Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Numb to Haditha


Perhaps I am overestimating how much affect the Haditha killings will have, at least on Iraqi public opinion. In “Baghdad Numb to Reports of Massacre,” Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki describe the Iraqi capital’s lack of reaction to the news:

Tens of thousands of Iraqis have died in violence since the U.S. invasion in 2003, many from insurgent bombs and execution-like killings in the intensifying sectarian violence, making TV broadcasts most days a montage of sprawled corpses and weeping families. A fraction of the deaths are caused directly by U.S. fire.

"We have a Haditha every day. We have a Fallujah and Karbala every day,'' said Muhanned Jasim, a local merchant, citing two of the many landmarks for civilian death in the war, the 2004 U.S. offensive in Fallujah and insurgent bombings in the Shiite Muslim holy city of Karbala.

An antiques seller in central Baghdad, Jasim hadn't heard the news of Haditha, he said, because he no longer has electricity to power his television.

"We live in darkness,'' he said, fanning his face as the sweat rolled down. "What's the big news about Iraqis getting killed? We're powerless to change the situation."

It’s possible that, unless the Haditha killings are hung on someone higher-ranking than a sergeant and his men, the whole episode may not leave much of an impression on the Iraqi consciousness. It remains to be seen how the jihadis exploit this gift from the Americans in their propaganda.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Killings in Haditha


The alleged unprovoked killings of Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in Haditha, and any subsequent cover-up, are bad news for U.S. public diplomacy. Once again, context matters: The sergeant who allegedly countenanced and/or participated in the killings may be a low man on the Marine Corps totem pole when on base—just one of thousands of NCOs. But in the field, his power to confirm jihadi propaganda images of Americans as heedless murderers can set back months of restraint, bridge-building and good works by the rest of the U.S. military.

The only thing I’m thankful for is that, as opposed to Abu Ghraib, no photos of the actual killings have emerged. As someone said yesterday, at least there are no Polaroids of Iraqi kids with their last cigarettes dangling from their mouths.

Although Marine Corps photographers have thoroughly documented the sites of whatever crimes took place, we can expect those to be relatively sanitary crime-scene photography shown only at the courts-martial, hopefully with nothing more vivid than chalk lines surrounding spent shell casings and the places where victims’ bodies were found.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Sawa and Al-Hurra Are in Baghdad—but Not VOA?


Len Baldyga just pointed me to a Post story from Monday, “VOA's Baghdad Bureau Still Closed After Six Months,” which tells the story of VOA’s pullout from the Iraqi capital last December. VOA’s Alisha Ryu reported on a few things the Shi’ite militias thought she shouldn’t have—like the whole business of torturing over 160 mostly Sunnis at that secret dungeon in the Interior Ministry.

After that, Ryu started having vague feelings that something was wrong; bombs went off outside her hotel, gunmen ambushed her car, her bodyguard was kidnapped, nagging little things like that. She left Iraq, which is completely understandable—but VOA hasn’t sent someone to replace her, and it’s been six months with no VOA reporter in probably the most important journalistic posting in the world. Ryu attributes this to the fact that no one at VOA volunteered to take her place.

But the Post’s Howard Kurtz got an anonymous source to squeak that VOA simply can’t afford the big security budget that the major private media can. Besides decent armor for U.S. soldiers and their vehicles, I can’t think of a better use of taxpayer dollars than to make sure that a reporter has someone—preferably a dozen heavily armed someones complete with air support, which is standard procedure for the lowliest Green Zone clerk traveling back and forth to the Baghdad airport—watching her back.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Pentagon Wises Up on Language Pay


My associate over at USC, Matt Armstrong, writes in MountainRunner that DoD has finally wised up and increased Foreign Language Proficiency Pay, a bonus given for having or acquiring a strategically important language.

I was watching a DVD of Band of Brothers the other night and at least one of the World War II paratroopers interviewed said he had joined the airborne—the jump out of a perfectly good aircraft into Nazi-occupied Europe airborne—because it bumped his pay. Perhaps this will give soldiers more incentive to do much less than this World War II vet.

Come to think of it, couldn't the IRS just tweak the tax code a bit and allow civilians to write off language education expenses? In fact, it already does, under categories like lifetime educational development, business expense and others. Consult your accountant first, but remember operators are standing by at your local educational institution. ...

Monday, May 22, 2006

Ambassadors of Death Metal


As I and others have noted, the Red Sea city of Jiddah is basically Saudi Arabia’s answer to San Francisco: a highly liberal oasis in a relatively conservative desert, in this case literally. It’s has been and always will be a trading crossroads, and the influence of foreign people and ideas there is much more pronounced than in Riyadh or the die-hard conservative bastion of Dhahran.

Just how liberal Jiddah is becomes clear on reading “Love for the Language of Megadeth and Marley” in today’s Post. It describes the port city’s unlikely death-metal underground, although the story’s protagonists have inspirations that vary from Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix to Beethoven and Bach:

They adjusted the bass and fiddled with the reverb. Then they broke into an improvised, bluesy number that enveloped the makeshift studio at Amer Tashkandi's house. Islam Abu Jebara manned the Premier drums, Tashkandi glided his hands along the Roland Fantom keyboard, and [Hasan] Hatrash pulled at the strings of a bass emblazoned with stickers. "Iron Maiden" read one; "Megadeth, Cryptic Writings," said the other. Hatrash nodded, his foot keeping cadence. His eyes, half-closed, suggested another world.

"I was born a rocker," Hatrash said.

These men are part of a small Jiddah underground music scene that the article says has recently gone from two bands to 15, itself a remarkable achievement in a country of 27 million that lacks even a single movie theater. It would be easy to make fun of these men’s importation of Western heavy metal; they could be caricatured as the Saudi equivalents of Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd’s “wild and crazy guys.”

But Hatrash, Tashkandi and their friends are at some risk of their family’s disapproval in an environment where family ostracization leaves an individual shockingly alone and unprotected. They are also being watched closely by Saudi conservatives, and through them I imagine by the mutawwa or other religious or state security organs:

Shata said he thought the sound system [at a recent show] was bad. The bigger problem, though, was when Islamic conservatives posted [band member Mohammed Shata’s] picture, his T-shirt emblazoned with a skull, on the Internet. The conservatives' take: It was a satanic ritual.

"I was afraid my family would see the picture," he said, his eyes wide. "I would be kicked out of the house. Really."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Jihadist Imagery Library at West Point


Marc Lynch at Abu Aardvark points to the Islamic Imagery Project at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center. It catalogs the images jihadis are using in their propaganda and provides helpful context about the various objects shown, from nature (horses, water, desert, crescents, the sun and moon) to symbols (national and Islamist flags, the Star of David) to important victories and defeats (Grozny, Falluja, 9/11). It’s a great crash course in what jihadists consider important and the terms in which they portray themselves and their goals.

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

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Beacon No. 88: The Right Messenger Is a Poet


At a recent conference on international polling that I attended, one of the main threads of discussion involved message versus messenger. The specific example, as you’d guess, was President Bush. Because of his and most of his administration’s global unpopularity, some argued that it is simply impossible for U.S. public diplomacy to make progress while Bush is in office. No message, no matter how solid—Osama bin Laden is bad!—can really penetrate the world’s suspicion and dislike of the president.

A partial solution to this problem lies in the old advertising tactic of third-party testimonials: Have someone else apparently unconnected to you carry the message, thus skipping the issue of the likeability of the message’s composer.

This is apparently what the government of Yemen is doing. During the temporary pause in low-grade civil war in that country—most of its homegrown jihadis are apparently in Iraq fighting against you-know-who—the Sana’a government is recruiting poets to spread an anti-terror message.

Poetry has had an outsized importance in the Arab world since at least the time of the Prophet, and doubly so in a place like Yemen that has combines high respect for traditional tribal pastimes with low literacy rates and deep suspicion of the government. The spoken word is disproportionately powerful there, and the beautiful flow of words coming from a poet’s mouth are valued highly.

That was the scene James Brandon established with “In Poetry-Loving Yemen, Tribal Bard Takes on Al Qaeda—with His Verse”:

... The idea of using tribal poets to fight extremism began with a chance meeting nearly two years ago, explains Faris Sanabani, a friend of Yemen's president and editor of a weekly English-language newspaper The Yemen Observer.

Leading Yemenis in Sanaa had gathered to chew khat, a narcotic shrub, talk politics, and listen to poetry, Mr. Sanabani recalls. Suddenly, one guest turned to Yemen's most popular tribal poet, [Amin al-]Mashreqi, and asked him if he could recite any poetry about terrorism, he says.

Mashreqi rose eagerly to the challenge. He stood up, adjusted the broad, curving dagger hanging at his waist and proudly declaimed a handful of verses glorifying suicide bombers.

As the applause faded, the man who had asked him to recite the verses, Sanabani himself, took him aside and quietly invited him to visit his office.

The next day at the office of the Yemen Observer, Sanabani asked Mashreqi to watch a video made after Al Qaeda's 2002 suicide boat-attack on the French oil tanker SS Limburg off the Yemeni coast.

"I showed him footage of the environmental damage caused by the oil spill and of Yemeni fishermen and their families whose livelihood had been destroyed because their fishing grounds were polluted," recalls Sanabani.

Chastened by the images of oil-stained beaches, dead fish, and seabirds and sobbing, destitute Yemeni fishermen, Mashreqi left Sanabani's office appearing troubled and lost in thought. When Sanabani next saw him he seemed a man transformed.

"Three days later he came back with the most beautiful poetry I have ever seen," says Sanabani, recalling his amazement at the poet's new verses that now condemned violence and promoted peace and tolerance.

The article notes that Yemen hasn’t experienced any major Islamist attacks, implying that drafting poets can help. Of course, poetry can only go so far in a poor country with deepening divisions between rich and poor, and a jihadi class that will eventually return to make trouble, just as it did after the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan ended. But Amin al-Mashreqi is a prime example of the power the right messenger might wield.

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

Monday, May 15, 2006

Beacon No. 87: Good Deeds Punished


In “U.S. Aid Can't Win Bolivia's Love as New Suitors Emerge,” Juan Forero describes the ascent of Cuban and Venezuelan influence in the landlocked South American state:

For decades, the United States has given hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Bolivia, spending on everything from roads to rural health care. But these days, to Washington's dismay, it is Cuba and Venezuela that Bolivians in places like this small farming community are embracing because of new assistance programs from those countries.

Aid from Havana and Caracas has been flowing into Bolivia since a Socialist union leader, Evo Morales, became president in January, and it signals a deepening partnership with the Bush administration's most prominent regional antagonists.

It also highlights Washington's seeming inability, despite its formidable spending, to win over Bolivians. Many Bolivians have come to associate American aid almost exclusively with a generation-old anti-drug policy to wipe out coca, the raw material for cocaine, which has led to years of political unrest here.

"The United States just subordinates Latin America and Bolivia, and it bothers me, it really bothers me," said Enrique de la Cruz, 25, a medical student who was waiting for a bus in El Palomar, where many people live in simple adobe homes. "The alliances with Venezuela and Cuba are super."

Morales has taken steps to start nationalizing its energy industry, which is dominated by foreign or foreign-partnered companies. This has drawn the special ire of Brazil because Morales’ moves threaten Brazil’s careful campaign to move the country away from petroleum dependence.

If you keep reading, Forero’s story turns into a wonderful dueling-banjos story of feuding foreign-aid providers in one of Latin America’s backwaters:

CUBA: Send doctors.

UNITED STATES: Prop up the national airline.

CUBA/VENEZUELA: Start literacy classes.

VENEZUELA: Help nationalize the energy industry.

UNITED STATES: Build houses for the poor.

VENEZUELA: Build 109 radio stations.

UNITED STATES: Create rural justice centers for legal advice!

VENEZUELA: Fund scholarships for Bolivian health workers!

UNITED STATES: Electrify the budding city of Santa Cruz!!

VENEZUELA: Buy Bolivia’s entire soybean crop!!

UNITED STATES: Finance 27 health clinics!!!

In some ways, the U.S. construction of Bolivian infrastructure has been a bribe to past governments in La Paz to allow Americans to continue coca eradication; but when the crunch comes, it appears that Bolivians don’t value roads and electricity as much as whatever aid Venezuela and Cuba provide—as in the story’s most touching anecdote, concerning a literacy program the two countries are undertaking:

Ms. [Francisca] Tarqui, the 83-year-old woman, was most upbeat about the [Cuban and Venezuelan] help. An Aymara Indian whose Spanish is shaky, she grew up in Bolivia's desolate countryside, far from any school.

"Now I am going to go to school," she said, looking forward to the literacy classes. "I always wanted to learn to read."

President Morales has declared Bolivia and its new allies an “axis of good,” a poke at the miserable monster of El Norte. It wouldn’t be worth the Bush administration’s time to try to paint the three as a new axis of evil; Venezuela is no Germany, Cuba no Japan, and Bolivia no Italy—despite being relatively poor, wavering and vulnerable as Italy was during both world wars.

Perhaps it wouldn’t take that much to nudge Bolivia back toward the U.S. fold, or shake President Morales out of his we-can-live-without-the-U.S. posturing. Consider the situation of South Korea when its new, somewhat anti-U.S. president Roh Moo-hyun started blustering about the presence of U.S. troops along the border with the North. All it took was for Donald Rumsfeld to say, publicly and politely, that perhaps the Korean president was correct and the U.S. should withdraw its troops from the South—and Roh immediately, almost magically, backpedaled.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Beacon No. 86: Zarqawi al-Klutz


Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s a fearsome dude if you’re convinced he’s the all-powerful, shadowy leader of al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia and one of Osama bin Laden’s top, if distant, lieutenants. He released a fairly fierce-looking video of himself a few weeks back, promising the usual colorfully varied deaths to the Crusader enemy, on and on world without end.

Powerful stuff, and a powerful recruiting tool—if you take him seriously.

In a brilliant bit of maneuvering, U.S. forces managed to not only seize outtakes of the Zarqawi video during a raid, they assembled the most embarrassing ones into a blooper reel. Rather than save it for the Pentagon holiday party, they released it to the media and you can view Zarqawi fumbling a hot machine gun, wearing white American-brand sneakers beneath his macho black “terrorist” garb, etc. from the BBC’s site here.
My colleague over at Eccentric Star wondered about the wisdom of showing Zarqawi as a bumbler:

I don't doubt that the outtakes provide a fun moment. But their release by the US sends an inherently contradictory message. How can Zarqawi be the most dangerous person in Iraq at the same time that he's a bumbling klutz?

The answer is that one message is intended for U.S. audiences—Zarqawi may be dangerous and manipulative, but he’s hardly all-powerful—while the other is intended for potential jihadis—Zarqawi’s a bit of a blowhard, just like people they know at home.

The blooper reel helps humanize someone who spends a lot of energy trying to appear as a sort of Ian Fleming evil mastermind—and yet can’t switch a machine gun to full auto without a flunky’s help.

I should note that Eccentric Star goes on to discuss other media reaction to the Zarqawi blooper reel, not all of it favorable—but I continue to think U.S. military propagandists were shrewd and remarkably quick on their feet in this case.

(Thanks to Eccentric Star for the BBC link, and to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for the initial item.)

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Getting Hollywood on Board


Novelist Andrew Klavan wrote an op-ed in Sunday’s Los Angeles Times calling for Hollywood to go back to making the movies that helped win the Second World War:

We need films like those that were made during World War II, films such as 1943's "Sahara" and "Action in the North Atlantic," or "The Fighting Seabees" and "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," which were released in 1944.

Not all of these were great films, or even good ones, but their patriotic tributes to our fighting forces inspired the nation.

More than that, they reminded the country what exactly it was that those forces were fighting to defend. Though many of these pictures now seem almost hilariously free with racist tirades against "sauerkrauts," and "eyeties" and "Tojo and his bug-eyed monkeys," they were also carefully constructed to display American life at its open-minded and inclusive best.

Every roll call of Hollywood's U.S. troops seems to include a Ragazzi and a Donovan, a Hellenopolis, a Novasky, and a wisecracking Roth. "Sahara" even throws in the black "Mohammedan" Tabul, a Sudanese ally. This may have been corny, but it was also more or less realistic, and it depicted the war as a conflict between our lovably mongrel melting pot and the despicable Axis ideal of racial purity.

There are several flaws in Klavan’s call for Hollywood to forget everything from Strangelove to Syriana and reconnect with its inner John Wayne.

World War II was all-out war, where the U.S. didn’t care much about what foreign populations thought of it. If the U.S. had to kill every German between its armies and Berlin and every Japanese between its navy and Tokyo, it was perfectly prepared to do that while propagandizing about “krauts” and “Japs” the whole way.

Today’s case, the administration’s global war on terror, is more subtle, the enemy harder to find, the allies unconvinced of U.S. rightness and pretty sure America is overreacting. Today’s foe is Mao’s revolutionary fish swimming among the sea of the people, so one-dimensional, gung-ho war movies—Thirty Seconds over Mecca, anyone?—won’t fly.

In addition, foreign audiences didn’t see most of those movies about congenitally conniving Nazis and subhuman Japanese. Today they would, and sooner than later a Hollywood drumbeat about Our Noble War Against the Jihadists would backfire, not just in the Muslim world but among America’s less-than-enthusiastic Continental allies. These audiences would take such films as further proof of U.S. ham-handedness, no matter how hard Hollywood labored to keep the focus on Our Heroic Men and Women in Uniform.

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

Monday, May 08, 2006

Beacon No. 85: Peter Beinart and “Rehabilitation of the Cold War Liberal”


A week ago the New Republic’s Peter Beinart wrote an excellent essay in the New York Times Magazine, “The Rehabilitation of the Cold War Liberal” (it’s already banished to TimesSelect, so check out the more permanent citation here). Beinart starts with the standard lament that Democrats have no unifying message on foreign policy, but proceeds quickly to describing what it looked like the last time they did:

In the late 1940's and 1950's, intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and policymakers like George F. Kennan described America's cold-war struggle differently from their conservative counterparts: as a struggle not merely for democracy but for economic opportunity as well, in the belief that the former required the latter to survive. Even more important, they described America itself differently. Americans may fight evil, they argued, but that does not make us inherently good. And paradoxically, that very recognition makes national greatness possible. Knowing that we, too, can be corrupted by power, we seek the constraints that empires refuse. And knowing that democracy is something we pursue rather than something we embody, we advance it not merely by exhorting others but by battling the evil in ourselves. The irony of American exceptionalism is that by acknowledging our common fallibility, we inspire the world.

Today’s GOP tends to couch its domestic messages in morally categorical language, which has a mighty appeal for domestic voters striving to lead morally categorical lives. Unfortunately, the president and his party tend to describe the rest of the world’s struggles in these terms as well, while most of that world considers itself to be a more complex, morally greyer place. The United States could profit, as others including Beinart have said, by including itself in the category of nations that struggle to better themselves and acknowledging this publicly from time to time.

I believe this more humble approach would resonate with people in other countries, particularly since a kind of humility is rooted in some of the world’s great religions. To take Christianity for example—and this line of thought might appeal to conservative Christians in the U.S.—the idea that Jesus was sent by God to redeem humanity is interesting, if terrifying; but the idea that Jesus was divine yet had very real, very human struggles with good and evil makes him one of history’s most compelling and aspirational figures.

While the writing of anyone who cautions against moral certitude yet titles his book The Good Fight: Why Liberals—and Only Liberals—Can Win the War on Terror and Make America Great Again should be taken with a grain of salt, Beinart’s essay is most concise introduction to public diplomacy that I’ve seen, and should be required reading public diplomats.

After reading it, I’ve relaxed a bit about some of the recent debates I’ve witnessed in public diplomacy circles—USIA model or networked model? better policies or better propaganda? is it the messenger or the message?—because they are secondary to having the right PD philosophy. Once you get the philosophy right, questions about programs and policies recede toward their appropriate places as second- or third-order problems.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Don’t Understand Arabic?


Haven’t had a chance to test this out yet, but Ben Gross writes that Google has a new translation service that’s actually supposed to be able to handle Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean. Give it a spin at Why’s it matter? Because now, not only can you theoretically read Al-Jazeera’s or Al-Ahram’s sites, but people in Qatar and Egypt should be able to read the New York Times.

If it works well, it should greatly increase intercultural understanding—at least among the small but growing percentage of the world’s population that has a computer and high-speed Internet access.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Accountability, Cutting Both Ways


In “Qatar Grants Millions in Aid to New Orleans,” Stephanie Strom describes our Persian Gulf ally’s $60 million gift to higher education and other causes in the Big Easy,

including $17.5 million to Xavier University of Louisiana, the only historically black Catholic university in the United States.

Other beneficiaries are Tulane University, Children's Hospital in New Orleans, Habitat for Humanity, Louisiana State University and the March of Dimes.

While a spokeswoman says the Education Department funnels the donations it receives to where they’ll both do good and let foreign donors see their impact, Qatar is sending its donations directly to the beneficiaries rather than through the federal government. Why? While Strom uses the words “transparency and accountability” in her story, the Qatari ambassador, Nasser Bin Hamad M. al-Khalifa, is more polite:

"Our past experience is that while you can give to any organization or to a government," [Khalifa] said, "you have no control over the money and then you discover the people most affected have not benefited."

Ambassador Khalifa is using an advisory board consisting of former corporate and U.S. government luminaries like James A. Baker, Laura D’Andrea Tyson, and former Exxon Mobil CEO Lee Raymond to suggest projects, but once that’s done, Qatar is just taking out its checkbook and buying places like Xavier an expanded school of pharmacy.

The U.S. and international aid organizations routinely sidestep central governments in disbursing aid of all kinds, usually muttering under their breath about transparency and accountability, which is Geneva-speak for “Your ministers don’t need a twelfth Mercedes.”

I’m sure the Qatari government doesn’t think its aid money would go to a new sports car for some Education Department functionary, but it would be justified to think that its aid could simply be mishandled and evaporate without doing any good. I still find it disturbing, from a soft-power perspective, that the U.S. government is probably not considered competent right now to make good use of a gift from the country that is probably its most sincere ally in the Persian Gulf.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Virtual Worlds at USC


The USC Center on Public Diplomacy has been flogging the finish of its Virtual Worlds competition these past two weeks. VW is a competition to see who can best “design a prototype or modify a game incorporating the fundamental characteristics of public diplomacy,” whether that’s through a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) or another mechanism.

LAVoice discusses four of the finalists here; Global Kids Island looks especially interesting, piggybacked as it is in Second Life, which already has its own real estate, economy, etc.

The overall winner will be announced in Los Angeles on May 8.
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