Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Beacon No. 61: Interview with Dan Kuehl


For the past 12 years, Dan Kuehl has been a professor of systems management at the National Defense University, a collection of colleges and institutions that help train mid-career military officers to think strategically about various aspects of U.S. power. Kuehl teaches elective courses on the use of information as a component of U.S. power, and particularly how to use information content and technology to influence how people think and act.

We spoke for most of an hour Tuesday and what follows are my notes on our conversation, which touched on the nature of ideological threats to the West, the limits of public diplomacy, and the power of Hollywood.

While my notes were extensive, this piece as a whole should be considered as giving the sense of the speakers' conversation rather than quoting them.

I've split my account into two parts: Today's excerpt is generally about framing the problems in U.S. public diplomacy, while tomorrow's will focus on some ways of solving them.

Beacon: Why should the West or even the U.S., specifically, find itself in long-term, widespread ideological trouble at this moment when democracy and capitalism are ascendant? What's gone wrong?

Dan Kuehl: Democracy and capitalism are at heart political and economic concepts. The struggle we're engaged in is not economic at all, and is political at all only in the sense that politics relates to deeper social issues. The war of ideas we're engaged in is not democracy vs. socialism or totalitarianism, except in the sense that Islamo-fascism is a form of totalitarianism—but it's grounded in cultural-religious issues. A ruling group is intent on imposing its view of the world and society, etc., on a group of others. In this case the others share the religious viewpoint of the group that are making decisions about who to hate, who to kill, and so on.

The great struggle is how do we reach this mass of a billion-plus Muslims that are out there all over the world from Africa to East Asia to the Middle East, and now Europe and the U.S. and elsewhere? How do we keep them from the one or two steps that separate them from the people who fly planes into buildings? My issue is that we keep talking about themes and messages, and it comes across as, "If we just tell it better, louder, with more passion, they'll get it." No, they won't. That's the great failure so far. There are similarities to the Cold War, a generations-long clash of social viewpoints where you can't get to a point and say, "Oh, we've won." The differences are that much of the population of the adversary during the Cold War was on our side. That's Radio Free Europe, broadcasting to tens of millions of people that wanted to hear that message. That's not the case here. This isn't a case where we're trying to reach into denied areas where people are thirsting to hear us; that's not the case. Fundamentally Radio Sawa and al-Hurra [TV] are great ideas .

Over the course of the past 20-30 years—this is personal opinion—people have come to view the U.S. primarily through the lens of Palestine, Israel and the U.S., and it's a disaster. Somehow it has evolved so that the Islamic population of the world is fundamentally unhappy with the U.S.

Beacon: Then how do you de-link perceptions of the U.S. from Israel and Palestine?

Kuehl: You can't do it rhetorically. I'm sure you've come across the term "propaganda of the deed." [The perception is that] the United States have given, are giving, and will give the Israeli government carte blanche. I don't think that's accurate, but it's the perception that's out there. Chip away at that perception, then separate that from our involvement or engagement with the Indonesians, for example, with the tsunami.

[The tsunami response] gave us a great opportunity to show our true colors. If you want to know what we're like, here it is—you just saw it in action. Every single one of our embassies, every one of our regional combatant commands ought to have on the books a skeleton plan for if "X" happens, here's how we start responding to it, and here's how we start doing the information piece of the response. Having that thought out ahead of time really saves you lots of time and effort when you have to do it.

Another point is finding the voices of Islamic moderation, and then finding ways to—and this is going to be art—finding ways to assist them without being too overt about it.

[We briefly discuss Egypt's restrictions on funding of Egyptian NGOs by foreign organizations, which is crippling many groups that involved in transparency, governance, etc.]

Kuehl: The Egypt example is one of those we have cited over and over again. They made a big deal of the assistance the Japanese gave for rebuilding an opera house or something. I mean, it was a pittance. And we spend more [money helping Egypt] and no one knows about it.

How we're going to take advantage informationally of what we're doing, this should be part of the plan. ... We're talking about [creating] a template you can export out and use for some other operations.

Beacon: Has anyone tried to catalog what all the different terms for influencing thoughts and actions are, from psychological operations to soft power?

Kuehl: This struggle of how you define things and what you call things is still going on. It started with something called "information warfare," then we redefined that and turned it into "information operations," and now we're redefining that. There's a joint doctrine published in 1988 and the process of revising that is still going on. ... They don't write doctrine at [the State Department], but they do have a clear-cut perspective that speaks to one, understanding, two, engaging, and three, informing and influencing. We have to understand them before we can start to get at the way they think.

[Kuehl briefly discusses a presentation he did along with a German colleague. The colleague was asked what the U.S. government should do about understanding other cultures.]

Kuehl: She answered, number one, resurrect government-sponsored effort to train linguists. I wouldn't be surprised if Condi Rice got her funding initially from government programs to fund Soviet studies, linguistic studies, which should make her particularly attuned to doing the same thing with Arabic and other languages. The number of people who can go on Al-Jazeera live and debate other guests is low. [We jointly guess it is between six and 20.] Training linguists is the slow part—but the second thing is finding linguists. The companies that do business over there, big-time business, have [translators] on their staffs and payroll .

[I raise the problem of vetting people who are foreign nationals or related to same.]

Kuehl: If you put your mind to it you can do a security vetting on someone a lot faster than you can train them in Arabic.

TOMORROW: Deterring al-Qa'ida

No comments:

Site Meter