It's no good trying to put eye-catching foreign aid numbers up if the money heads to African officials' Swiss bank accounts, instead of Africans generally.

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Beacon No. 43: A Camera in Every Cell


In a Newsday article headlined "Pictures Could Fix a Thousand Problems," James P. Pinkerton writes about stopping the stream of Gitmo-prisoner-abuse stories permanently.

After noting that Guantánamo abuses are nothing on the scale of, say, the Soviet gulag archipelago—this in response to Amnesty's over-the-top "gulag" language—Pinkerton says the U.S. needs a graceful way out of a persistent public diplomacy crisis. His solution:

... Since perspective is exactly what's lacking, the U.S. should provide it—literally. How? By putting cameras in each and every prison cell, so that the condition of each prisoner can be observed 24/7 by the world. After all, if we are preaching "transparency" as part of our democratizing plan for the world, why don't we practice it?

Cameras for security purposes have changed the world for the better. Millions of video monitors, in public places and private spaces, have helped identify thousands of criminals and deterred countless more crimes. Many parents use cameras in their own homes to keep track of their children and their children's caregivers. To put it simply, surveillance equipment has made the world safer.

In addition, cameras can protect officialdom against false accusations. Right now, any Gitmo prisoner can say just about anything about his American captors, and chances are that millions around the world will believe him. The best way to counter the charge that the U.S. is running a "Gitmo Archipelago" is to show that the alleged abuses aren't occurring. And they wouldn't be, if cameras were always whirring.

So who would watch all those camera feeds? That's the beauty of Internet Webcams: Anybody with a computer can watch.

Pinkerton's proposal raises serious but solvable 8th Amendment and Geneva Convention problems, and he addresses them in part:

But what about the privacy of prisoners? There are lots of possible answers. The U.S. could make the video feed available to each prisoner's home government, or perhaps to Muslim religious leaders, not to mention outfits such as Amnesty and the Red Cross.

The U.S. would have to rein in its interrogation methods, which is a good thing in light of this morning's newspaper stories on the latest Pentagon explanations of Qur'an abuse at Guantánamo. Reading them finally made me lose my patience with officialdom. Here's how the Times covered the story:

U.S. Southern Command, responsible for the prison for foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, described five cases of "mishandling'' of a Koran by U.S. personnel confirmed by a newly completed military inquiry, officials said in a statement.

In the incident involving urine, which took place this past March, Southern Command said a guard left his observation post, went outside and urinated near an air vent, and "the wind blew his urine through the vent'' and into a cell block.

It said a detainee told guards the urine "splashed on him and his Koran.'' The statement said the detainee was given a new prison uniform and Koran, and that the guard was reprimanded and given duty in which he had no contact with prisoners. Army Capt. John Adams, a spokesman at Guantánamo, said the inquiry deemed the incident "accidental.''

Frequent readers of Beacon know that I use even-handed, respectful language when discussing controversial ideas and people; I cite public figures by their full name or title-and-surname ("Donald Rumsfeld," "Secretary Rice") and shy away from sarcasm, with the exception of naming an award for General William G. Boykin a few months back. I try to assume that people are acting in good faith even if I disagree with them.

But on reading the Times account, I reached the end of my patience. This story reeks of Defense doing flips and twists to explain how urine came into contact with a Qur'an. We can't deny the urine part anymore, but how can we make it look innocent, incidental, almost like a non-urination?

Pity the guys tasked to come up with this particular account; hopefully, after enough caramel frappuccinos, they egged each other on until finally one said: I've got it! We could say someone was peeing near an air vent, and there was a sudden typhoon!

If this account is false, it's so absurd that someone should be demoted for idiocy.

But suppose it's all true? The guards are trained hit a target with their sidearm at 25 meters on the range, but appear to be having trouble in the latrine at considerably shorter distance.

Could the Pentagon please detail female prison guards to Guantánamo? At least their urine is less likely to go sailing around the Caribbean like some airborne goddamned Flying Dutchman.

Back to Pinkerton's modest proposal which builds, knowingly or not, on author and futurist David Brin's ideas about a Transparent Society. Brin envisions a world where everyone is observed most of the time. This world is actually imaginable today as camera prices drop and Web hookups become ubiquitous.

I wrote to David Brin about Pinkerton's Gitmo proposal, and here is part of his reply:

I have long argued that we need to consider the battlefield. On a tactical battlefield, we benefit by controlling information flow, blinding enemies and even partially blinding elements of our own side.

On the grand, societal, and strategic battlefields—of civilizations and decades—our civilization is built to benefit at nearly all times by maximizing information flows. Maximum knowledge enables the players in our four "accountability arenas" (science, markets, courts and democracy) to make best-valid decisions, discover errors, fabricate solutions and revise assumptions with a rapidity that no other culture could emulate.


Which brings us to the suggestion of cams operating at all times in Guantánamo.


Let me make clear that when I first heard of the Guantánamo incarcerations, I thought "How clever," assuming that the purpose was tactical and short-term and that it would be run by professionals. Now, alas, those tactical benefits will be forever lost, since this will have to be outlawed.

In the short term, the camera suggestion would of course ease the abuse and reassure the world THAT is has been eased. Alas, it would also eliminate all conceivable usefulness of Guantánamo. The inmates might as well be sent to Egypt. (Morally problematic, but practical by realpolitik.)

An intermediate step would be to place cameras in all cells and LIMIT the audience. Pick a dozen moderate-minded and relatively trusted individuals around the world to watch the scenes and ensure nothing heinous happens. But while the Muslim world might somewhat trust these persons (e.g. a minister in Indonesia) they would also be prison officials who are used to the general rough and tumble of prison life, and they would not blow the whistle on the normal scuffling and feces-throwing that would shock regular folks.

I used to think David Brin's transparent-society proposals were a bit unlikely, and told him so in my initial e-mail; but now, a radical change in the U.S. approach to detainees may be what's needed, and more ideas like James Pinkerton's are welcome.

But I'm not holding my breath about tuning in to, say, anytime soon. As one colleague who's knowledgeable about DoD policymaking said, "Oh, the Secretary will just love that."

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Beacon No. 42: Explaining Hugo


Juan Forero offers a good summary today of why Latin Americans and others idolize Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez: He's Fidel Castro, but with land borders and natural resources at a time when he can charge neighbors (and the U.S.) a premium for oil.

Record prices for petroleum let the left-ish Chávez bluster against real and imagined American sins, export freely to neighbors, enact popular social programs and crack down on what's left of Venezuela's judiciary and press, all while enjoying big approval ratings at home and abroad.

But unlike Chávez, Castro was (and is) geographically isolated and had powerful patrons in the old USSR, making political control and budgeting easier than in most mainland economies. The only powerful patron in Chávez's neighborhood today is the one he spends his free time insulting, so I imagine he will face serious political problems when oil's price drops.

Unfortunately, many Venezuelans will also suffer when that happens—and just a generation after the oil crash of the 1980s, which ruined economies from Caracas to Riyadh to Denver! Chávez will begin to look like a loser for having overplayed his hand, and failing to diversify his economy when he had the chance.

Currently, oil accounts for about 80 percent of export earnings and half of Venezuela's operating revenue. For this reason, I don't worry about Chávez being a public-diplomacy thorn for the U.S. when oil's price falls. In the long term, Chávez's most likely outcome is exile—probably in Cuba.
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