Friday, December 22, 2006

Suddenly, Turkmenistan


Saparmurad Niyazov, paranoid dictator of Turkmenistan, died suddenly this week and it’s power struggles, ahoy! in Central Asia for natural gas, land and post-Soviet democracy, as successors scramble for power:

Early signs of internal discord were evident in an official announcement that the speaker of the parliament's lower house, who under constitutional rules should have become acting president, had been placed under criminal investigation.

With winter closing in, the global energy industry was monitoring the surprise news from Turkmenistan closely. Turkmen gas is already an important element in state-controlled Gazprom's ability to meet customer demand at home and abroad and could become vital as demand rises over the next decade.

The United States has lobbied Turkmenistan, so far unsuccessfully, to build a pipeline across the Caspian Sea that would bypass Russian territory to deliver gas to the outside world. European countries have quietly supported the idea, which would reduce their dependence on Russia for supplies of natural gas.

The strategic competition known as the Great Game that bedeviled Central Asia more than a century ago may get a rerun as Western-oriented and exiled opposition leaders return to Turkmenistan and jostle with Russian surrogates for power in the vacuum left by Niyazov's death.

Complicating the mix are tribal politics and the loyalties of the powerful security services.

The Niyazov government was dominated by the Akhal Teke tribe, but the desert country's major gas fields lie in areas dominated by other tribes. Tensions over distribution of power and benefits from the sales never surfaced because Niyazov maintained an internal security cocoon that smothered dissent.

Largely desert country. Centralized power on one tribe’s ground, valuable resources on another tribe’s. Repressed peoples yearning to breathe free. Dissenters returning from abroad for hastily called elections. Tension between Islam and secularism.

If I were as paranoid as Niyazov was, I’d wonder why the 21st century’s maximum craziness all seems to occur in countries that border Iran.

I’m not saying Ahmadinejad’s bloody fingerprints are all over this, but because Iran borders so many countries—besides those I linked to above, it shares frontiers with Armenia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, Turkey, and half a dozen Gulf states—the U.S. must deal with Iran eventually, particularly as Tehran closes in on working nuclear weapons. Better, I think, to start befriending the Islamic Republic now than later; by being in a position to influence Tehran, Washington would be better able to influence the politics of Iran’s neighbors, with benefits for U.S. interests.

Remember that Iran was helping to sustain Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance before 9/11, and had absorbed millions of Afghan refugees on its own. No one knew how valuable these Iranian actions would be to the West until 9/11 threw Afghan politics into high relief; without Iran, there would likely have been no Northern Alliance left for the U.S. to ally itself with, and many more Americans would have died to force the Taliban out of the country.

Monday, December 18, 2006

On the Punjab Border


Not all public diplomacy is international—at least, not at one of the border crossings between India and Pakistan. NPR’s Philip Reeves reports in “Border Ceremony Draws Crowds in Pakistan, India” that the nightly lowering of the two countries’ flags at a border crossing in the Punjab has evolved into a highly choreographed ritual that combines nationalist rabble-rousing and military chest-thumping, complete with bleachers on each side of the border and vendors hawking beer and peanuts to the crowds that show up to watch.

This would be reminiscent of the “We’ve got spirit, yes we do” scene in Hoosiers, with the addition of guns and goose-stepping.

But then, after the border is closed for the night and the pro-Indian and pro-Pakistani chants have died down, an odd thing happens:

... Bright-eyed and smiling almost bashfully, people begin to wave at the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis wave back. If you think of the history of this landscape, this makes sense. When Pakistan was born after the partition of India, amid terrible communal bloodletting, Punjab was split in two. Families and friends were separated. Those bonds are not forgotten. For all the trumpeting and strutting, there are plenty of people who just want peace.

It’s a hopeful message: Once Official India and Official Pakistan have gotten their quien es más macho messages across, civilians on both sides—remembering they were part of a single country just a few generations back—seem ready to just sit down and have some dal.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Silly String in Mesopotamia

One thing Americans are noted for is "American ingenuity," and it seems to be on display at the platoon level in Iraq.

BoingBoing calls our attention to an AP story noting that Silly String is saving Americans from booby traps:

Before entering a building, troops squirt the plastic goo, which can shoot strands about 10 to 12 feet, across the room. If it falls to the ground, no trip wires. If it hangs in the air, they know they have a problem. The wires are otherwise nearly invisible.

Not only has counterinsurgency theory been rescued from its Vietnam-era suspended animation; so has rubbery aerosolized goo.

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

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Global Hopscotch


First, the silly: The U.S. and UN are threatening to cut off North Korea’s 600-odd ruling families from importing certain luxury goods. Here's a Chicago Tribune editorial on the subject:

On the U.S. list, according to the Associated Press, are such Kim favorites as Johnny Walker scotch whiskey, Cadillac cars, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, yachts, plasma TVs, Rolex watches, Segway scooters, Jet Ski personal watercraft and iPods. Japan includes beef, caviar, fatty tuna, expensive cameras and cars on its list of banned items. Many European nations are still working on their lists.

This just proves Thomas Friedman’s old point about how warfare is evolving from state-vs.-state to state-vs.-man. We’re not even trying to kill a single guy, like Usama bin Ladin, in this case; the U.S. is reduced to attempts to keep Kim Jong Il from getting bombed on the wrong scotch—a brand that, incidentally, is available in every airport duty-free store in the world.

Second, Arianna Huffington continues her march from bluster toward substance with a modest proposal:

Well, it appears [Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki’s] government wants us out six months from now. And what about the Iraqi people, those purple-fingered symbols of democracy in action? What about what they want?

If Bush is all about the Tenacious D(emocracy), why not have the Iraqi people "express their desires and wishes" and hold a plebiscite on the most pressing question facing the country: Should the United States withdraw its troops from Iraq -- Yes or No? (Talk about your Pick of Destiny).

Simple, in a vicious sort of way, with all parties in Iraq having to do something they don’t want to: Sunni insurgents would be discouraged from trying to stop the election, since it would likely go their way (U.S. out!). The al-Maliki government would be embarrassed into a get-of-the-vote effort to counter a high Sunni turnout. And the U.S., when its troops are told to go, has to leave, except for whatever right it asserts to protect Iraq’s oil wealth for export.

Finally, Minnesota congressman-elect Keith Ellison wants to be sworn in this January with his hand on a Qur’an, prompting predictable outrage from Christian conservatives. One of the most prominent has been pundit Dennis Prager, who called Ellison’s proposed action "an act of hubris ... that undermines American civilization. ... Insofar as a member of Congress taking an oath to serve America and uphold its values is concerned, America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress."

Prager’s remarks are resounding throughout the nation and around the world, which must be extremely interested to see how America’s most prominent Muslim elected official (Zalmay Khalilzad is an appointee) is treated.

Of course, it turns out that Prager is Jewish, meaning he has not only soured the fragile U.S. reputation for religious tolerance in the Muslim world, he has managed to single-handedly unite the ADL and CAIR for one glorious moment:

The Anti-Defamation League issued a statement calling his argument "intolerant, misinformed, and downright un-American." Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says the text used should be that which "is most sacred to the individual taking the oath. To ask ... otherwise is not only disrespectful to the person and to an entire religious tradition, but is asking the public official to be hypocritical."

The Council for American-Islamic Relations has called for Prager to be dropped from his recent presidential appointment to the Holocaust Memorial Council. "He is trying to marginalize Muslims by making it seem as though any practice of American Muslims is different or 'other' than what America stands for," says Arsalan Iftikhar, CAIR's legal counsel.

(Thanks to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the Tribune and Huffington items.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

Chaos High and Low


People identify themselves according to subnational groupings—their tribe—for varying reasons, but safety against other tribes would seem to be the most prominent reason. Growing up at the tail end of the Cold War, I was used to seeing tribes suppressed or subsumed by nation-states and national identities.

Today, though, tribes continue to reemerge from beneath their nation-states. I interpret this trend as being due to either extremely low or extremely high individual security.

At the low end of the security spectrum is Iraq, where the idea of national identity has already fallen through the joke stage and is now discussed primarily among the Western journalists and diplomats posted there. Tribes have reemerged because of an immediate need for physical protection against others, which nowadays means other tribes. Economic security is also extremely tenuous thanks to high unemployment.

At the high end of the security spectrum is Spain, a peaceful, increasingly prosperous European Union member where you’d think national identity would be strong. But as “Fighting Words in Spain” points out, sub-national actors like Andalusians, Basques and Catalonians increasingly threaten to declare nationhood:

Like the Basque Country before it, and perhaps Andalusia after it, Catalonia — one of Spain's 17 state-like autonomous regions — is establishing a separate cultural identity. The move is praised in some quarters as a long-overdue liberation from decades of repression, and attacked elsewhere as local nationalism run amok.

Critics warn ominously of a disintegration of the nation. Spain, they moan, is fast becoming a Tower of Babel. Loyalty to Madrid is weakened; diversity has gone too far.

Unlike Iraq, Spain offers few immediate personal threats beyond the occasional mugging in Madrid, and relatively high economic security thanks to long-term economic growth and a sophisticated public-welfare system. But this wealth and security, pushed along by Spain’s membership in the EU, only hasten Spain’s national erosion; Spaniards are free to pursue intellectual hobbies like the idea of being Basque.

In the phenomenally diverse U.S., however, there is a relatively strong national identity because of a dynamic tension between safety and threat.

Physical and economic security are both markedly lower than in Spain, with higher risks of violent and nonviolent crime and a need to hustle in pursuit of bigger paychecks. The situation is many times better than in Iraq, though, keeping calls for tribalism—even among minorities like African Americans and Arab Americans, who have reason enough to band together tribally—relatively muted.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Beacon No. 101: The Wrong Tool Now


As the Washington Post Company ages, its fetish for cute icons is accelerating.

If you never could get enough of Newsweek’s stupefying Conventional Wisdom feature, check out the Post’s Global Power Barometer, which purports to graphically track the question, "Which nations, ideologies and/or movements are most powerful (most successful) in moving global opinion and events in directions they desire?"

Created by Aspen, Colo.-based Denver Research Group, the GPB shows how the U.S., China, Israel, Iran, Islamists and North Korea are being viewed by English-language media, with about a one-day delay, according to Denver’s backgrounder.

The Post flaks the GPB as a way to “watch world power shift in real time,” a far cry from Denver Research Group’s calmer “very reasonable first glimpse at how the world is reacting to an event or issue.” In fact, Denver’s own skepticism about the GPB makes clear that it’s to be considered a starting point, not an end product:

... These types of measures can only be considered an educated guess. Humans and human events are complex; models of the extraordinary interactions of global events make weather models look simple (and accurate). So, the reader is urged not to treat the GPB icons as gospel. That said, the charts can provide a very reasonable first glimpse at how the world is reacting to an event or issue. By letting the GPB provide a general direction, the reader using his or her own sources and concepts can speed analysis and hopefully come up with educated conclusions more quickly and efficiently.

Denver’s tool is a nice try and I hope they are well compensated by the Post; the exposure on alone is priceless. But I would be surprised if many of the Post’s readers use the GPB for this intended purpose. I’d guess that most will simply look at the GPB as a box score or price quote—Ford up 1.28 after hours, Celtics win back-to-back on the road, Islamists fall in light shelling—and return to other tasks.

The GPB is precisely what public-diplomacy and soft-power pros do not need: a graphic (an arrow!) rather than a tool that allows more-nuanced interpretations of those same events.

And beyond any questions of accuracy or usefulness to the public at large, the GPB threatens to become the needle that U.S. and other countries’ propaganda programs are intended to move, the benchmark against which success or failure—and funding—are measured.

Monday, November 27, 2006

“We Are Planting a Future”


Matt Armstrong over at MountainRunner came across The Other Iraq, a chamber-of-commerce play by the de facto Kurdistan Regional Government. Three :30 spots on the site highlight Iraqi Kurdistan as thankful for American intervention, stable for investment, and democratically forward-looking in imagery resembling those defense-contractor spots from the Sunday-morning talk shows—or the ADM spots on Jim Lehrer’s program.

Iraqi Kurdistan has been nominally independent for the past 15 years and it’s no surprise to see business and government leaders (and maybe a few Western helpers) there promoting the country to Western investors. It’s the only section of Iraq that’s not currently at daggers drawn with itself, and getting additional Western investment now means the U.S. and European business communities will stay interested after U.S. forces vacate Iraq, providing insurance against bullying by Turkey or Iran.

As Armstrong says, is The Other Iraq public diplomacy or infowar? I think the former if it's purely a Kurdish project, and infowar—directed at Western publics, not just the business community—if Westerners inspired and directed it.

Friday, November 17, 2006

Xena at Home and Abroad


Xena: Warrior Princess co-executive producer Steven L. Sears visited USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy on October 25, speaking at length on his experience creating the internationally popular show—and dealing with occasional protests by critics ranging from homophobes to Hindus.

The discussion (listen here) ranges from Sears’ comparison of himself to Goebbels, to how the show’s creators dealt with the characters’ sexuality, to whether the surging popularity of American shows overseas is due to the shows or some new receptivity to U.S. entertainment.

Sears’ discussion of TV production rings true. Writers, he says, are trying to sell programming that will make viewers feel good about themselves. To elaborate on this a bit, it means that American characters try to do the right things even in difficult situations, and usually succeed except for the very darkest shows, like 24 or The X-Files.

This projects an image of Americans as hyper-competent, competent as a problem-solvers at a much higher levels than could reasonably be expected of anyone. But that’s what we’ve been selling, and at one point Sears says, “Hercules is the hero you want to rescue you, but Xena is the way you want to be heroic.”

It’s a university setting, so questioners do occasionally say things like “subvert the dominant paradigm of heterosexual normativity” with a straight face; but Sears’ talk is is worth listening to for his insights and gags, like how he feared people would refer to Xena as Beowatch.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Chilling Warning from the CIA on Iraq


General John Abizaid testified before the congressional armed services committees on Wednesday and admitted that, in terms of the U.S. troop levels in Iraq, the damage has been done. He opposes any major withdrawal of troops; says that at its current size, the U.S. military can’t sustain a larger deployment of army and marine forces into Iraq; and for the first time, admitted that too few soldiers were deployed to Iraq to begin with.

Much more chilling was CIA director Gen. Michael Hayden’s testimony, which referred to a disintegrating political center in Iraq:

General Hayden said the C.I.A. station in Baghdad assessed that Iraq was deteriorating to a chaotic state, with the political center disintegrating and rival factions increasingly warring with each other. “Their view of the battlefield is that it is descending into smaller and smaller groups fighting over smaller and smaller issues over smaller and smaller pieces of territory,” he said.

If this assessment is correct, U.S. forces face a no-win situation in Iraq no matter how many soldiers there are, because allies and enemies may be dissolving into an indistinguishable mass.

Looking back at the Vietnam War, it was difficult enough for U.S. forces to tell whether a given person was friendly or hostile—but at least there were only a limited number of sides in the conflict to deal with: North and South, and Christian, Buddhist and Communist in varying combinations. The U.S. could at least negotiate with Hanoi and achieve limited short-term results, even if Hanoi never wavered in its ultimate goal of a unitary Vietnam.

In Iraq, negotiations are becoming impossible. The time is approaching where there will be more religious, tribal, political, commercial and familial factions in Iraq than there are U.S. soldiers. These micro-factions will be increasingly interested in personal survival, with few willing to help build the Iraqi state as waves of violence surge ever higher around them. I hope policymakers take Hayden’s warning seriously and start thinking about what it means for the U.S. endgame in Iraq, whether that is in the spring or five years from now.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sub Stalks 'Hawk


The Washington Times is reporting that a Chinese diesel-powered sub “stalked” the USS Kitty Hawk and her battle group, surfacing within torpedo and cruise-missile range before being spotted:

According to the defense officials, the Chinese Song-class diesel-powered attack submarine shadowed the Kitty Hawk undetected and surfaced within five miles of the carrier Oct. 26.

The surfaced submarine was spotted by a routine surveillance flight by one of the carrier group's planes. The Kitty Hawk battle group includes an attack submarine and anti-submarine helicopters that are charged with protecting the warships from submarine attack.

According to the officials, the submarine is equipped with Russian-made wake-homing torpedoes and anti-ship cruise missiles.

The Kitty Hawk and several other warships were deployed in ocean waters near Okinawa at the time, as part of a routine fall deployment program. The officials said Chinese submarines rarely have operated in deep water far from Chinese shores or shadowed U.S. vessels.

It’s received wisdom in defense circles that a) Chinese subs lack the ability to evade U.S. detection efforts, and b) China lacks “blue water” capabilities, i.e. the equipment and training to operate far from shore. The Kitty Hawk incident provides a big affirmation for China’s program to build a military that can compete with the U.S. in at least Pacific waters:

"This is a harbinger of a stronger Chinese reaction to America's military presence in East Asia," said Richard Fisher, a Chinese military specialist with the International Assessment and Strategy Center, who called the submarine incident alarming.

"Given the long range of new Chinese sub-launched anti-ship missiles and those purchased from Russia, this incident is very serious," he said. "It will likely happen again, only because Chinese submarine captains of 40 to 50 new modern submarines entering their navy will want to test their mettle against the 7th Fleet."

Stay tuned for many more accidental, incidental or just plain kooky encounters with China’s 21st-century navy.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Beacon No. 100: Hughes Talks Talking to ALDAC


Some enterprising soul at State recently leaked one of Karen Hughes’ memos to the Washington Post. Its topic is “Speaking on the Record,” and it purports to allow officials at ALDAC—an acronym for “all U.S. diplomatic and consular posts”—some latitude in speaking to the media or in other public settings.

The Post helpfully printed a copy of the memo, which I will now present with some annotations:

1. Last year, I sent out a message detailing some guidelines for speaking on the record and engaging with media. With the launch of our regional hub effort, it is especially timely to reissue this message so that my policy on this is crystal clear. I also want to reiterate up front that media outreach, especially television interviews, should be a top priority in mission activities and when developing the schedules for visiting USG [U.S. government] officials.

Translation: Court the media.

2. I want you to know that my office and I are here to support you as you go out and do media. I know that doing any media, especially television, is a challenging endeavor. But it is a challenge we must address in order to effectively advocate our policies to foreign audiences. I also believe it is critical for Chiefs of Mission to get out on the media and to support their staff who do appear on television. When you do media, the stakes are high, but it's important. No one is perfect and there is always the chance that any of us will occasionally make mistakes -- that doesn't mean we should stop appearing on television or participating in press conferences. We need people out there giving our side of the story. The real risk is not that we occasionally misspeak, it's that we miss opportunities to present our views, and leave the field to our critics and detractors.

Translation: Chiefs of Mission are especially on the hook—get out there! Don’t worry so much about fouling up.

3. During my recent trips and meetings with many of you, I have heard concerns about problems with getting clearance to speak on the record to reporters. I promised I would send out a message clarifying my policy on this issue, and providing what I hope is clear guidance for you all in dealing with the press. In this message, I want to share "Karen's Rules" in the hope that you all will have a better idea of what I expect, and how you can react.

Translation: Following are some rules on media interaction, named for myself.

4. Rule #1: Think Advocacy. I want all of you to think of yourselves as advocates for America's story each day. I encourage you to have regular sessions with your senior team to think about the public diplomacy themes of each event or initiative. As a communicator, I know that it is important to get out in front of an issue or at best have a strong response to a negative story. One of my goals during my tenure at the State Department is to change our culture from one in which risk is avoided with respect to the press to one where speaking out and engaging with the media is encouraged and rewarded. I want you out speaking to the press, on television interviews preparing and executing a media strategy, and providing our points on issues. As President Bush and Secretary Rice have stated, public diplomacy is the job of every ambassador and every Foreign Service Officer. We want you out there on television, in the news, and on the radio a couple of times a week and certainly on major news stations in your country and region.

Translation: We are engaged in countering our adversaries’ day-to-day spin. Take risks to do that—but only within existing media strategy.

5. Rule #2: Use What's Out There. You are always on sure ground if you use what the President, Secretary Rice, Sean McCormack or Senior USG spokesmen have already said on a particular subject. I always read recent statements by key officials on important subjects before I do press events. My Echo Chamber messages are meant to provide you clear talking points in a conversational format on the "hot" issues of the day. You never need clearance to background a journalist though you should certainly pay careful attention to how your comments may be used.

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe ones, but you have more latitude when speaking on background.

6. Rule #3: Think local. Because your key audience is your local -- or regional -- audience you do not need clearance to speak to any local media, print or television. And, you do not need clearance to speak to media in your country, even if it is US based or from a US publication, if you are quoting a senior official who has spoken on the record on a particular subject. The rule of thumb to keep in mind is "don't make policy or pre-empt the Secretary or a senior Washington policy-maker."

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe words.

7. Rule #4: Use Common Sense to respond to natural disasters or tragedies. You do not need to get Department clearance to express condolences in the event of a loss, or express sympathy and support in response to a natural disaster. Obviously in the latter case do not commit USG resources for support or relief without approval from the Department; but do not wait for Department authorization to offer a statement of sympathy unless the individual or incident is controversial. Your regional hubs can help you in these instances as well.

Translation: You may freely show sympathy.

8. Rule #5: Don't Make Policy. This is a sensitive area about which you need to be careful. Do not get out in front of USG policymakers on an issue, even if you are speaking to local press. When in doubt on a policy shift, seek urgent guidance from your regional hub, PA [public affairs] or your regional public diplomacy office. Use your judgment and err on the side of caution.

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe words.

9. Rule #6: No Surprises. You should always give PA a heads-up in the event that you speak to U.S.-based media. This ensures that those who should know are in the loop on what is happening.

Translation: Speaking to American media trumps speaking with media in-country.

10. Rule #7: Enlist the help of the hubs (for those who have regional media presence) or my office if you don't get a quick response for clearance or help. The hub network is an extension of my staff, and we are here to support you in your efforts to get the USG position on the record and out in the media. Both Sean McCormack and I are committed to making sure you have what you need to advocate a US position on the key issues at your post.

Translation: We are available for consultation in advance of media appearances.

11. I know this is a departure from how you all have operated over the years. But forceful advocacy of US interests and positions is critical to our effort to marginalize the extremists and share a positive vision of hope for all countries and people. I encourage you to take advantage of opportunities to speak out, and look forward to our aggressive promotion of US policy.

Translation: Now get out there and speak!

Public diplomacy is unavoidably an indirect pursuit, like farming: You prepare the soil, plant more crops than you need in the knowledge that some will be lost, care for them and, absent disaster, reap the rewards only much, much later.

However, in memos like the above, Undersecretary Hughes does not seem to be acting as a public diplomat so much as a spin controller. It’s her luck that the U.S. badly needs one of those too, and that President Bush and Secretary Rice seem happy to let Ms. Hughes do the job she chooses rather than the job her title implies.

But who, then, is to be America’s top public diplomat?

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item. I also highly recommend reading the Post’s article accompanying the memo, which quotes two organizational psychologists on the memo’s contradictory messages to U.S. diplomats—a group that is already excruciatingly well-trained and well-prepared to speak in public.)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Windows on America


Ambassador William R. Timken Jr. is making a good impression at his posting in Germany—at least on German Muslims. In “German Muslims laud US diplomat’s style,” Timken is seen breaking a Ramadan fast near Dusseldorf, something that major German politicians wouldn’t even contemplate right now.

Timken’s leadership—which includes organizing a “Windows on America” program that brings young German Muslims on visits to New York, Washington and Des Moines—is building U.S. soft power among German Muslims who may feel alienated by their own government, not to mention by U.S. policy:

Previously [U.S. consul general Jo Ellen] Powell, together with the ambassador's wife, Sue Timken, had organized a round-table discussion with Muslim women leaders working with immigrants.

The embassy also hosted a symposium with roughly 100 students from schools in Berlin's minority districts to discuss political, cultural, and educational issues of concern to them.

"The ambassador's efforts are warmly welcome," says Aiman Mazyek, secretary-general of Germany's Central Council of Muslims, one of the largest Muslim organizations in the country. "We'd like to see more of those [efforts] from German politicians. But, sadly, a visit by the German president to join Muslims breaking their fast is probably a long way off," he adds.

Burhan Kesici, vice president of Berlin's Islamic Federation, also agrees that German leaders could better emulate Timken's approach. At a joint breaking of the fast last year, hosted by the ambassador in a "private, warm, and welcoming setting," he and the other Muslims "got the impression that we can talk to and respect each other - even if we don't agree with a lot of US politics on the global scale," says Mr. Kesici.

I’m usually suspicious when politically appointees become ambassadors to important U.S. allies and trading partners; they can all too easily coast through their time at the Court of St. James or in some other glittering capital, rarely lifting a finger to represent U.S. interests. Timken had a long, distinguished career as a businessman in Ohio and could easily have treated his ambassadorship as a reward, rather than as a second career.

Instead, he appears to be spending at least some time in Berlin courting a German constituency the U.S. needs to win over, accomplishing three important tasks in the process: Breaking through the German media’s lock on German perceptions of the U.S.; attempting to turn alienated German Muslims into potential U.S. allies; and perhaps shaming German politicians into dealing more openly with the millions of Muslims now living in the Federal Republic. If some future chancellor attends an iftaar within Germany, it will be in part due to Ambassador Timken’s example.

(My colleague at Eccentric Star thinks the Windows on America program needs to be expanded to include German Germans, not just Muslim Germans; see the ES post here.)

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for both items.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Big Deal in Africa


In “Chinese-African Summit Yields $1.9 Billion in Deals,” China is seen moving to formalize its role as Africa’s number-one trading partner and expand its soft power across the continent:

Beijing—Chinese and African leaders wrapped up a summit on Sunday with deals worth $1.9 billion and assurances from China that it would not monopolize Africa's resources as it builds influence across the continent.

The agreements, signed between 12 Chinese firms and various African governments and companies, followed Chinese President Hu Jintao's pledge on Saturday to offer $5 billion in loans and credit, and to double aid to Africa by 2009.


The deals reached Sunday include commitments from China to build expressways in Nigeria, lay a telephone network in rural Ghana and erect an aluminum smelter in Egypt, the state-run New China News Agency reported.

And why not? The West doesn’t coordinate its efforts to build African infrastructure. It isn’t interested in trying to extract most minerals from Africa if they can be found in more stable, less distant regions. For their part, African governments know that little aid or comfort are forthcoming from the West—so why not look East?

The problem for China will come when the governments participating in some of these new deals face civil war, insurrection or just sub-Saharan Africa’s perennial chaos. With whom will China do business in these kinds of deteriorating situations?

The PRC could find itself in the same position as Western companies trying to fill ever-increasing demands for coltan, an ore needed to manufacture of cell-phone and other types of circuit boards. Eighty percent of the world’s coltan is in Congo, and Western companies routinely cut deals with the Congo government, the rebels, Rwandan and Ugandan poachers, or whoever else can supply the mineral.

The PRC is betting heavily that its development deals and aid will provide stability to its new trading partners—but if China’s efforts to create a more prosperous and stable Africa fail, it will still enjoy widespread good will and important contacts with those who control Africa’s resources.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hearts, Minds, Skulls Plague Bundeswehr


Oh, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth along the Rhine whenever German soldiers are sent abroad. Is it okay with the rest of Europe? Will our soldiers behave themselves? Are we ready?

No more or less ready than American soldiers, it seems.

Here’s what happened, if you haven’t heard: German soldiers have been doing peacekeeping work in Afghanistan for years and things were going well, from a German-national-image standpoint, until a week ago, when the German magazine Bild published photos of Bundeswehr members in varying states of undress.

Cavorting with skulls.

... Images were published showing German soldiers who had placed a skull onto the hood of a Mercedes "Wolf" all-terrain truck as a sort of war trophy, a soldier pressing his naked genitalia against a skull and soldiers using the remnants of skulls as decorations, all the while smiling for the camera.

Note to Spiegel’s editors: The technical term for that genitalia-against-a-skull bit is “skullfucking.” That’s one word, all lowercase.

So much for moral superiority—although Spiegel speculates about just a few “bad apples” and writes that the Bundeswehr’s skull-dance is nothing like the U.S. massacre at Haditha or other touchstones of American misbehavior:

Only this spring, reports of the Haditha massacre in Iraq, where United States marines murdered 24 civilians in cold blood, invoked memories of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War, when US soldiers murdered about 500 Vietnamese civilians. And the images of torture at Abu Ghraib are also recent enough not to have been forgotten.

We have always known that the emotional effects of war are devastating on those involved, and German troops are no exception. And yet compared to the excesses of American GIs, the Bundeswehr's behavior is almost innocent.

Almost, but not quite: Apparently, the German soldiers’ innocence is now in question back home:

The military, under the leadership of General Inspector Wolfgang Schneiderhan, has taken tough steps to lessen the shock of the incident. Last Friday Defense Minister Jung suspended two of the main suspects, a 25-year-old junior staff officer and a member of a mountain division based in the southern German town of Mittenwald. The case is being investigated by the public prosecutor's office in Munich, which plans to question the first defendant early this week.

The charge? “Desecrating the dead.” I seem to remember the last time this was an issue: in the 1940s, a few decades before My Lai.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Everyone Is Someone Else’s Nazi


Nancy Snow has a piece at titled “Truth and Arrogance,” which argues for letting Alberto Fernandez go—letting him go back to doing his job, that is, because as a U.S. official who is a) a fluent Arabic speaker, b) popular because of that fluency, and c) willing to concede that the U.S. might have made a few mistakes in Iraq, he is irreplaceable in his current job. Snow writes that Fernandez should be

given just a little more elbow room than usual to explain U.S. policy to a very skeptical public that is more likely to expect propaganda and spin than truth to come out of official Washington.

Luckily, Fernandez is firing-proof because the U.S. simply hasn’t cultivated many expert Arabic speakers lo these five years since 9/11.

One of Fernandez’s first jobs when he gets back on-air in the Middle East will be to explain why Vice President Dick Cheney has implicitly endorsed torture in an interview in North Dakota. Asked by radio talk-show host Scott Hennen whether a “dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives,” the vice president replies,

"Well, it's a no-brainer for me," Cheney said, "but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president for torture. We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in."

Asked about Cheney's comments this morning, President Bush said: "This country doesn't torture. We're not going to torture."

White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters this morning that Cheney was not referring to waterboarding in the radio interview.

"You know as a matter of common sense that the vice president of the United States is not going to be talking about water boarding. Never would, never does, never will," Snow said, according to the Reuters news agency. "You think Dick Cheney's going to slip up on something like this? No, come on."

Then what were Hennen and the vice president talking about? “Dunking.” It sounds harmless enough, and even reminds listeners of “dunk tank.” I certainly like it better than “waterboarding.” It gives torture a pleasant County Fair, cotton-candy-and-hot-dogs-for-the-kids feel.

Finally, Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert plays the Nazi card with Iran, comparing the Islamic Republic with Nazi Germany.

Israel has identified Iran as the greatest threat to the Jewish state. Israel's concerns have heightened since the election of Iran's hard-line president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who frequently calls for the destruction of Israel and has questioned whether the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews took place.

"We hear echoes of those very voices that started to spread across the world in the 1930s," Olmert said in his speech at the Yad Vashem [Holocaust] memorial.

Since the end of World War II, the mark of rhetorical bankruptcy has been to compare your opponent with Hitler. Olmert joins the ranks, most recently, of:

Syrian cabinet minister Bouthaina Shaaban, who compares Israel with a rising Nazi Germany;

Cartoonist Ted Rall and dozens of others who are quite, quite convinced that George W. Bush is Hitler; and

Israeli blogger Shimon Zachary Klein, who not only thinks Hamas is Nazi Germany, but sticks the dismount by comparing Mahmoud Abbas with Paul von Hindenburg!

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Beacon No. 99: A Reply from State


Karen Hughes' office has commented on yesterday's post, in which I noted some remarkable similarities between a talk she gave on October 19 and the work of Khaled Abou El Fadl. The following came in an e-mail from Rainy Young at State's Office of Regional Media Outreach:

The transcript shows that Undersecretary Hughes began by pointing out the story had been told to her, clearly alluding to other authorship at the outset. The context was informal and anecdotal and had she known the authorship would have been happy to have attributed it.

The story had been told to her—by someone who spoke in the exact words of the actual author on at least four separate occasions? And Ms. Hughes managed to transcribe these four passages practically verbatim?

Nothing an officer of the U.S. government does in public, particularly in front of her employees, at a State Department dinner, on the eighth floor of the State Department, is informal. And someone—Ms. Hughes or her speechwriter—knew her words came from someone else. The undersecretary had a responsibility to impart that information to her listeners.

Think of how much more effective Ms. Hughes’ talk would have been had she said, “I was just reading the work of Khaled Abou El Fadl, the UCLA law professor whose scholarship on Muslim jurisprudence is respected worldwide. He tells a story from the time of the prophet about a famous man who expressed a desire to seek knowledge ...” and continued as before.

This approach would have shown her as someone who does her homework and gives credit where it is due. It would have been more effective than the speech she actually did give.

Instead, the undersecretary tried to sound breezily familiar with figures from the time of the Prophet in order to compliment her absent supervisor.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Beacon No. 98: Undersecretary for Plagiarism?


It’s an example of good intentions gone awry.

On October 19, Karen Hughes spoke at the State Department’s annual iftaar, a dinner that, for observant Muslims, marks the breaking of each day’s fast during Ramadan. The undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs made some opening remarks, then began mentioning famous women from Islamic history. The State Department’s transcript of Ms. Hughes’ talk reads:

Recently I was told a story from the time of the prophet about a famous man who expressed a desire to seek knowledge. He was advised, this man, by another man to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day named Amara bin Al-Rahman. She was described as a boundless ocean of knowledge and she shared her knowledge with a number of famous men which kind of reminds me of our boss Dr. Condoleezza Rice when she shows up at a national security meeting and shares her boundless knowledge with all the men in the room. Amara was not an exception in Islamic history. There are many examples of extraordinary women, including jurists, poets and narrators of Hadith.

Unfortunately Undersecretary Hughes—or her speechwriter—also cut a bit close to plagiarizing the writing of a respected scholar of Islamic law.

Compare Hughes’ remarks at the State iftaar with “In Recognition of Women,” an essay by Khaled Abou El Fadl, a professor at UCLA School of Law, on Islam—the Modern Religion. Note the identical or near-identical passages, which I've boldfaced for emphasis:

When Imam Zuhri, a famous scholar of Sunna (Prophet Muhammad's traditions), indicated to Qasim ibn Muhammd (a scholar of the Qur'an), a desire to seek knowledge, Qasim advised him to join the assembly of a well-known woman jurist of the day, Amara bin Al-Rahman. Imam Zuhri attended her assembly and later described her as "a boundless ocean of knowledge." In fact, Amra instructed a number of famed scholars, such as Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Hazama, and Yahya ibn Said.

Amra was not an anomaly in Islamic history, for it abounds with famous women narrators of jurisprudence, starting with Aisha, the Prophet's wife. A conservative count would reveal at least 2,500 extraordinary women jurists, narrators of Hadith, and poets throughout history.

From reading the State Department transcript, it does not appear that Professor El Fadl was credited in this talk. The professor’s office at UCLA says that he has had no contact with Ms. Hughes about using his writing, that his scholarship and writing are original to him, and that he is "outraged" at the undersecretary's use of his words.

My repeated requests to the State Department for comment have so far gone unanswered. Perhaps State is busy dealing with a bigger fire: Alberto Fernandez’s remarks about U.S. "arrogance and stupidity" in Iraq and his subsequent apology.

I respect what Undersecretary Hughes is trying to do around the world which, in a setting like the iftaar, frequently means emphasizing how multicultural and multiconfessional the U.S. people and their government are. Getting this message out is a Sisyphean task, which gratuitous mistakes like those at the State Department iftaar only make more difficult.

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item, humorously headlined, "Condoleezza Rice likened to 7th Century female Muslim wise woman!")

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Take the Test


Jeff Stein had a grimly humorous op-ed in Tuesday’s Times. “Can You Tell a Sunni from a Shiite?” followed Stein around official Washington as he finished off several interviews by asking officials whether they knew the difference. Some did, but most greeted Stein’s query with a blank stare:

Take Representative Terry Everett, a seven-term Alabama Republican who is vice chairman of the House intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence.

“Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?” I asked him a few weeks ago.

Mr. Everett responded with a low chuckle. He thought for a moment: “One’s in one location, another’s in another location. No, to be honest with you, I don’t know. I thought it was differences in their religion, different families or something.”

To his credit, he asked me to explain the differences. I told him briefly about the schism that developed after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and how Iraq and Iran are majority Shiite nations while the rest of the Muslim world is mostly Sunni. “Now that you’ve explained it to me,” he replied, “what occurs to me is that it makes what we’re doing over there extremely difficult, not only in Iraq but that whole area.”

As Stein writes, Rep. Everett’s curiosity is commendable and refreshing; hopefully he brings those qualities to his job on the Hill every day as well. Still, I was feeling pretty superior to these poor Hill wonks who can’t be bothered to crack a book or get a briefing from the hundreds or thousands of authentic Middle East experts in the capital region.

So I took Stein’s test myself after having read the article, without looking at reference materials. Here’s what I know: The Sunni-Shi’a split developed after Muhammad’s death; the Shi’a accepted Hussein, who was Muhammad’s ... son-in-law? while Sunnis wanted to ... elect a new caliph? Have a hereditary succession?

I know that Shi’ite descendants of Muhammad are entitled to wear a black turban. The Shi’a have a persecution complex that centers on the martyrdom of Hussein. The Sunni have a superiority complex due superior numbers and control of Mecca.

The two sects pray differently, Sunnis with arms ... in front of them? and Shi’a with arms crossed over their chests—I think. But I couldn’t tell you for certain what the actual differences in philosophy between the two sects are, if any truly major differences even exist. My mind seems to focus on trivia such as turbans.

And this is from someone who has spent years studying Classical Arabic. It’s embarrassing.

How did you do?

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

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Symbolism: Not So Empty After All


Devoted actor versus rational actor models for understanding world conflict.”

It doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, but don’t be put off by the long title. Basically, anthropologist Scott Atran says that the “rational actor” model of decision-making, in which policy-makers are thought to take actions based on cost-benefit analyses, breaks down when discussing places that have become “holy”:

... When disputed issues are transformed into sacred values, as when land ceases to be a mere resource and becomes "holy" or when structures of brick and mortar become "sacred sites," then standard political and economic proposals for resolving conflicts don't suffice and can be counterproductive by raising levels of outrage and disgust. But even token symbolic concessions, such as an apology for a perceived wrong that touches a sacred value, can be more important than material trade-offs in making peace.

Almost all current approaches to resolving resource conflicts or countering political violence tend to assume that adversaries make rational choices. Such assumptions are prevalent in risk assessment and modeling by foreign aid and international development projects, and by U.S. diplomatic, military and intelligence services as well. Similarly, in economics, political science and psychology, most academic courses and journals analyze decision-making in terms of strict cost-benefit calculations regarding goals, and entail abandoning or adjusting goals if costs for realizing them are too high. ...

In place of the rational-actor model, Atran proposes, diplomats may need a language of highly public, symbolic gestures:

“Israel freeing some of our prisoners will help us to stop others from attacking it," the Hamas government spokesman, Ghazi Hamad, told me. "But Israel must apologize for our tragedy in 1948 before we can talk about negotiating over our right of return to historic Palestine." From the other side, Isaac Ben Israel, one of Israel's top military strategists, who currently heads his country's space program, drove home the point to me that "when we feel Hamas has recognized our right to exist as a Jewish state, then we can deal."

Material tradeoffs, like prisoner exchanges, are important. However, so are symbolic actions, perhaps even more so. In my discussions with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and other Hamas officials, they have stressed the importance of Israel's recognizing their suffering from the original loss of Palestinian land. And our survey research of Israeli settlers, Palestinian refugees and Hamas reliably finds that violent opposition to peace decreases if the adversary is seen to compromise its own moral position, even if that compromise has no material value, for example by simply recognizing another's right to exist as a moral entity or by apologizing. In rational-choice models of decision making, that something as intangible as an apology should stand in the way of peace doesn't compute."

Atran’s interaction with and analysis of Middle Eastern conflicts has broad implications for public diplomacy because most diplomacy—and most statecraft writ large—is underpinned by the idea that a combination of threats, negotiations and finally “sweetening the deal” are effective ways to bring an adversary to the table and then to agreement. This approach may actually be counterproductive, and I’d be interested to see more study of how symbolism could be used as a powerful tool in negotiations across the Middle East.

Unfortunately, symbolism in foreign affairs is something the Bush administration has sworn off. I can only hope that since Atran clearly has the National Security Council’s ear, his words may yet have some effect.

Monday, October 16, 2006

They Like Us! They Really Do!


American-made dramas appear to be playing well in Europe, judging from “As U.S. Is Reviled Abroad, American TV Charms” in today’s Times:

In the parliaments and pubs of Europe, the United States may wallow in least-favored-nation status. But on European television, American shows have been enjoying a popularity not seen since the 1980’s heyday of “Dallas,” “Dynasty” and “The Dukes of Hazzard.”

“What a difference,” said Gerhard Zeiler, chief executive of the RTL Group, the Luxembourg-based broadcaster that owns Five US and other channels across Europe. “Five or six years ago, you could barely find any U.S. series on the prime-time schedules of the market leaders. Now they are back, pretty much on all the major European commercial channels.”

RTL, which is owned by the German media conglomerate Bertelsmann, recently created an all-American Tuesday night lineup at its flagship channel in Germany, the biggest commercial broadcaster in that country. It starts with “CSI: Miami,” a spin-off of the “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” franchise, and continues with “House,” “Monk” and “Law & Order.”

A whole night of American drama, rather than the drama of Americans in Iraq. Excellent.

Apparently better television equals better ratings overseas—but also a better image of Americans as complex characters or, one level of abstraction up, as better creators of drama. Love those unintended consequences.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Some Days, Everything's an Insult to Islam


While I normally take MEMRI's posts with a grain of salt, this photo and the accompanying caption speak for themselves.

[Thanks to Metafilter.]

“Renewalists” Around the World


’Renewalist’ impact grows” encapsulates a new Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life study of “renewalist” Christianity, indicating a rapid spread of Pentecostal and charismatic denominations in 10 countries around the world. The study indicates that one-quarter of the world’s Christians are renewalists of one stripe or another, i.e. belonging to mainline Protestant denomination or the Catholic Church.

The study’s got some surprising findings, the most striking of which are a new politicization of Pentecostals:

... Renewalists believe in an active role for religion in political affairs. Pentecostals were long thought to avoid politics, but they are "anything but apolitical," [Pew Forum director Dr. Luis] Lugo says.

Large majorities in all countries but India and South Korea support active political involvement, and in all 10 countries, majorities say it's important that political leaders have strong religious beliefs. Still, there is widespread support for separation of church and state. Only in the U.S. (52 percent) and Nigeria (58 percent) did a majority of Pentecostals back making the country a Christian one.

Similarly, renewalist Christians give strong support to a free-market economy. Yet in all 10 countries polled, the report says, "majorities also agree that government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep."

At the same time, such Christians say that faith in God is very important to economic success. Some Pentecostal pastors have been criticized by other Christians for preaching a "prosperity gospel," encouraging the idea that God gives health and material prosperity to those with enough faith. The survey shows widespread support for this, though the belief in God's blessing of health is more common than that of financial success.

and a welcome embrace of women as pastors in nearly every country surveyed:

Renewalists do break with tradition when it comes to women in the clergy. Except for India, huge majorities of Pentecostals support female pastors, with charismatics not far behind.

"Still, there is a glass ceiling," says Dr. [Arlene] Sanchez Walsh [author of Latino Pentecostal Identity]. "Single women, particularly, almost never get to senior pastor."

However, as if more evidence were needed that religion is culturally driven, the Pew study finds sharp differences in beliefs about AIDS as divine retribution:

While in five countries polled, majorities did not see it as a punishment from God, renewalists in South Korea, Kenya, and Guatemala say it is God's punishment for immoral behavior.

Just as the world’s nations have been breaking up or dissolving into larger units, so are the world’s faiths atomizing into smaller and smaller, almost tribal, units. Personally, I’m nearer to the Sam Harris/Richard Dawkins end of the spectrum of belief, but from a policy standpoint the impact of millions of renewalists in thousands of churches has yet to be felt and will have to be addressed.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Beacon No. 97: Nukes in North Asia


Soft power rests on saying you’re going to do something, then doing it; “credibility” is a near-synonym. In politics, this means that strong words need to be backed up by strong actions.

How unfortunate for U.S. soft power that the Bush administration has used up its supply of strong words. The Kim regime in Pyongyang has now called the president’s bluff, revealing that the U.S. has no good hand—and never had one—in North Asia.

There is some question as to whether the Kilju blast was a nuclear fizzle, indicating Pyongyang hasn’t mastered nuclear technology, or a very large conventional explosion meant to mimic a small nuke. (No one dares contemplate that North Korea might have started its nuclear age with the kind of small, technically complex nuclear device that only the world’s top nuclear powers can produce.)

But it doesn’t matter whether the North Koreans have actually exploded a weak nuclear weapon or not. They say they have; the world can’t afford to ignore that, any more than Arab regimes can afford to ignore the implied Israeli nuclear capability; and the U.S. literally has way to back up word choices like “intolerable,” “unacceptable,” “will not tolerate” and most recently, “grave threat.”

Bomb North Korea’s nuclear installations? Pyongyang immediately hits Seoul with its in-place artillery batteries.

Tighten trade sanctions? On a starving, already-isolated country the Wall Street Journal likes to call the “hermit kingdom”?

UN Security Council condemnation? The UN and its resolutions aren't tall enough for this ride.

Kim has proven that it’s possible to thwart the international non-proliferation regime simply by calling the West’s bluff before the West has a chance to do the same.

What do you want to bet that Iran is digging a cavern somewhere in its outback, one just big enough to hold the estimated 550 tons of TNT that generated the Kilju blast? And that there's about to be a spot shortage of high explosive throughout Asia Minor?

If a big underground explosion is all it takes to get the international community off your back forever, you can bet that Tehran—which, after all, governs the area in which chess originated—will join the “nuclear” club real soon.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sturgeon’s Law Hits Iran


Spiegel Online has an entertaining story about Iranians’ cultural inability to take news at face value.

With satellite dishes confiscated and foreign broadcasts jammed, Iranians try to parse as many non-governmental sources as possible. Unfortunately, according to “Censorship, Scepticism and Conspiracy Theories,” they don’t trust the professionalized Western sources any more than they do the government:

"We are in a vicious circle. With these crackdowns, more Iranian intellectuals, journalists, scholars are taking refuge with outside-based media to express themselves," says Masha'allah Shamsolva'ezin, spokesman for the Iranian Association for the Defense of Journalists. "Then they're accused of collaboration with foreign media and arrested."

The Iranian public responds, in turn, by approaching news reports with scepticism. It is a mechanism Iranians are accustomed to. The traditional Iranian social custom of taarof is a ritualized manner of offering something without actually meaning it. It's typical, for example, for taxi drivers to initially refuse payment at the end of the ride, until the passenger insists on paying. Having been raised with this quotidian variety of double-speak, Iranians are used to not taking what they are told at face value.

They don't typically restrict their skepticism to the Iranian media, though. Most Iranians that tune-in to American-funded Voice of America and lower-budget LA talk shows are well aware that those broadcasts are aiming for regime change. "None of these channels are credible. They exaggerate and stretch the truth. No one would start a revolution on the basis of what they say," says [Tehran law professor Vasij] Naderi. Iranians watch these programs not because they trust the broadcasts, but rather because they're seeking a source to balance out the Iranian state media. "Even Ayatollah Khomeini used to listen to Voice of America and Radio Israel," points out Professor [Abbas] Milani [director of the Iranian Studies Program at Stanford].

This leads to a high level of creativity among Iranian media consumers:

With no consensus on what's to be trusted, many Iranians tend to formulate interpretations of world events that effectively oppose the official stories offered by their government and Western media outlets. But the private analyses of most Iranians come across as little more than idiosyncratic conspiracy theories in which American power plays an outsize role. Public power, in this view, is never to be trusted and intentions are never what they seem. "Iran already has 10 or 15 nuclear bombs," reports a taxi driver; "America wants perpetual war between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries," explains an accountant; "Ahmadinejad raises the price of yogurt only so he can get credit for lowering it later," reveals a hairdresser.

It would be heartening if Iranians thought Western sources were some shining beacon of journalistic professionalism which, relatively to regional media outlets, they are. Unfortunately, Iranians treat the mainstream media an awful lot like U.S. bloggers who, like the late Theodore Sturgeon, start by assuming that 90 percent of everything is shit.

Monday, October 02, 2006

The Tropical Forest Conservation What?


In “U.S. debt swap to preserve forestlands in Guatemala,” the much-lauded international monetary system starts to look a bit more like barter.

The U.S. and two environmental groups have agreed to forgive about 20 percent of Guatemala’s entire foreign debt if the Central American nation will spend $24.4 million to protect four of its premier natural preserves over the next 15 years.

From North America it looks like everyone wins. Guatemala gets debt relief and maybe a bump in its credit rating; stabilization of its resource base through better policing of illegal logging in the protected areas; and large, increasingly park-like areas that might attract foreign tourists.

For its part, the U.S. finally gets to look like a regional good guy for brokering a debt-forgiveness deal involving name-brand NGOs like Conservation International and the Nature Conservancy, plus an example of patient diplomacy paying off.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Dim Is Not Bright


Len Baldyga forwards “U.S. Pushes Anti-Castro TV, but Is Anyone Watching?” which documents stepped-up propaganda efforts by the U.S. since Castro’s illness was announced in July:

For the last two months, a twin-engine plane has beamed the signal of the American broadcast, called TV Martí, toward the island from over the Straits of Florida for four hours a day, six days a week, up from four hours of transmission from an Air Force plane on Saturdays. Because the plane flies at 20,000 feet, administration officials say, the Cuban government cannot jam the signal as easily as in the past, when a blimp tethered 10,000 feet over the Florida Keys did the transmitting.

Okay so far; Castro is ill; the U.S. has an interest in hastening his trip to the grave and an orderly transition. But as Abby Goodnough writes, the U.S. program is unusually ham-handed:

... [Radio and TV Martí], which have broad political support among Mr. Castro’s many opponents in southern Florida, hope to have legions of Cubans tune in to pro-democracy news and talk programs and others like BOLD “Office of the Chief,” a laugh-track comedy with Cuban exile actors playing dimwitted versions of Mr. Castro and his brother Raúl.

Cuban exiles in Miami do most of the writing and acting for TV Martí, which was moved here from Washington in 1996 after intense lobbying by exile leaders. On a recent episode of “Office of the Chief,” which TV Martí calls its most popular show, an actor playing Raúl Castro said he would mummify Fidel Castro when he died by wrapping him in the pages of a book by Karl Marx, then display him on Havana’s seaside boulevard.

The laugh track went wild.

For years, though, critics of the stations have called them overly blunt tools in what should be a nuanced campaign to promote democracy in Cuba.

“The really shrill, outrageous kind of stuff they broadcast has no credibility in Cuba,” said John Nichols, a communications professor at Pennsylvania State University who studies Radio and TV Martí.

No credibility because the brothers Castro are certifiably not dim, helming Cuba through four-plus decades of independence from the dominant power in the hemisphere, which is just a long swim away, and maintaining themselves domestically despite attempted coups and the withdrawal of most funding Cuba used to receive from the Soviet bloc. Dumb they’re not.

American propagandists could benefit by shunning the “dim” route and instead satirizing well-known aspects of Fidel Castro’s rule: his notorious long-windedness, his near-total reliance on a military wardrobe, the fact that the women in his life tend to flee to Spain or disguised as Spaniards, and even his decidedly non-Communist net worth.

And there are always vampire jokes to be made about Castro, because he simply will not die.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Comfortable with an Iranian Bomb


The ubiquitous Fareed Zakaria makes an interesting comparison in “What Iranians Least Expect.” He compares the prospect of an Iranian nuclear weapon with the dire predictions policymakers made about a Red Chinese bomb in the 1960s. The outcome of the PRC’s first bomb test in 1964 was quite different from what had been expected, Zakaria writes:

In 1964, many people argued for a pre-emptive strike against China. Wiser heads prevailed. But even President John F. Kennedy had worried that from the moment China went nuclear "it would dominate South East Asia." In fact, far from dominating it, China's bomb scared Southeast Asia into a closer association with the United States. Today, Chinese influence in the region is great and growing—but that's because of its economic heft, not its nukes. Iran is ruled by a failed regime that cannot modernize the country and is instead seeking a cheap path to influence. It didn't work for the communists in Russia or China and, if we keep our cool, it won't work for the mullahs in Tehran.

Earlier in the piece, Zakaria also notes that although Iran temporarily has the initiative in the Middle East—it has “outflanked” Arab regimes in their responses to wars in Palestine and Lebanon, and is riding high on about $55 billion in annual oil revenues—its neighbors will eventually adjust and move in concert to keep it from becoming a regional hegemon.

Although similarly hopeful arguments were made before the world wars about restraining Germany, the difference in the 21st century is that the U.S. exercises a veto over any overt expansion of a Middle Eastern power, supplementing its neighbors’ attempts to keep it in line.

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

Monday, September 25, 2006

Coke Actually Does Add Life


In an article published in Counterpunch, commentator Brian Cloughley has taken issue with the new Coke plant in Kabul, which I wrote about a week or so back. Cloughley says essentially that making Coke in a country with little safe drinking water is misguided:

Three quarters of Afghans drink filthy water--when they can get any water at all. So what's the international solution?

Coca Cola, of course. The great American export.

Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his 'Confessions' that "I recollected the thoughtless saying of a great princess, who, on being told that the country people had no bread, replied : 'Let them eat cake'."

On September 10 President Hamid Karzai opened a 25 million-dollar Coca-Cola bottling plant in Kabul.

The charity Christian Aid reported last week that "Most of the water has dried up in the provinces of Herat, Badghis and Ghor, and the wheat harvest is down by 90% to 100% in parts of Faryab province." But why worry? ---- Send for Coca Cola to use up even more water.

Never mind that Kabul isn’t near any of the provinces noted above, and that Herat is largely desert, while neighboring Badghis and Ghor are Afghanistan’s usual dry mountains. Never mind that Coca-Cola made in Kabul is hardly an “American export.”

The point of Coca-Cola being in Kabul is that someone in the country has the capacity to purify water in very large amounts, and this over time leads to more people being able to do the same. The people at Coke aren’t stupid; if they’re in Afghanistan it’s because a) Coke (and its local bottler) thinks there’s a market, and b) Coke can do business there, which means it can assure access to a water supply, electricity, glass bottles, trucks, pallets, gasoline and so on.

Coke’s need for these civilizational essentials creates infrastructure, and so Afghan civilians should eventually benefit from the Coke plant both directly (jobs) and indirectly (steadier supplies of the items needed to make Coke, which are the same items needed for at least 20th-century life).

As much as I’d like to share Counterpunch’s endlessly suspicious anti-corporate outlook, I believe that what’s good for Coke Afghanistan is eventually good for Afghans to the extent that it encourages other companies to invest in the country.

Where Cloughley and I probably agree, unfortunately, is that a distracted U.S. government hasn't done nearly enough to fulfill its promises to rebuild Afghanistan, leaving international corporations to perform the task piecemeal if at all.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Chinese, Jews and Catholics Playing Together Nicely


This corner of the Midwest is usually thought of as pretty white-bread, but two items came onto the radar this morning that belie that image:

Item one: I’d written previously about the PRC’s Confucius Institutes program, thinking it would be confined to the American coasts and not really touch the heartland. Wrong: A new Confucius Institute opens today here in Iowa City, with a charge to educate students at the University of Iowa as well as local primary and secondary schools about Chinese language and culture.

Item two: Cedar Rapids-based Muslim Youth Camps of America (MYCA) is clearing the last hurdles to opening a youth summer camp in North Liberty, about six miles from here, on Army Corps of Engineers land that formerly hosted a Girl Scouts camp. MYCA has applied for grants from the state and county governments to help run the camp, and no local officials seem to have anything bad to say about the idea. Of course, Web-based gringo nutballs have been busy drawing connections between the camp's backers and Islamic terrorists in classic "so you admit you were once in the same room as a murderer" style, but overall local reaction seems positive.

And as a supplemental note about tolerance, the annual football showdown between Iowa City’s two high schools—if you saw Friday Night Lights, you know how much these cross-town games mean—was moved up one night so as not to clash with Rosh Hashanah. The Iowa City area is very heavily Catholic and Protestant—you can have the local coffeehouses nearly to yourself during Sunday services—so this is also a welcome sign of heartland diversity.

Monday, September 18, 2006

China's Coming Entanglement

One more post before I leave town this week.

In "China Competes with West in Aid to Its Neighbors," Jane Perlez describes the mind-boggling breadth and generosity of the PRC's development loans to its neighbors:

STUNG TRENG, Cambodia — In the dense humidity of northern Cambodia, where canoes are the common mode of transportation, a foreman from a Chinese construction company directs local laborers to haul stones to the ramp of a nearly completed bridge.

Nearby, engineers from the China Shanghai Construction Group have sunk more than a dozen concrete pylons across a tributary of the mighty Mekong River, a technical feat that will help knit together a 1,200-mile route from the southern Chinese city of Kunming through Laos to the Cambodian port of Sihanoukville on the Gulf of Thailand.

This is the new face of China’s foreign aid to poor Asian countries: difficult construction in remote places that benefits the recipient, and China, too.

“It is the favor of our government to the Cambodian people,” said Ge Zhen, 26, one of the more than 50 engineers and 250 other Chinese workers on the four-year project.

Flush with nearly a trillion dollars in hard currency reserves and eager for stable friends in Southeast Asia, China is making big loans for big projects to countries that used to be the sole preserve of the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the United States and Japan.

China is doing good while doing well, of course, and most recipients can barely contain their enthusiasm for loans that are unencumbered by the West's environmental restrictions and steep consultants' fees. But there's speculation that China will build a deep-water port at Sihanoukville as a terminal for its Middle Eastern oil imports.

This isn't a bad thing in and of itself; but if China pays to build a port that's designed to receive a strategic mineral like oil, it's likely to think of that bit of Cambodia as China's port, with consequences for Cambodia's sovereignty that are much like those for Central American countries that hosted United Fruit operations during the 20th century.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Beacon Blackout

I'll be on the road from Monday, September 18 through Thursday, September 21.

Back then with more on the world of PD and soft power. ...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Your Target Audience: A Worst-Case Scenario


The good news is, the never-ending Somali civil war makes certain Somalis eligible for refugee status in the U.S.

The bad news is those refugees must be prepared for 21st-century life, and there’s only enough funding to spend three days on this preparation.

In “All About America in 3 Days,” Edmund Sanders describes a class designed to orient Somali refugees living in Kenya toward their soon-to-be-new home, the United States.

"What do you know about America?" [instructor Abdullahinur] Kassim asked at the beginning of a recent orientation class. Students yelled out their answers: It's a superpower. People are always in a hurry. Neighbors don't talk to each other. Dogs are treated like people. Gay people get married. All children go to school.

With only 15 hours of class, Kassim wasted no time, covering U.S. history in less than 90 seconds. George Washington was the first president. Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. Martin Luther King Jr. marched for civil rights. Time for the next subject.

Much of the curriculum is based on feedback from recent immigrants. For example, when new immigrants complained about being bewildered by the modern conveniences of a typical American home, IOM built a fully functioning kitchen and bathroom at the back of one classroom. Long flights to the U.S. were so traumatic that a video was added about airplanes, from lavatories to airsickness bags.

Whose hearts and minds could be harder to win than those of religious fundamentalists who understand and want to destroy America? People who don’t understand the U.S.—who the last couple of centuries have completely passed by—and who are more aware of the gay-marriage debate (U.S. culture) than they are of refrigeration (U.S. technology):

Staring at pictures of snow-covered roofs and hearing stories about waking up to find a frontyard covered in white, the Somalis (who'd rarely felt temperatures below 60 degrees) peppered the instructor with questions.

"How do I save my family from this … snow?" asked Hassan Mohammed Abrone, 41, a father of two who was already trying to embrace the American lifestyle by wearing a Statue of Liberty baseball cap and a pair of secondhand Nike Airs.

After hearing a description of coats, scarves, gloves and long underwear, another student, Lelya Yussuf, 23, asked: "How can we walk while wearing all that? Isn't it too heavy?" In an effort to explain snow to people who have never seen it, the instructor asked students to imagine how it would feel to live inside a refrigerator. But the analogy fell flat for some, because they'd never heard of such an appliance.

Consider Sanders’ article the latest entry into the “if only they understood us, they’d like us” debate. U.S. public diplomats may need to “make” people understand a great deal more than they suspect.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Red Flag over Kabul


A new, highly secure Coca-Cola plant has opened in Kabul, says an Associated Press report on

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- A sniper on the gleaming Coca-Cola factory's roof peers through his gun sight over Kabul's bullet-pocked suburbs, searching for any hint of a terrorist threat.

In a parking lot festooned with red Coke flags, an American dog handler barks commands at journalists being frisked by Afghan security agents.

In strife-ridden Afghanistan, this is how even the most positive of events -- like Sunday's opening of a new $25 million Coca-Cola production plant -- are handled. Even more so when pro-U.S. Afghan President Hamid Karzai attends.

But according to Karzai, more business openings and investments of this kind will lead to a downturn in Afghanistan's violence, which has reached its deadliest proportions since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden.

"This is another step forward for economic growth, self-sufficiency and better living standards for Afghanistan," Karzai said in a speech inside the plant, where 350 people had new jobs.

The old Coke plant was destroyed, along with most of the rest of Kabul, during the mid-1990s civil war. Thank Habibullah Gulzar, an Afghan expatriate who’s made good in Dubai, for funding the new plant, which can produce some mind-boggling number of cases of fizzy sugar water each year.

However, the CNN story quotes one Afghan who thinks the Coke plant is a sign of misplaced priorities:

Across town, Jomaa Gul saw things differently. The unemployed 34-year-old lives in the ruins of what was once the administration block of Coca Cola's last production plant in Kabul.

Gul's father worked at the 40-year-old plant before it was ravaged by artillery fire. ... The younger Gul's family and four others moved into the bombed-out building because they had no other place to go.

Afghanistan needs new hospitals and an end to violence, not investment for soft drinks, Gul said.

"But now we have no running water, no electricity and no sanitation," Gul said as he kicked a dust-covered glass Coca-Cola bottle through a patch of weeds in the loading bay where trucks once took the soft drink away. "Hospitals and security are more worthy investments for $25 million than a soft drink plant."

I’d like to agree with Gul—who wouldn’t rather see the problems he mentions addressed today, and who wouldn’t like to see tool-and-die makers rather than soft-drink bottlers?—but then, the U.S. had practically no public hospitals until a tax base existed to support them. Hopefully the Coke plant survives the inevitable attacks long enough to prove Kabul is safe for large-scale business (snipers and bomb-sniffing dogs notwithstanding) and heralds an increase in local tax collection and employment.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pakistan’s Taliban Deal Harms Its Soft Power


This is another of those moments when it’s easy to lose your composure.

Pakistan has signed a deal with pro-Taliban militants to withdraw its forces from North Waziristan, a region bordering Afghanistan notorious for harboring such Taliban “guests.” In exchange, the militants promise not to harbor foreign militants, although those still there—UBL, please call your answering service—reportedly may stay.

(The Christian Science Monitor’s analysis of the deal includes links to lots of relevant stories in other publications.)

Pakistan’s soft power in the West was already near zero. Although the UK government was quick to credit the Musharraf regime with helping to break the latest plot to blow up aircraft as a ticket to Paradise, the British suspects are, by and large, the kids of Pakistani immigrants. Pakistan’s ISI intelligence agency is thought to work hand in glove with Taliban remnants throughout northern Pakistan. And Pakistan is noted for absurd chest-thumping about its meager atomic capability—although it’s conspicuously quiet about having sold nuclear and missile technologies to other, non-nuclear countries.

To paraphrase what policymakers used to say about the U.S. defending apartheid and various dictators, Yes, the dictator is an asshole—but at least he’s our asshole. Musharraf has been the only guy the U.S. can turn to in a region filled with ex-Soviet personality cults and unfriendly Shi’a regimes. I wouldn’t look for a very robust condemnation of the truce from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.—but I wouldn’t look for Musharraf to take any quiet Rose Garden walks with the President before November, either.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Ugly Betty Heads North


Telenovelas are big news around the world, particularly those originating in soap opera-obsessed Latin America. The telenovela Yo Soy Betty La Fea has been such a hit in Colombia that something like 70 countries’ TV producers have adapted its plotline—a plain-looking woman navigates intrigues in a high-powered fashion house—for their own audiences.

There have been Betty knock-offs in India, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain, Russia, Israel and Germany—and now Hollywood’s finally in the soap-opera game with Ugly Betty, where America Ferrera plays Betty Suarez, secretary of (and ally to) a fashion-magazine chief.

Along with Desire, Betty is the first in an anticipated wave of American-made telenovelas—or is it? NPR’s Morning Edition raised the issues of telenovelas’ production costs and network skittishness about moving from weekly broadcasts to dailies, and according to the Ugly Betty Wikipedia entry, standard hour-long weekly broadcasts are what viewers will see this fall. ABC only ordered 13 episodes of Ugly Betty, where the telenovela standard is 180 (which fits nicely as daily broadcasts for half a year.)

Given the competition from other forms of media, it’s no wonder ABC is giving the loyalty-rich telenovela form a go, particularly as it watches the U.S. Latin American population grow in size and wealth. It’s also smart to let Ferrara’s character keep a Latin surname—but to capture the telenovela magic, ABC may just have to swallow hard next season and write a check to produce half a year’s worth of episodes at once.

Friday, September 01, 2006

Greece Beats U.S. in Basketball Semis, 101-95


European champions Greece knocked the U.S. out of the FIBA world basketball championships, 101-95, and I’m feeling just a pinch of schadenfreude.

Despite recent American attempts to play a team-oriented game internationally rather than the me-first NBA game, the Greeks play “team” lots better and beat the U.S. using much greater efficiency, making 63 percent of their shots as opposed to 50 percent for the U.S.

I’m feeling a bit of happiness at the U.S. defeat for two reasons:

a) Europe is now basketball’s adoptive home, with teams and a level of play that surpass the NBA. The LA Times article noted above mentions that not a single player on the Greek team is in the NBA.

b) It was a clean victory that can’t be Photoshopped.

Let me explain this last remark. I was in Greece during the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when Marion Jones won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash. Greece’s Ekaterini Thanou won the silver medal by coming in nearly a half-second behind, which is an eternity in a short sprint, but on TV the gap looked extremely narrow.

The race’s finish was drummed into my head because Greek television replayed the race in every bar, restaurant and hotel lobby on the Peloponnesus, along with the gold-medal performance of weightlifter Pyrros Dimas. The entire country was ecstatic; few had imagined that the country’s sprinter would do so well against the legendary Jones, and Dimas’ weightlifting gold was his third, cementing his place as a national hero.

Fast-forward to getting off the plane at JFK in New York and buying Sports Illustrated, which had Photoshopped a shot of the Jones-Thanou finish to elongate the gap between them, making it look like Thanou et al. were back at the starting blocks tying their shoes or sipping coffee or something.

It was aggravating; there was nothing to be gained by exaggerating Jones’ victory in hindsight.

Fast-forward to today.If the U.S. had beaten Greece, the mostly ignored FIBA tournament in Japan would have become proof positive that American basketball was on the rebound from its recent international failures. But it didn’t—and I’m pleased because Sports Illustrated won’t bother to Photoshop an American defeat, but will probably just tell the story the way it actually happened.
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