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.
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