Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Beacon No. 101: The Wrong Tool Now


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 27, 2006

“We Are Planting a Future”


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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2006

Xena at Home and Abroad


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A Chilling Warning from the CIA on Iraq


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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2006

Sub Stalks 'Hawk


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2006

Beacon No. 100: Hughes Talks Talking to ALDAC


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

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

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

Translation: Court the media.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe words.

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

Translation: You may freely show sympathy.

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

Translation: Your superiors’ words are safe words.

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

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

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

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

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

Translation: Now get out there and speak!

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Windows on America


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Big Deal in Africa


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Hearts, Minds, Skulls Plague Bundeswehr


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

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

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

Cavorting with skulls.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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