Monday, February 27, 2006

Jailed, Awkwardly


So David Irving has gotten three years in an Austrian jail for denying the Holocaust. With Turkey required to do backflips to align its legal code with the European Union’s prior to being considered for EU admission, isn’t it time to consider drumming Austria out for straying so far from European norms on free speech?

I expect Jyllands-Posten and official Iranian news agency IRNA to join forces for an aggressive campaign in Irving’s defense—for very different reasons.

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

Friday, February 24, 2006

“Unreal Tournament” Goes to War


DARPA has apparently funded a peaceful use for Unreal Tournament, an exceptionally violent first-person shooter video game that I’ve enjoyed for years. The research agency has harnessed UT’s game engine, which dictates player movement and game physics, for Tactical Iraqi, a program that teaches culturally appropriate body language and a bit of Arabic to U.S. troops in Mesopotamia; see the BBC article here. It sounds like the UT-based tool will be a big help for soldiers in connecting with Iraqi civilians:

The program teaches military personnel some key gestures such as an up-down movement with the right hand to ask someone to slow down and gives them tips such as removing mirror sunglasses when approaching local people.

"In Iraq, to show sincerity you have to put more effort into your gestures," said [USC researcher Dr. Hannes] Vilhjalmsson.

"In Western countries, we control our body language more. In Arabic culture, it is important you show how open you are."

He added that reserved body language in exchanges with local people could be interpreted as having something to hide in Iraq, potentially escalating a tense situation.

Military personnel also learn that people can approach each other more closely than one normally might in the West.

Dr Vilhjalmsson said it was important troops should not automatically interpret close proximity in an exchange as a threat.

And the game teaches them that pointing the finger at a person can be considered aggressive in Arab cultures.

There are also Afghanistan-specific and Levant-specific versions of Tactical Iraqi in development, turning more virtual swords into actual plowshares.

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

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Beacon No. 79: Guatemala, “Soul of the Earth”


Al Ries at Advertising Age disparages Guatemala’s new branding effort in “Why Guatemala’s New Tourism Slogan Doesn’t Work—and Why the Country Should Think Bigger and Change Its Name.”

A global branding consultancy did some focus groups—always the quickest path to creative results—and came up with the following:

According to the consultants, “Extensive focus groups were carried out to understand the perspective of a broad range of Guatemalans, including the business, artistic, literary, hospitality and indigenous communities.”

“Working from the values of Mysticism, Intimacy, Diversity, Evolution, and Authenticity,” states the consultancy, “we defined a distinctive and credible brand essence.”

Guatemala’s new brand essence: “Soul of the Earth.”

Luckily the focus groups are Guatemalans commenting on Guatemala; but you still can’t help but feel that the focus groups’ responses were processed during a weekend at Harbin Hot Springs or some other excessively crunchy venue. It’s one way to explain how “mysticism” became a Guatemalan value.

Guatemala apparently can be reduced to a four-word sound bite, at least for the purpose of tourism marketing, because it is small, relatively unknown, and its Mayan history—the only history any sane Guatemalan would promote abroad, given the country’s vicious, decades-long civil war—is safely in the past. Ries goes so far as to suggest that the whole country should just change its name to “Guatemaya” to secure the we’re-the-real-Mayans space permanently.

It’s nearly impossible to perform the same exercise for a country of the size and complexity of the United States. Different countries relate to it in so many ways that it may be impossible to find a consistent, pithy branding message. In addition, the U.S. is so big that individual cities have internationally recognized brands (New York for finance and the very idea of “city”; San Francisco for sexual politics; Miami as Latin America’s de facto capital).

President Bush tries mightily to present the U.S. as the vanguard of political and economic freedom, which he might summarize as “Democracy and free markets are our business”; but many other entities broadcast messages abroad that intersect and occasionally jam those coming from Pennsylvania Avenue: Hollywood and Madison Avenue, Guantanamo Bay and Ellis Island, Steven Spielberg and Noam Chomsky, Coke and Chevron.

Rather than a focus group, I think it takes a president to distill for the world the essence of what the United States’ brand is. Last week I visited the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights at the National Archives in Washington, and discovered beside them a passage from a draft of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, written in the depths of the Cold War. The two typewritten pages, annotated by Kennedy himself, begin about here:

Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce.

and end at the speech’s end:

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.

My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

Finally, whether you are citizens of America or citizens of the world, ask of us the same high standards of strength and sacrifice which we ask of you. With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.

A reader knows, just from scanning these lines, that Kennedy aimed to establish a brand essence for himself and the U.S. that might be summarized as “Forward in hope and strength.” His message was both aspirational and demanding; was vigorous without being menacing; was inviting without pandering.

What a wonderful thought that the current president, or a successor, might give a speech that distills the essence of his intentions and inspires many more than the Americans who elected him to agree and act accordingly. It keeps me reading the papers each morning.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Out for a Bit

I'll be—gasp!—offline until the middle of next week.

Meanwhile, try to grasp the logic of the Russian officials in this Times story, "Russia Closes Paper That Published Cartoon." Here's the lede:

MOSCOW, Feb. 17 — In a controversy with echoes of the Islamic anger over Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad, the authorities in a central Russian city today ordered the closing of a newspaper that published a cartoon showing Muhammad along with Jesus, Moses and Buddha.

The cartoon, published on Feb. 9 in the official city newspaper in Volgograd, prompted some criticism and a federal criminal investigation but no public outrage. That may be, in large part, because it depicted the figures respectfully, renouncing violence, though Islamic teachings forbid any depiction of Muhammad.

"Well, we did not teach them that," Moses says in a caption as the four watch a television set showing two groups confronting each other with banners and clubs and hurling stones. The cartoon appeared on Page 5, accompanying an article on an agreement signed by regional political parties and organizations to combat nationalism, xenophobia and religious conflicts.

Narrow Narratives from Rumsfeld, Kennedy and Al-Qa'ida


Secretary Rumsfeld spoke today at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (transcript here) following his recent trip to North Africa. Titled “New Realities in the Media Age,” Rumsfeld told the audience that the U.S. lags dangerously behind Al-Qa’ida and other Islamist opponents in the media war:

Modernization is crucial to winning the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide who are bombarded with negative images of the West, Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Pentagon chief said today's weapons of war included e-mail, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras and Web logs, or blogs.

"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but ... our country has not adapted," Rumsfeld said.

"For the most part, the U.S. government still functions as a 'five and dime' store in an eBay world," Rumsfeld said, referring to old-fashioned U.S. retail stores and the online auction house, respectively.

Rumsfeld said U.S. military public affairs officers must learn to anticipate news and respond faster, and good public affairs officers should be rewarded with promotions.

The military's information offices still operate mostly eight hours a day, five or six days a week while the challenges they faces occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Rumsfeld called that a "dangerous deficiency."

Senator Kennedy’s response was highly predictable: complain about Bush administration policies, a tactic he has been using a lot lately:

"Clearly, we need to improve our public diplomacy and information age communication in the Muslim world," Kennedy said in a statement. "But nothing has done more to encourage increased Al Qaeda recruitment and made America less safe than the war in Iraq and the incompetent way it's been managed. Our greatest failure is our policy."

Rumsfeld and Kennedy are both bright, driven men of vast experience, so it’s difficult to watch the Secretary’s desire to shape the global media battlespace solely through improved technology and public relations, and equally uncomfortable to witness the Senator’s reflexive criticism of U.S. policy and apparent lack of alternatives.

If Al-Qa’ida and its allies have any particular savvy in the media battlespace, it derives from self-knowledge—knowing which cultural buttons to push to influence Muslims. Everything comes back to humiliation by Zionist Crusaders and the upcoming, divinely ordained turning of those tables. It’s a limited narrative but Al-Qa’ida & Co. are remarkably consistent about viewing news events through this lens.

Most Muslims do not have access to the electronic gadgetry Secretary Rumsfeld lists; I’d be surprised if most had made a phone call, let alone surfed the Web using a BlackBerry.

Perhaps the question the Secretary should ask is: How can we strike a chord that affects all Muslims, not just the small percentage who have access to 21st-century technology? The answer may be some blend of Kennedy’s unspecified policy changes and Rumsfeld’s “rapidly deployable military communications teams, that are organized and focused on specific geographic areas of the world.” But it’s certainly not one or the other.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Beacon No. 78: Think Decades, Not Days


I’ve been pessimistic about soft power and public diplomacy lately.

I shouldn’t be, considering how much is going right today: the appointment of the energetic Karen Hughes as America’s top-ranking public diplomat, Condoleezza Rice’s determination to be at least as capable abroad as her predecessor (and with greater effect), President Bush’s increases in funding for language and cultural programs, and the efforts of private groups like Keith Reinhard’s Business for Diplomatic Action.

But public diplomacy, which has been a focus of American government policy since 9/11, appears to be showing few results in the face of the Muhammad-cartoon controversy, the French banlieue riots, Pakistani KFC-torchings, and other events. I hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that soft power/PD won’t produce results for the U.S. in time to avert a Western-Muslim clash of civilizations that’s starting to boil.

Until this morning, that is.

I was walking around, trying to clarify my thinking, and seeking a metaphor for the whole business of soft power/PD that would illustrate what sorts of results we should expect from it. And suddenly I realized that the business of soft power/PD is a lot like asteroid deflection.

Some background: Many comets and asteroids have elliptical orbits that occasionally cross Earth’s orbit. When they do, impacts range from minor to the end of civilization or even life on earth. NASA and its counterparts worldwide are trying to track the orbits of every sizeable object that could collide with the earth (a 320-meter object may do so on April 13, 2036), and studies are also under way to determine how to deflect these objects.

The most obvious strategy is to fire a nuclear-tipped warhead or warheads at the threatening asteroid to either knock it off course or blow it into smaller, less harmful pieces. The drawback is that most of those pieces are still on a collision course with earth, only now they’ll hit it at different times and places—think of a pearl necklace strung across a globe. Lots of little impacts that still add up to a crippling amount of shock and debris.

Think of this option as “hard power”: a direct approach that is incomplete and usually has unintended side effects (“blowback”).

Back to astronomy: Luckily, there are many ways to deflect an asteroid without destroying it. Key to all of these is detecting and reaching it soon enough, while it’s still billions of miles and decades away. This gives you time to assess the threat, develop the technology to deal with it, and deliver the solution to the target.

Given adequate time, you could install a propulsion device on the asteroid to gently nudge it out of the way; attach a solar sail to it so that the outbound solar wind performs a similar function; or hover a massive spacecraft over the asteroid and let their mutual gravitational attraction do the deflection. (The “hovering” method seems far-fetched but would work no matter how delicate or rapidly spinning an asteroid or comet might be.)

A little intervention in the outer solar system snowballs over time into a major deflection of the asteroid’s trajectory, all with little risk to earth. And if early intervention doesn’t work, you’ve still got nukes on rockets as a stopgap measure.

The point about deflection is that it takes time. Let’s say you attach a propulsion device to a 10-kilometer-wide asteroid and turn it on. To the naked eye, nothing happens. The asteroid doesn’t suddenly swoop and dive around the solar system like a jet fighter over Nevada. The engine is so tiny and the asteroid so massive that an observer might question whether there’s any effect at all.

But astronomers would notice the effects over time, and the earth would be safe.

The goals of asteroid deflection and soft power/PD are the same: Make timely moves to prevent the destruction of civilization—our civilization, Muslim civilization, everyone’s civilization—by a cataclysm.

Like deflection, public diplomacy is not meant to show immediate results. With the technology and tools we have right now, it would not show results for years. And like deflection, soft power and public diplomacy also require foresight, patience, faith in the tools you have or develop, and a good back-up plan in case a long-term threat mutates into a short-term crisis.

Despite the best-laid plans, you’re going to get hit sometimes; but with sufficient foresight and advance planning, you can make sure that the hits are few, small, and far between.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

American Heavies in Anatolia


If You Want a Film to Fly, Make Americans the Heavies” is a depressing look at a movie that’s breaking box-office records in Turkey:

ISTANBUL, Feb. 13 — The crowd cheered, clapped and whistled as the Turkish agent plunged the knife into the chest of the enemy commander.

"Valley of the Wolves — Iraq," which opened last week in movie theaters in Turkey, Austria and Germany, is a Rambo-like action story involving Turkish gunmen who seek revenge against a tyrannical occupying army.

In this version, however, at $10 million the most expensive movie ever made in Turkey, the enemy is no oppressive third-world dictatorship. The commander's name is Sam — as in uncle — and the opposing forces are the Americans, who are being punished for offenses against Turkish as well as Iraqi pride and honor.

The commander, Sam William Marshall, played by an American actor, Billy Zane, is a sociopath, killing people without a second's thought and claiming that he is doing God's will. While fictional, some of the movie is based in part on real events, and many of the scenes elicit knowing looks from the audience. The opening sequence portrays an incident that made headlines here in 2003, when a group of Turkish special forces soldiers in Iraq were taken into custody by American marines. The Turks, mistaken for insurgents, were handcuffed and held with hoods over their heads, which rankled many Turks.

Other scenes show ruthless marines killing Iraqis and soldiers mistreating inmates at Abu Ghraib prison, as well as an American Jewish surgeon, played by Gary Busey, who takes what look like kidneys from inmates during surgery to New York, London and Israel — all, according to the screenwriter, Bahadir Ozdener, inspired by real events.

I suppose I should see this movie the way one Turk quoted in the article does: as a blip on otherwise solid U.S.-Turkish relations. I should also remember that U.S. portraits of Turkey can also be narrowly drawn—ever seen Midnight Express, also “inspired” by real events?

But still: Turkey, nation of Ataturk, home of the last true Islamic caliphate, a country with millions of son and daughters living in Europe, vying for entry to the European Union, whose heroic Korean War veterans changed national politics with the new perspectives they brought home. ... and conspiracy theories about “Jewish” medical experiments.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Wild Horses Couldn't Drag Al-Hurra Away


Al-Hurra has redesigned its Arabic-language Web site and as Abu Aardvark notes, the choice of stories is what you might expect from Washington-based staffers, rather than what an Arab might want to read. (Secretary Rumsfeld's tour of North Africa would otherwise be unlikely to make the list.)

But I'm more interested in the visuals: Why did the powers that be at Al-Hurra choose a thundering herd of wild horses as the marquee image for the home page?

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Enemy That Never Left


Michael Slackman writes today that many Iranians, rather than seeing Israel as the one pulling American foreign-policy strings, see the British as the shadowy puppetmasters of U.S. foreign policy. What a refreshing change!

It all fits, of course: The U.S. was also a British colony. Perhaps U.S. diplomats should emphasize this point of solidarity in the next encounter with their Persian counterparts at the UN.

Arabic’s for Kids!


Nora Boustany writes in today’s ITAL Post that, whatever the proposed 2007 federal budget’s other priorities, it at least includes a quarter-million dollars to teach kids Arabic language and culture:

Since 1961, the Concordia Language Villages program, a kind of summer camp in Minnesota for young people, has offered immersion programs in 13 languages and cultures. The villages, set up on 900 acres around Turtle River Lake, give students a chance to learn Chinese, Danish, English, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Russian, Spanish and Swedish.

Now the program is adding another village: Al-Waha, the Oasis, to teach Arabic, thanks to $250,000 in the proposed federal budget for the fiscal year ending in October 2007.

During two-week immersion sessions, students will study Arabic and participate in a variety of educational and cultural activities common in Arabic-speaking cultures. The sessions involve native speakers, visa stamps in mock passports, custom control hassles, currency exchange and authentic cuisine -- no overseas travel required.

It’s tempting to make fun of this type of living-abroad-at-home program—girls’ rights might be limited for two weeks but every child would be exposed to superb coffee and poetry—but it sounds like the Concordia program is ripe for replication around the country, and not just for two weeks a year.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

My Enemy's Enemy

The U.S. is learning how to play the Middle Eastern game—barter—in a hurry, according to "U.S., Iraqi Officials Woo Sunnis" in today's Los Angeles Times:

BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iraqi officials have begun bartering prisoners, aid and key positions in the army and police for the allegiance of Sunni insurgents, in an effort to lure them away from foreign Al Qaeda fighters in Iraq's most restive province.

The latest attempt to capitalize on recent clashes between insurgents and foreign fighters brought together eight major tribal sheiks from Al Anbar province with the top U.S. military official in Iraq, Army Gen. George W. Casey; Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari and high-ranking members of Iraq's security and intelligence agencies.

The five-hour meeting Tuesday was the highest-level, most detailed parley with Iraq's largest Sunni Muslim Arab tribes since the wedge tactic was adopted late last year.

It took place as the nation's divided ethnic and religious groups jockeyed for positions in a Shiite Muslim-dominated government.

"We are engaged with leaders, including tribal leaders and others, to encourage them to suspend their military operations with the aim of ending the insurgency and working together with us against the terrorists," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview Wednesday.

This process is just tricky as hell; the insurgents are undoubtedly covering their bets by maintaining back-door relations with al-Qa'ida against the infidels, but they're in a much stronger position numerically than the foreign fighters lodged in Iraq. These numbers and the home-field advantage (terrain, contacts, dialect) are what will tell in this intra-insurgent battle, not the apparently unlimited funding the foreign fighters receive from abroad. The U.S. leadership is wise to realize this fact and make use of it.

The (Central) American Dream


In “Finding American Dream, in El Salvador,” Héctor Tobar describes the psychological dislocation under way in El Salvador as it’s forced to import citizens of neighboring countries to work in its fields:

ACACOYO, El Salvador — The 170 laborers ensconced at the Hacienda San Clemente here consider themselves the champion sugar cane cutting team of El Salvador.

They work seven days a week. The youngest and strongest of them can cut 12 tons of cane stalks in one shift.

"One day, I'm going to tell my children what we did here," Adrian Sanchez Corrales, 53, said proudly.

Salvadorans take pride in calling themselves the hardest-working people in Central America. But Sanchez Corrales and his team aren't from El Salvador; they're migrants from Honduras.

Thousands of Salvadorans have immigrated to the United States, legally and illegally, sparking a labor shortage in their homeland. In addition to the sheer number of workers lost, the dollars those immigrants send home discourage those who remain behind from performing low-paying, backbreaking labor like that of the sugar cane harvest.

The Hondurans at the Hacienda San Clemente are more than eager to fill the labor gap.

Approximately one in nine people born in El Salvador can be expected to move to the United States. This absence of young labor, and the resulting need for Hondurans and Nicaraguans, is causing some denial and a burgeoning identity crisis in El Salvador, which has traditionally viewed itself as the hardest-working country in the Americas:

There is some concern here that Salvadorans are losing their industrious self-image, a vision celebrated by poets such as Roque Dalton, whose "Love Poem" recounted the exploits of Salvadoran laborers up and down the Americas.

In November, Interior Minister Rene Figueroa issued a plea for Salvadorans to work the harvests.

"Today some sectors are telling us that they have enough with their family remittances," he told a Salvadoran newspaper. "It's not possible that we are abandoning our own fields and that we have to bring in labor from abroad."

El Salvador is becoming an economic, and unavoidably a cultural, magnet for Central America. I wonder whether El Salvadoran emigration is generating a cascade of labor shortages in Nicaragua and Honduras, which are also largely agrarian, as those countries’ laborers find better compensation elsewhere. Many Central Americans will ultimately decide to stay in El Salvador, just as many Salvadorans settled elsewhere during the Salvadoran civil war. This may increase the ties among these usually fractious nations and over the long run change their political focus, perhaps even breathing new life into regional economic and political agreements such as CAFTA and the Organization of American States.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Our Man in Medan


Past and present diplomats and USIA officials lament that the U.S. doesn’t present a more open, friendly face to the world, and that U.S. diplomats hole up in embassy compounds that are invariably described as “fortress-like.” I have never understood this, given the United States’ experience with low-security or unfortified outposts in countries with weak or absent central governments: hostage diplomats (Tehran ’79), dead marines (Beirut ’82), and dead Africans and American officials (Dar es Salaam, Nairobi ’98).

Even I was encouraged, though, by last week’s “Hi! My Name’s Paul. I’ll Be Your U.S. Diplomat Today.” In it, Jane Perlez does for the front-line diplomat what Robert Kaplan is doing for the special forces with Imperial Grunts: The American Military on the Ground. She shows a model for a more distributed form of American diplomacy that values interaction with the host country—including people the U.S. government would rather ignore—above all:

Here in Medan, [Indonesia,] a boisterous metropolis of more than two million, [American consul Paul S.] Berg, 52, covers a province that bursts with oil, natural gas, timber and palm oil, and is home to rare tigers, rhinoceroses and orangutans as well as 45 million people. His modest Dutch colonial-style house is both home and office, where jazz on the CD player adds to the informal ambience, and meetings with visitors are often held at the dining room table. A Vietnamese cook, known simply as Mr. Hoa, whom Mr. Berg met during his posting in Hanoi, eases social occasions with a continuous stream of fragrant food.

Mr. Berg's job is not unlike that of any other American diplomat. He tries to make friends for the United States in a vital corner of Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, and seeks to protect American commercial and strategic interests. In these environs, those include the operations of three major American energy companies: Exxon Mobil, Chevron and ConocoPhillips. He also keeps an eye on the $400 million that the United States is contributing for the rebuilding of Aceh, which was hit so hard by the tsunami 13 months ago.

Mr. Berg was on the front lines when the tsunami struck; for a while, he was the front line. Medan is two and a half hours by road to the border of Aceh and a one-hour flight to Banda Aceh, its capital, where most of the victims died. For the first week of the disaster, when the central government was reluctant to allow foreign aid into Aceh directly, Mr. Berg worked with the more amenable local governor to route aid through Medan.

America's image in Indonesia has taken a battering from what many here regard as a heavy hand in the antiterrorism effort. Indonesians, who used to find it easy to get visas to the United States, now find it difficult, sometimes impossible.

Mr. Berg's post does not issue visas, but he tries to make sure, he said, that those who deserve visas get them. He has gone out of his way to favor members of the Justice Party for Prosperity, an increasingly popular political party with a strict interpretation of Islam and a no-nonsense approach to corruption, for State Department-sponsored visits to the United States. It was essential, he said, for America to know Indonesia's future leaders, and for them to understand America, even when the two sides may disagree.

This new diplomatic vision has lost some luster since “Hi! My Name’s Paul ...” ran in the Times last week, what with the Muslim world boiling at Scandinavia and now Europe generally over a cartoon depicting Muhammad. Mr. Berg’s efforts are a credit to himself and the State Department and a boon to U.S. interests in Indonesia, but I can’t help but worry about this diplomat in a way that I don’t about those in countries where protests stop with banners, placards and slogans, rather than firebombs that could easily destroy a modest, Dutch colonial-style house.

Postscript: This morning I read that an Iranian newspaper wants to have a contest for the best Holocaust cartoon. Let it. It should also have a contest for the most disparaging cartoons about Jesus, Buddha and any other sacred cows it can find. The satirists will find, to their dismay, that not so much as a rock will sail toward their embassies in any Western country.
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