Tuesday, November 29, 2005

They'll Even Feature Israelis


Last Wednesday Juan Cole at Informed Comment discussed the allegation that President Bush had considered military action against Al-Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite news network that the administration sees as aiding and comforting the Iraq insurgency. Here's part of Cole's take:

Al-Jazeera is a widely misunderstood Arabic television channel that is mainly characterized by a quaint 1950s-style pan-Arab nationalism. It is not a fundamentalist religious channel, though it does host one old-time Muslim Brother, Yusuf al-Qaradawi. Its main peculiarity in local terms is that it will air all sides of a political issue and allow frank criticism of Middle Eastern politicians as well as of Western ones. It is the only place in the Arab media where one routinely hears Israeli spokesmen (speaking very good Arabic, typically) addressing their concerns and point of view to Arab audiences.

Most of Al-Jazeera's programming is presented by natty men in business suits or good-looking, chic Arab women in fashionable Western clothes. ... A lot of the programming is Discovery Channel-style documentaries.

Nothing surprising here so far; Al-Jazeera is populated largely by ex-BBC types who can be expected to report and dress professionally. But then:

Ironically, after one of the early-morning Al-Jazeera news broadcasts EST on Wednesday that discussed the Bush plot against the channel, the next show was about recently released American movies, including Jarhead (about a Marine during the Gulf War), which showcased the films enthusiastically and may as well have been an infomercial. It was jarring, the effusiveness about American soft power after the admission of the dark side of U.S. military power.

Rather than Al-Jazeera just sort of happening to follow criticism of the U.S. with a favorable piece on a Hollywood war movie, I wonder whether the network wasn't making a precise calculation of how to balance coverage of a story that it couldn't help but take personally.

It's also significant, in soft-power terms, that Al-Jazeera (and presumably Arabs) flacked a movie about the first Gulf War, which marked the last time there was broad agreement between Arabs and the West on their relations.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

No Constituency for Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns


Patricia Kushlis of WhirledView wanted to comment on my recent BB/BSWG posts but was stopped, she said, by Blogspot's requirement that she create a blog herself before being allowed to comment on mine. Here is part of her note to me before Thanksgiving:

...The troops need to speak the language and learn the culture before being set loose on the locals. They are not being given either—at least as far as I can discern from anecdotal evidence. Either the Pentagon doesn't value language/cultural proficiency, or it is so strapped for bodies that it can't afford to spend time training them in Arabic or Iraqi culture. Or both. My sense is lots of money is going to technology and weapons firms—and nothing to the human capital of the sort both you and I think should be a priority.

I agree with Kushlis, but not because the DoD doesn't value human capital or training. In conversations with Defense Dept. officials three weeks ago I saw lots of human capital on display, expressed in the training of many former and active-duty officers: products of Annapolis and West Point, teachers at the National Defense University and Naval Postgraduate School, ex-paratroopers and serving intelligence officers.

The Pentagon invests heavily to find and cultivate human capital, but Congress forces it to do so in the way that most benefits Congressmen. Here's why: More than one participant at the Carmel conference said that there is no constituency in Congress for human programs as opposed to weapon systems. They meant that members of Congress tend to fund the Defense Dept. in ways that bring jobs to their district. This means the DoD's budget skews toward building tangible objects like weapon systems and large educational institutions, which in turn create jobs in congressional districts. Weapons factories and war colleges alike employ large numbers of people who manufacture, teach or learn, which in turn creates many more secondary jobs in the local economy. (This is one reason you see naval air stations at great distances from oceans.)

So what's good for General Dynamics and West Point is good for America. Unfortunately, from a budgetary standpoint, what's good for Iraqi villagers is Iraq's concern, except among the most forward-looking congressmen—or those who occupy safe seats.

Programs like BB/BSWG would create better soldiers who would then leave the U.S. and spend their time and money overseas. Ideally, those soldiers wouldn't even require MREs, ammunition or helicopters for air support, so BB/BSWG just wouldn't be as likely to get congressional funding as a weapons factory or other Stateside installation.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Beacon No. 72: Arquilla on Al-Qa'ida Leadership


In "Misjudging the Jihad," military theorist John Arquilla cites a study of Al-Qa'ida's leadership by Marc Sageman, a psychiatrist and former CIA field agent:

Over the years, al Qaeda cadres have generally not come from the pool of poor, semiliterate villagers who never ventured far from home and whose only education has been in religious schools, known as madrassas.

Instead, many of al Qaeda's fighters have been educated in first-rate universities, have been successful in a material sense and are well traveled.


While few terrorists have such starkly dramatic backstories, bin Laden is hardly an exceptional case of a man giving up privilege and embracing peril. Indeed, many al Qaeda fighters have personal histories that echo his.

This is especially true of his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician who gave up all hope of a prestigious, prosperous life for the jihadist cause. But even rank-and-file al Qaeda members have often come from upper-middle-class backgrounds.

Al Qaeda's "Hamburg cell," for example, was full of them. Mohammed Atta, who played a key role in the Sept. 11 attacks, studied architecture and finished his dissertation at the Technical University of Hamburg. Ziad Jarrah, who piloted the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, studied aeronautical engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in the city. Another cell member, Saad Bahaji, came from a family with a father who was a secular Muslim and a successful businessman and a mother who was an educated German Christian.

So the bulk of Al-Qa'ida's higher-ups are not recruited from mud huts, but rather are white-collar sophisticates who are either bored or worse, afflicted with middle-class guilt that they are somehow unworthy—that they don't get their hands dirty enough supporting their forebears' Cause.

Arquilla also notes that "the rapid spread of advanced information technology has only accelerated a trend toward generally more affluent jihadists," somewhat at odds with my thesis earlier this week focused on winning the hearts and minds of people in mud huts. (See Beacon No. 71, "Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns.")

I'd like to think that Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns might prevent the next generation of Mohammed Attas from arising—that there's little difference between defusing the Iraq insurgency out in the countryside and preventing today's urban five-year-olds from flying aircraft into buildings—but Arquilla explicitly makes this distinction, and is well worth the read besides.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Beacon No. 71: More on Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns


In Part One I proposed having individual soldiers become "big brothers" or "big sisters" to individual kids overseas (e.g., Iraq) for the duration of their deployment there. They would spend most of their time in the countryside of conflict zones, in the same way that U.S. Peace Corps volunteers do today in stable countries. I've thought of some advantages and disadvantages to this idea, which I've dubbed Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns (BB/BSWG, because every successful program needs a clunky acronym):

Logistical efficiency. Once an American soldier became a big brother or big sister, he or she would find ways to slash bureaucratic red tape to ensure "their" kid had enough food, water, security and schooling. While doing this, the GI would inevitably better the lives of kids who were not "theirs" and eventually, the entire surrounding area. Locals couldn't avoid noticing that the presence of a BB/BSWG soldier brought them tangible benefits, creating incentives to keep them around.

Local knowledge. During their deployment, BB/BSWG soldiers would need to learn a huge amount about the host culture, including dialect and slang, customs, body language, familial and tribal relationships—all the aspects of living in small towns that outsiders (like most of the armed forces deployed in Iraq) can never quite comprehend. Over time they would become both sensors and experts on small areas of the host country, becoming increasingly valuable both during and after their deployment.

Steady funding. The president, Congress and the American public tend to fund the armed forces well, and a well-intentioned, nonviolent program like BB/BSWG would likely find broad support even among those who oppose the Iraq war.

Self-protection. Among other tasks, soldiers are trained to kill people and blow things up. While in the BB/BSWG program GIs would remain armed and to some extent self-protecting. They would also serve as surge capacity if commanders of more traditional U.S. units needed either back-up or scouting reports on the local thugs.

There are also problems with a BB/BSWG approach in Iraq, none of them unsolvable.

Threats to current force structures. DoD brass might not like BB/BSWG as it detracts from the armed forces' stated mission of fighting wars. BB/BSWG is also intensely personnel-oriented rather than technology-oriented, making it harder to quantify and sell to Congress.

Threats to soldiers. BB/BSWG would expose individual warfighters to greater risk since they would spend much more time with "their" kid in the countryside, exposed to potential insurgent actions.

NGO objections. BB/BSWG is the do-gooder NGO's worst nightmare: The large resources of the U.S. military applied to community-building tasks by uniformed, armed soldiers. NGOs would—and already do—see programs like BB/BSWG as unfair competition at best.

Heisenberg problem. Soldiers' very presence among families will change them and the surrounding communities, making any specific information they gather less valuable.

Divided loyalties. Kids may become too attached to individual soldiers and vice-versa; when BB/BSWG soldiers cycle out of the country they'll have to make a strong effort to smoothly hand off responsibilities to their replacements.

Family trouble. Episodes of religious proselytizing within the U.S. military receive wide coverage overseas. Parents and surrounding communities in host countries may accuse soldiers of brainwashing the younger generation and pressure families to not cooperate with U.S. forces.

On balance, I think it's worth examining the BB/BSWG idea and trying to find ways to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. I'd welcome any comments readers might have.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Beacon No. 71: Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns


I attended a DoD-sponsored conference in Carmel last week focused on strategic listening: How might the U.S., and specifically the Defense Department, best listen to the messages other cultures transmit or just emit? This wasn't framed in terms of competing with established electronic eavesdropping capabilities or having more agricultural attachés do spook-work on the side in their host countries; far from it. The DoD was looking for non-traditional ways to find things out.

Some participants thought electronic means would be best for this task—shower the Middle East with computers, Ethernet cable and blogging tools and the kids will just type what's on their minds, i.e. the Web 2.0 approach.

This approach bothered me for many reasons. While blog-watching sounds like an excellent approach for First World countries, someone said during a break that about 60 percent of the world's population has never even made a phone call. The world outside the West and the urbanized Far East is still largely rural and removed from First World modes of self-expression.

This world depends heavily on family ties and long-term relationships and is economically centered on manual labor. It is, in a phrase, blue-collar, and depending on the Internet to assemble an accurate picture of populations that lack typing ability, to say nothing of computers, electricity, Internet access or literacy, isn't likely to succeed.

How about cell phones, someone argued? They're becoming increasingly powerful, cheap, easy to use, and Web-enabled. Unfortunately, they have the same requirements as computers, with the addition of cell-phone towers.

Others suggested that watching changes in graffiti and fashion would be useful, and previous suggestions about the cultural power of Iranian cinema were also welcomed.

There was much enthusiasm about a film producer's approach of giving out cameras to kids, who would then record their lives and concerns. The producer pointed out, however, that she took three six-month stretches in India building trust among her subjects, followed by three more six-month stretches of filming. This is a huge time investment by any standard, one that would require passion to duplicate on large scale.

There was also general agreement that the U.S.—and particularly the DoD—needs to drastically increase its on-the-ground cultural knowledge in many countries and that all these proposals were only partial answers. I scribbled some notes about this during an afternoon session and finally proposed an idea to the group:

Have units of soldiers whose job it is to pick one kid out in the area where they're stationed. One male soldier, one boy; one female soldier, one girl. That soldier's primary job, for their entire tour of duty, is to make sure that kid is taken care of, not just in the next week or month, but five years from now.

I call this idea Big Brothers/Big Sisters with Guns (hereafter "BB/BSWG") and I'll outline it at greater length in my next post.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Outbidding Al-Zawahiri


Ehsan Ahrari gives some compelling reasons to help Pakistan in yesterday's Asia Times.

I hadn't heard this, but Ayman al-Zawahiri, widely considered Osama bin Laden's number-two man, recently issued a worldwide call for aid to victims of the recent South Asia quake, and particularly to those in Kashmir. Ahrari, a Virginia-based defense consultant, writes that the deplorable response of the West and certain oil-rich Middle Eastern monarchies plays right into Al-Qa'ida's narrative about how the West cares only about oil:

Al-Qaeda is having a field day watching the community of nations perform so deplorably in regard to the human tragedy in Pakistan. It can, quite effectively, underscore three perspectives. First, that the illegitimacy of current Muslim governments in the wake of their failure to come to the rescue of a Muslim tragedy of epic proportions does not require any further debate, from the perspectives of al-Qaeda.

Second, the seeming lack of Western concern only underscores al-Qaeda's claim that the West does not really care about what happens to Muslims, as long as the compliant and sycophant Muslim regimes continue to preside over the political status that ensures the dominance of the West. Third, given the preceding two reasons, al-Qaeda's own unrelenting insistence on the violent overthrow of all extant Muslim regimes is further established, at least in the minds of everyone who is mildly sympathetic to that organization's criticisms.

What emerges from the preceding is a transnational pan-jihadi entity carefully studying the twists and turns of the US and Western responses to countering terrorism and coming up with its own countermeasures.

The Turks, Ahrari writes, are an exception to the tepid response of most Muslim nations:

Only one day after the earthquake, the government in Ankara responded by sending search and rescue teams and food and other aid to Pakistan. It followed up by sending $150 million in aid. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was the first foreign dignitary to visit the earthquake-devastated area, where he observed, "My wish is this—the world is using resources for armaments, they should also put aside resources for such disasters."

Remember, this is Erdogan the Islamist leading the avowedly secular Turkish cavalry to the rescue on the other side of Asia. Turkey will reap soft-power benefits from its aggressive action down the road.

The U.S. may suffer from distraction in the Iraq and donor fatigue due to the Asian tsunami and multiple hurricanes on its own shores. That said, the Congress should appropriate more money for earthquake relief in South Asia to help prove Al-Qa'ida wrong about U.S. intentions in the region and the Muslim world generally. If the legislature needs a selfish reason to be altruistic, remember that helping stricken Pakistanis also helps the U.S. position in Afghanistan by defusing Pakistani distrust of U.S. intentions in the region.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item. Sorry I missed you at USC, John!)

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Tomorrow: On ZenPundit

Another quick note:

Tomorrow I'll have a short piece on Mark Safranski's ZenPundit. Mark's been running a series of guest commentaries this week on the topic of Globalization and War (read his intro here), and I highly recommend reading the diverse group he's gathered under his banner.

The Blogs Are with the Terrorists


Just back from a conference in Carmel focused on strategic listening: How may the U.S. government best listen to people in other countries? I'll talk about this at length in the coming days and interview some people I met there, but for now I'm recovering from days of being in rooms filled with frighteningly smart people. I intentionally left my computer at home, but I'm back to reading the paper—for the first time in days—and two things leap out at me:

Egypt's conducting parliamentary elections over several days. The news is that they're much less corrupt than previous elections, particularly the recent presidential election. But Michael Slackman and the Times' headline-writers see a glass that's half empty in "Bad Habits Linger at the Polls in Egypt." Notice that ballot boxes are transparent (to prevent obvious stuffing) and candidates aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood are allowed to use the MB's slogans. Say what you like about the Brotherhood, it's a good thing that Mubarak et al. is allowing them to say anything at all. There are only scanty reports of intimidation and people getting beaten up, which was a major feature of the presidential election.

Second, the International Herald Tribune's "French Police Fear That Blogs Have Helped Incite Rioting," reprinted in the Times, is just silly. Here's how it begins:

PARIS, Nov. 7 - The banners and bullhorns of protest are being replaced in volatile French neighborhoods by cellphone messages and Skyblog, a Web site that is host to messages inflammatory enough to prompt three criminal investigations this week.

Police officials say that youths have coordinated local arson attacks using cellphone messages. Two young people are under investigation for comments on the online diaries known as blogs on Skyblog, the officials said.

A 14-year-old in the southern city of Aix-en-Provence, arrested after posting an item urging rioters to attack police stations, was later released for procedural reasons, Agence France-Presse reported.

In the blog entries, one of the youths called on other young people in the Paris region to rise up at once in a coordinated attack. "Unite, Île-de-France, and burn the cops," one of the postings said, according to Agence France-Presse. "Go to the nearest police station and burn it."


Judicial officials said the three youths did not know one another but had all used Skyblog to send out their messages.

Sadly for IHT writer Thomas Crampton, his article doesn't justify the headline. No one is quoted as saying or implying that they fear the bloggers have incited rioting; cellphones seem to be the real culprits, although this is soft-peddled by the writer and, worse, the headline writer.

Now, in American eyes, a 14-year-old and two other wired French kids are shouldering part of the blame for France's burning cars.

Friday, November 04, 2005

"A Hit of Nostalgia"


Don't underestimate the power of nostalgia.

Brendan I. Koerner has an article in Slate today about the continued success of El Chavo del Ocho, a Mexican sitcom with one-note slapstick and threadbare production values that's been around for decades. Why's it so popular? In a word, nostalgia: Spanish-speakers watch English-language shows just like other Americans—but El Chavo's 1,300-plus episodes are the visual comfort food that warms up an otherwise chilly night in El Norte. That yearning for bygone days is not to be underestimated, Koerner implies, which is why TNT's near-constant Law & Order reruns do so well.

Koerner goes into detail about the El Chavo phenom here.

I'm off to a conference in northern California for several days and will blog as I'm able—but most likely when I return Thursday.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

MacKinnon Heads to Shanghai


Rebecca MacKinnon and RConversation are headed for Shanghai to attend the Shanghai Blogger Conference. The avowed intention:

We'll be brainstorming about ways Chinese bloggers might get their views and voices heard outside of China through the global blogosphere. The session will be conducted in Mandarin.

Luckily MacKinnon, who I met last December, is fluent in Mandarin after years posted to China for CNN.

She has written a lot about government control of the Internet in China and the efforts of Chinese civilians to circumvent it, and I wonder the effects on Chinese soft power will be as a) central authority and thus censorship continues to weaken in the Middle Kingdom and b) Chinese bloggers become increasingly able to post in English rather than Mandarin.

I read the People's Daily in English when I can and would grade its translations from Chinese at about a C+. This makes it hard for me to take them as seriously as native English-language sources; that's just my bias as a native English speaker.

China's government doesn't seem to be following Al-Jazeera's practice of hiring native English-speaking journalists (like David Frost) to help influence the West yet—but as Chinese civilians' English proficiency gets better, with millions of fluent speakers developing as a result of reading and writing English on the Internet, I'd expect Beijing to put some of them to work making People's Daily a serious read for Westerners.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Al-Jazeera's English Service Sets Up Near the White House


Alvin Snyder has a fun piece at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy's site. His "Predictions for 2006 in Public Diplomacy" note that Al-Jazeera's new English-language service will put the Qatar-based network even more in the U.S. administration's face—particularly since its studios will be just a few blocks from the White House, on 16th Street in Washington.

Snyder sees Al-Jazeera as driving the administration's agenda but spots its weakness: the need to fill a 24-hour news cycle with talk:

The Bush administration will scramble to find talking heads—the kind one sees on U.S. cable news channels and Sunday morning interview shows. That’s because the producers of al-Jazeera’s English language satellite channel will have lots of time to fill, 24/7, and will be looking for talking heads to fill that time, especially from Washington. The White House and the State Department’s public diplomacy chief, Karen Hughes, ought to start thinking about this soon, to provide ample time for media training of the most articulate and attractive spokespersons.

Hopefully State can use the English-language service as a springboard to get more U.S. Arabic speakers on Al-Jazeera's Arabic-language services, even if it's just to comment on the Egypt-Qatar soccer match.

Snyder also suggests that Al-Hurra be turned into a Middle Eastern C-SPAN—something Al-Jazeera's already doing—and has some other interesting ideas, so give it a read.

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