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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