Monday, December 17, 2007

Replacing Hughes


Thank goodness John Brown watches public diplomacy constantly, so I can relax once in awhile. He forwards an interesting quote by James K. Glassman, whom President Bush has nominated to replace Karen Hughes as America’s chief civilian PD officer.

Although Glassman has professed to be a libertarian and is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he freelances as both an optimist—he’s the guy who wrote Dow 36,000—and worse for PD purposes, a triumphalist, as the quote Brown forwarded demonstrates.

Written in April 2003, in the flush of an apparent U.S. victory in Iraq, it is about one parking space away from ugly:

... The anti-war protesters remain clueless. They're still planning their marches.

Instead, they should be apologizing.

Before the war, they told us that 500,000 Iraqis would be killed in Dresden-like bombing, that we would precipitate an eco-catastrophe by pushing Saddam to set fire to his oil wells, that millions of people would flee the country, that thousands of our own troops would be killed, that the Arab "street" would rise up, that terrorist attacks would resume ferociously on our homeland, that Iraqis would tenaciously resist our colonization of their land, that we would become bogged down in urban warfare, and on and on.

In fact, none of that has happened. It has been a war unmatched in history, with relatively few civilian and allied casualties and the prime objectives - control of the capital and the destruction of Saddam's regime - achieved in only a few weeks.

Conscientious opponents of the war should say they were wrong, wrong, wrong - on all counts. Certainly, if there had been failures, they would have condemned Bush administration officials and supporters of the war.

It’s tough when you meet your prime objectives splendidly but those niggling little secondary objectives refuse to budge. Here’s the end of Glassman’s original, written for Capitalism magazine:

And, as for supporters: no, it is not over yet, but a little celebration, even gloating, is in order.

It took political courage to tell the Security Council, the French, the Germans, the Russians, that inspections were a dead end. And it took personal courage for our troops to carry the battle 500 miles to the heart of the capital of fear and mass destruction.

Maybe it's time for a different kind of Stop the War parade in Washington - a victory march.

Unfortunately, it’s never time for gloating in public diplomacy. It’s never time for sweeping pronouncements about the future; that’s the president’s job, if anyone’s. It’s never time for up-with-the-war pronouncements that discount the idea of things going wrong.

And there’s no need to find a chair at State for someone who only sat down at the Broadcasting Board of Governors in August.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

M-I-C, K-E-Why Do They Hate Us?

Andy Valvur forwards this help-wanted ad from Walt Disney Co. It is a bit odd; Disney doesn't just want a security chief, they'd prefer someone with mid-level intel-agency experience who has or is clearable to at least a Secret level.

Clearly, Disney isn't willing to sit around and wait for federal agencies, particularly I would imagine the Dept. of Homeland Security, to realize or tell them of an imminent threat. You have to wonder just how pervasive an intel network this Disney official would need to achieve some semblance of the federal government's capabilities.

As I'd written recently, Disney actively helps the U.S. welcome foreign visitors. On the other hand, it considers those foreign visitors (and the domestic ones) a potential threat.

I'm tempted to make fun but won't. If I were running a $34 billion entertainment and hospitality business that spanned three continents, you're damned right I'd want to know whether unrest in Pakistan affected the safety of Space Mountain.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Noonan's "On Setting an Example"

I didn't read it until long after it should have been fishwrap, but Peggy Noonan's "On Setting an Example" on November 17 pretty much encapsulates what I think the practice of public diplomacy should be.

Noonan, the former Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter, tends to spend her weekly column inches in the Journal Clinton-bashing, but she remains worth reading decades after her mid-'80s heyday. Never more so than now, and her column is worth quoting at length:

In some rough and perhaps tentative way [during 2008] we will have to decide what philosophical understanding of our national purpose rightly guides us.

Part of the debate will be shaped by the tugging back and forth of two schools of thought. There are those whose impulses are essentially interventionist—we live in the world and must take part in the world, sometimes, perhaps even often, militarily. We are the great activist nation, the spreader of political liberty, the superpower whose meaning is made clear in action.

The other school holds profound reservations about all this. It is more modest in its ambitions, more cool-eyed about human nature. It feels more bound by the old advice attributed to one of the Founding Generation, that we be the friend of liberty everywhere but the guarantor only of our own.

Much has changed in the more than two centuries since he said that ... and yet as simple human wisdom, it packs a wallop still.

Those who feel tugged toward the old Founding wisdom often use the word "beacon." It is our place in the scheme of things, it is our fate and duty, to be a beacon of liberty. To stand tall and hold high the light. To be an example, to be an inspiration, to encourage. We do not invent constitutions and impose them on other countries; instead they, in their restlessness, in their human desire to achieve a greater portion of freedom, will rise up in time and create their own constitution. And because they created it, they will hold it more dearly.

So we are best, in the world as it is now, the beacon, not the bringer, of freedom. We are its friend, not its enforcer. ...

But if you want to be a beacon, it's actually a hard job. It involves activism. You can't be a beacon unless as a nation you're in pretty good shape. You can't be a beacon unless you send forth real light. You can't be a beacon unless you really do inspire.

Do we always? No. We're not always a good example for the world. And so, for the coming holiday, a few baseline areas, some only stylistic, in which we could make our light glow brighter in—and for—the world.

Noonan goes on to call for cleaner leaders, more issue-oriented political debate, a less obviously sex-focused culture and other efforts. But whether you agree with her recommendations or not, Noonan is still worth reading for a shot of inspiration about improving America's image abroad by improving America.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Exit the Bringonner


In September I'd written about Frances Townsend's ill-advised taunting of Osama bin Laden ("Bringing Them On"). Now Townsend, who is suddenly being called "Fran" by the President and the Post, has taken a walk. Spend more time with family? The Post doesn't know.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Heart of the Matter

Brief piece over at the Council on Foreign Relations regarding "nation branding," quoting not just founder-of-the-field Simon Anholt but my occasional colleague Joshua Fouts from USC's Center on Public Diplomacy.

The article ends with a quote from Anholt that sums up how policymakers should think about public diplomacy:

Anholt [argues] that nation branding is not the answer unless it is pursued alongside policy changes. “I don’t tell countries how to do marketing,” he says. “I advise them on what sorts of policies they need to undertake in order to earn the reputation they feel they deserve.”

It's that simple. Feel like your nation is the sole heir of Enlightenment rationality? Then act it.

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

Friday, November 02, 2007

The Hughes Resignation


The timing of Karen Hughes’ resignation as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs is appropriate: Late to the job—she delayed showing up for work for months to oversee her son’s last few months before heading to college—she now departs it early, saying that she’d like to spend more time with her husband.* But I don’t necessarily buy that.

Sure, this is clearly not the gung-ho road warrior of Ten Minutes from Normal.

Nor do I imagine Hughes—no one’s shrinking violet—is simply ducking out to avoid the now-melancholy-now-panicky final days of the Bush administration implied by this headline.

I imagine—I hope—that Karen Hughes has simply succumbed to the knowledge that she has been in charge of the icing, not the cake. No matter how much she believes in President Bush’s foreign policy, Hughes may finally have realized that until U.S. policy changes, it’s impossible to make much headway with the Muslim audiences who are the key target of U.S. public-diplomacy efforts. Perhaps the Under Secretary realized that there’s a difference between fighting the good fight and beating one’s head against the wall.

*Contrast that with Hughes' ex-deputy Dina Habib Powell, who resigned to spend more time with money—hers and others'—over at Goldman.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Man from K.A.U.S.T.


Imagine the Swiss government chiding the U.S. over a lack of transparency in its banking practices, and you’ll have some idea of British reaction to Saudi Arabian King Abdullah’s statement that the UK is not doing enough to fight international terrorism.

On the home front, Abdullah plans to turn the tide of Arab underachievement by creating a Saudi M.I.T. In an echo of past Third World megaprojects, the king is building an $12.5 billion university campus in the desert near Jidda, and will try to lure top-notch foreign talent to teach and staff there. (The Times' Thanassis Cambanis couldn't help but use the term "gargantuan" to describe it.)

Abdullah has taken the job of building this King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) away from his own education ministry and will ban the mutawwa—the kingdom’s religious enforcers—from within its walls. This will supposedly allow coeducation and a freer exchange of ideas than anywhere else in Saudi society.

The king imagines that KAUST will aid Arab development and begin transforming Saudi society from the top down. Unfortunately, Saudi Arabia’s problem has always been the gap between its elites—who will continue to go to U.S. and UK institutions ranging from Oxford to Appalachian State regardless—and its populace. No one questions the level of education of Saudi elites or their relative open-mindedness and liberality compared with Saudi society at large.

Abdullah’s money might be better spent on the riskier and far more problematic path of initiating broad-based reform in Saudi society. It would be inexpensive, for example, to ban the mutawwa from a small but ever-expanding list of public places until their power is attenuated.

But this would take decades to accomplish, and the king may not feel he has that kind of time. Better to throw money at the problem and earn a quick score with the international media.

Friday, October 26, 2007

The Universal Symbol


Anxious about declining numbers of foreign tourists to the U.S., Walt Disney Co. has created a seven-minute film for the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security to welcome visitors from overseas.

Backed by some very upbeat, Aaron Copland-esque orchestral music, the film’s hundreds of Americans pause for a moment to smile for the camera. Cuts of these welcoming, diverse mugs are interspersed with photos of famous American landmarks (the Chrysler Building, Hancock Building, Golden Gate Bridge, Lincoln Memorial, Statue of Liberty) and landscapes (canyons, forests, seacoasts, painted desert, amber waves of grain).

The film portrays an almost exclusively blue-collar America at work: cooks, waitresses, building framers, showgirls, cowboys, truck drivers, baristas, farmers, fishermen. Only a few shots—a businessman walking down a city street in his suit and a shot or two of ministers, for example—reveal a white-collar world, and these images are general enough to be understood immediately.

There are problems with portraying white-collar work in a photograph or two. For example, a photo of me pausing from my work would show me turning my head to glare at the camera, never taking hands from the laptop’s keyboard except to gulp coffee. These actions would not be accessible to the casual foreign visitor in a second or two of screen time: What is that man doing?

Focusing on visible, blue-collar America serves two purposes: It portrays occupations that foreign visitors can connect with immediately regardless of their own station in life, and indirectly shows Americans as more down-to-earth and humble than many foreign visitors may think from portrayals in their own media.

There are no shots of office workers, none of the White House or U.S. Capitol, none of Disney properties, and none of any famous American.

The film, which Disney produced entirely on its own dime, is currently being shown at entry points at the Washington Dulles and Houston airports; see State’s press release for more details.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

China Is the New America


Andy Valvur forwards "Struggling Chadians Dream of a Better Life--in China," wherein Chadians who have never been to the U.S., and frequently have never been outside Chad, nonetheless see the PRC as their bright, shiny, 21st-century place to do business:

Behind the white archways of the old colonial market [in N'Djamena, Chad's capital], Abdulkarim Mahamat, 24, was selling soap and batteries to the few customers who dropped by. Things were rather slow, and the young man explained how he often imagines himself elsewhere -- flying off to a promising new land of cheap socks and smoothly paved roads.

"If I can go to China, life will be better than it is now," he said, adding that he has started saving up for his ticket. "I'll make a lot of money, and life will change. I can return to school, build a nice house and have a family. People say that China is a good place and everything is cheap."


The idea of China as a symbol of potential prosperity is taking hold, seeping into the consciousness of ordinary Africans and occupying a place that the United States, and to some extent European countries, once claimed.

Around here, the American dream is something quaint and unrealistic, while a new kind of Chinese dream, more pragmatic and attainable, seems ascendant.

"The United States is a nice place to visit," said Ahmet Mohamet Ali, a trader who had just returned from his first trip to China. "China is a place to do business."

I used to laugh at the idea that anyone might prefer China's relative poverty and political repressiveness to U.S. affluence and freedoms. But Africans have been sufficiently poor and closed out of economic opportunity, and the PRC is becoming less oppressive over time, so maybe the stars are aligning for an African-Chinese alliance that runs deeper than simple economics.

Of course, these dewy-eyed Chadians probably haven't heard much about this little episode.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Return of the Non-Native, Part Two


The Counterinsurgency Field Manual is U.S. forces’ official doctrine on combating insurgencies around the world. Co-authored by the current U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, it discusses the role of intelligence in great detail—and not just “mines have been laid on the road 2.5 km north of Tikrit” intelligence, but the understanding of a country’s culture, history and personalities that helps counterinsurgents make progress with the host nation’s citizens. (Download free here, order hard copy here.)

Section 3-2 reads:

Intelligence in [counterinsurgency] is about people. U.S. forces must understand the people of the host nation, the insurgents, and the host-nation (HN) government. Commanders and planners require insight into cultures, perceptions, values, beliefs, interests and decision-making processes of individuals and groups. These requirements are the basis for collection and analytical efforts.

That expertise has to come from somewhere, and once again, anthropologists are in demand. In “Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones,” David Rohde explains how academic anthropologists are helping U.S. forces abroad:

SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan — In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Of course, some anthropologists are uncomfortable with academics’ work with the military:

Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin America, some denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

“While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more secure world,” the pledge says, “at base, it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”

Prof. Gusterson may be confusing the Bush Administration’s larger political objectives in Iraq and Afghanistan with the U.S. military’s objectives in those nations. Whether you think the president ultimately wants a secure, democratic Iraq or simply a Mesopotamian gas station, it’s tough to disagree with having anthropologists on board to lessen friction between U.S. forces and civilians, decreasing bloodshed and the brutality that Prof. Gusterson rightly fears.

Ultimately, social-science help will enable U.S. forces to withdraw more quickly from the countries experiencing “occupation,” whether they leave behind stable governments or not. (How grandly Prof. Gusterson overstates the U.S. presence abroad, as though U.S. stormtroopers leer from every Afghan and Iraqi streetcorner.)

The anthropologists have quickly found fans among line officers in Afghanistan, who continue to face off against al-Qa’ida and the Taliban:

The anthropology team here also played a major role in what the military called Operation Khyber. That was a 15-day drive late this summer in which 500 Afghan and 500 American soldiers tried to clear an estimated 200 to 250 Taliban insurgents out of much of Paktia Province, secure southeastern Afghanistan’s most important road and halt a string of suicide attacks on American troops and local governors.

In one of the first districts the team entered, Tracy identified an unusually high concentration of widows in one village, Colonel Woods said. Their lack of income created financial pressure on their sons to provide for their families, she determined, a burden that could drive the young men to join well-paid insurgents. Citing Tracy’s advice, American officers developed a job training program for the widows.

In another district, the anthropologist interpreted the beheading of a local tribal elder as more than a random act of intimidation: the Taliban’s goal, she said, was to divide and weaken the Zadran, one of southeastern Afghanistan’s most powerful tribes. If Afghan and American officials could unite the Zadran, she said, the tribe could block the Taliban from operating in the area.

“Call it what you want, it works,” said Colonel Woods, a native of Denbo, Pa. “It works in helping you define the problems, not just the symptoms.”

Monday, October 08, 2007

Women Behind the (Saudi) Wheel


I was out of town in Dallas two weekends ago, but luckily Amy, my wife, spotted “Saudis Rethink Taboo on Women Behind the Wheel” in the September 28 Times for me. Apparently women may now drive cars in Saudi science fiction, a great leap ahead from women’s driving being an entirely taboo subject:

In a recent episode of Saudi Arabia's most popular television show, broadcast during Ramadan this month, a Saudi man of the future is seen sitting in his house as his daughter pulls into the driveway, her children piled into the back of the car.

''Where have you been?'' the father asks.

''The kids were bored, so I took them to the movies,'' she replies, matter-of-factly, as she gets out of the driver's seat.

The scene may appear mundane, but in Saudi Arabia, where women are forbidden to drive -- and, by the way, where there are no movie theaters, either -- the skit portends something of a revolution. From a taboo about which there could be no open discussion, a woman's right to drive is becoming a topic of growing and lively debate in Saudi Arabia.

Coming after other recent changes -- women may now travel abroad without male accompaniment (though male permission is still required), seek divorce and own their own companies -- the driving discussion is noteworthy. Whether it signals that women will actually be driving soon or merely talking about it openly remains to be seen.

It’s particularly significant that this TV show aired during Ramadan, where TV viewership in the Muslim world skyrockets to levels that the U.S. sees only during the Super Bowl.

Hassan Fattah’s article goes on to tie the increased discussion of women’s driving to the squeeze on the kingdom’s middle class; as women are forced out into the workplace and become economic actors, they also gain a say in what happens to their income.

This puts women’s role in Saudi society somewhere in the American 1870s—economic instability forces households to seek outside income via women. The 19th Amendment is still decades away, but hopefully it is as inevitable in Saudi Arabia as it was in the U.S.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Entering the Marketplace of Ideas


If Neil MacFarquhar can't be in the Middle East, he is at least informing us from Washington. On Saturday his article about the State Department's Digital Outreach Team appeared, chronicling a duo of Arabic speakers who cruise Arabic-language chatrooms with a purpose:

Walid Jawad was tired of all the chatter on Middle Eastern blogs and Internet forums in praise of gory attacks carried out by the “noble resistance” in Iraq.

So Mr. Jawad, one of two Arabic-speaking members of what the State Department called its Digital Outreach Team, posted his own question: Why was it that many in the Arab world quickly condemned civilian Palestinian deaths but were mute about the endless killing of women and children by suicide bombers in Iraq?

Among those who responded was a man named Radad, evidently a Sunni Muslim, who wrote that many of the dead in Iraq were just Shiites and describing them in derogatory terms. But others who answered Mr. Jawad said that they, too, wondered why only Palestinian dead were “martyrs.”

The discussion tacked back and forth for four days, one of many such conversations prompted by scores of postings the State Department has made on about 70 Web sites since it put its two Arab-American Web monitors to work last November.

State will add four more Arabic speakers, plus two Farsi and one Urdu speaker, to the mix within a month although some observers question whether the program will survive the Bush administration.

This sounds like a program that should be continued by the next president, whether Republican or Democrat, as part of a full-court PD press. There is a void in U.S. PD efforts between war-room spinning and jazz-band visits, occupied thus far by high-profile actors like foreign aid, our diplomats, and disaster relief.

It can only help U.S. policy to have polite, persistent, day-to-day voices engaging the wired Muslim world, and sometimes asking tougher questions than Secretary Rice can.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bringing Them On


It was already tough to believe that White House homeland security adviser Frances Townsend was considered for Alberto Gonzales’ slot at Justice. Despite her lengthy and impressive resume, Townsend’s published remarks never seemed very incisive, and when I saw her speak at a recent open-source intelligence conference in Washington, she largely stuck to thanking attendees for showing up and discussing how exciting the conference would be.

Now, trying to downplay Osama bin Laden’s importance in advance of September 11, Townsend mistakenly described bin Laden as “virtually impotent”:

Appearing on the Fox network on Sunday, the White House homeland security adviser, Frances Townsend, said Bin Laden was now "virtually impotent" to launch an attack.

"This is about the best he can do," Ms Townsend said of Bin Laden. "This is a man on the run, from a cave, who's virtually impotent other than these tapes," she said. She repeated her claim that he was impotent again on CNN later that day.

The provocative characterisation came just days after Bin Laden attracted international attention with the release of a video in which he ridiculed Mr Bush about the Iraq war.

"There's nothing overtly obvious in the tape that would suggest this is a trigger for an attack," Ms Townsend said.

But her characterisation of al-Qaeda as impotent sits uneasily with the findings of the most recent National Security Estimate released in July, which found that the US faced a persistent and evolving terrorist threat, especially from al-Qaeda.

If you don’t know where bin Laden is, and certainly can’t produce him for trial, it doesn’t make sense at any level to characterize him as impotent. As Cascada Observer puts it, “Congratulations to Ms. Townsend for receiving her Ph.D. from the Bring Em' On College of Public Diplomacy.”

(Thanks as always to John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review for putting me on to Cascada Observer.)

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Return of the Non-Native


This morning’s Wall Street Journal brings down the curtain on a whole era of thinking about foreign policy.

I think of it as the “scratch an Iraqi and you’ll find a Westerner” school of thought, the idea that if you could just decapitate the Iraqi government, hold elections and install a few McDonald’s, every Iraqi’s inner American would emerge and flourish.

It looks like the military, or at least the Marine Corps, has gradually realized this isn’t the case, and the hunt for Americans who can understand Iraqi psychology and interaction at the ground level is as urgent as the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

That is to say, anthropology is cool again.

In “To Understand Sheiks in Iraq, Marines Ask ‘Mac’” details the adventures of William “Mac” McCallister, a former marine self-tutored in Iraqi tribal customs and politics. He’s now working as a private contractor for the Marine Corps in Iraq, explaining the ins and outs of dealing with Sunni sheiks and helping marine commanders be more effective on the ground, particularly in meetings.

For example, conducting business with sheiks is radically different from conducting a meeting in the U.S., where everyone is expected to speak at room temperature and physically violent motions are usually seen as weakness. But that same reserve is counterproductive in Iraq, McCallister tells the WSJ:

“The Iraqis expect the grand gesture. It’s one of their rituals,” says Mr. McCallister. “You show them no respect when you don’t offend.” He compares discussions among tribal sheiks to symphonies. They often begin quietly, he says. Then they grow hotter often [sic] elevating into screaming matches before the debate calms down again.

The Marines say they have emulated this in meetings with tribal and government officials. In June, [Brig. Gen. John Allen], who says he prides himself on not losing his cool, was meeting with the governor of Iraq’s Anbar Province in a hotel restaurant in Amman, Jordan. With security improving, Gen. Allen told the governor he wanted his help to reopen Anbar’s criminal courts, which had been shut down after threats of violence caused many of the judges to quit. The governor was noncommittal.

Gen. Allen says he slammed his fist on the table, causing silverware to clang and heads to turn. “You have got to want those courts to open more than I do!” he says he yelled. “We are going to have the first trials in Anbar by Aug. 1!” Today, thanks to the governor pushing, the trials have started. The Anbar governors regularly refers to the conversation with Gen. Allen as a turning point.

At first, U.S. commanders incorrectly assumed that sheiks ruled as dictators, Mr. McCallister says. But a sheik’s power is actually defined by his ability to “attract others to him,” he says.

Ladies and gentlemen, for once, it really is all about soft power.

McCallister has become an expert in this field largely on his own, although his Special Forces training undoubtedly included more than a bit of training in diplomacy, persuasion and skills useful in persuading people not to try and kill or oppose you.

The U.S. could benefit from about a thousand more of these bush Ruth Benedicts fanning out across Iraq and soaking up the culture, and I’d love to hear news of any formal DoD or State program that helps or grooms these kinds of people.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Promoting the Balance of Terror


Fresh from warning U.S. citizens about the danger of leaving Iraq in a hurry, President Bush visited Anbar province last weekend at least partly to demonstrate that he has left Baghdad.

Left Baghdad to twist in the wind, that is.

Several factors caused the president to shun Iraq’s capital for the first time in his visits to Mesopotamia. The central government there has been paralyzed or on vacation while a war of words between Maliki and Congress escalated, and the president naturally doesn’t want to spend time in Maliki’s company right now. In addition, the U.S. military has scored notable successes in quieting Anbar province, and the president wants to highlight those successes in advance of the Petraeus report.

These are the visible factors leading President Bush to skip Baghdad this time around. But as with icebergs, it’s the invisible factors that matter most. I believe the president is interested in showing Maliki, and Shi’ites generally, that the cost of refusing to share power with Sunnis or Kurds is that the U.S. will arm and organize them until they can no longer be ignored.

This is a fine strategy if you assume an extended U.S. presence in Iraq, as the president seems to. Sooner or later, the Shi’ites will realize that they cannot simply terrorize or shove aside their Sunni countrymen while the U.S. keeps a lid on large-scale violence, and will arrive reluctantly at a power-sharing deal.

However, if the U.S. leaves Iraq before there is effective central government in that country, it is leaving behind three major factions kept from each other’s throats only by a balance of military force among them.

To make this balance of terror stable, the U.S. will have to arm the Sunnis and Kurds with much more than small arms so they can hold their own in a post-occupation civil war with their Shi’ite countrymen. The analogy I’m thinking of here is Cold War Western Europe, where the U.S. developed technically superior weapons to offset the Warsaw Pact’s overwhelming advantages in troop and tank numbers.

I’d love to sit in on some of the scenarios that the DoD must be using to examine how an Iraqi civil war might start and play out. How do you say Fulda Gap in Arabic?

Monday, August 27, 2007

Postwar, by Tony Judt


While I’ve been unable to make it through Moby-Dick this summer (just 480 pages left to go before the autumnal equinox), I have been making surprising time through Tony Judt’s epic Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Judt combines a superhumanly broad grasp of European politics and culture with a writing style that can only be called “breezy,” in light of what could be wretchedly dry subject matter.

He doesn’t just discuss Europe, but also the Soviet Union and the U.S. and their efforts to promote or denigrate Communism. Apparently, the U.S. brought a lot of public-diplomacy dollars to the task:

By 1950 the US Information Agency had taken overall charge of American cultural exchange and information programs in Europe. Together with the Informational Services Branch of the US Occupation authorities in western Germany and Austria (which had full control of all media and cultural outlets in the US Zone in these countries), the USIA was now in a position to exert huge influence in Western European cultural life. By 1953, at the height of the Cold War, US foreign cultural programs (excluding covert subsidies and private foundations) employed 13,000 people and cost $129 million [annually], much of it spent on the battle for the hearts and minds of the intellectual elite of Western Europe.

That’s about $890 million in 2003 dollars, if you’re keeping track. A lot of that money went to establishing “America Houses,’

with libraries and newspaper-reading rooms, and [to] host lectures, meetings and English-language classes. By 1955 there were sixty-nine such America Houses in Europe. ...

Which is not to say USIA and its governmental brethren did everything right:

Like American-supported radio networks, ... the America House programs were sometimes undermined by the crude propaganda imperatives emanating from Washington. At the peak of the McCarthy years the directors of America Houses spent much of their time removing books from their shelves. Among dozens of authors whose works were deemed inappropriate were not only the obvious suspects—John Dos Passos, Arthur Miller, Dashiel Hammett and Upton Sinclair—but also Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, Alberto Moravia, Tom Paine and Henry Thoreau. In Austria, at least, it seemed to many observers that the US was sometimes its own most effective foe.

Who might appear on today’s multimedia list? The obvious suspects would be Christopher Hitchens, the Dixie Chicks, Al Gore and Seymour Hersh. Non-obvious candidates for book removal might include Bill Gates (critical of U.S. engineering talent), Bono (U.S. and EU policy toward Sudan) and Studs Terkel (Dos Passos’s nonfiction successor, I’d say).

Got others?

Monday, August 20, 2007

While You Were Out


While I was vacationing, my inbox filled with PD-related bites. Andy Valvur of Igor International forwarded to me this video of Condoleezza Rice at the WHCA dinner, getting roasted by Cedric the Entertainer. It's good to see the Secretary of State relaxed and laughing--and it's also good to see actual humor at a WHCA dinner rather than thinly disguised bile.

Tyler Davidson at Meetings Media sent word that Cal Ripken is now working for State as a "special sports envoy." (Video here, text here.) The legendary Orioles iron man can be expected to connect nicely with audiences in East Asia and Latin America, where baseball and its heroes carry a lot of weight. His work ethic and self-deprecating view of himself are exactly what the U.S. should hope to project abroad, so good call by Undersecretary Hughes.

Speaking of baseball, East Asia and iron men, Nolan Ryan is now pitching for the U.S. Meat Export Federation to revive sales of U.S. beef in a mad-cow-wary Japan. Ryan, who does a little ranching himself, "has his picture in the meat aisles at major [Japanese] grocery stores under the slogan 'Beef makes you strong!'" according to Thursday's Wall Street Journal. The Hall of Fame pitcher is well-known in Japan and as good a fit for pitching U.S. beef as Ripken is for pitching U.S. values.

Finally, one of my favorite bands, Los Angeles's Ozomatli, has been touring on State's behalf and performed in Tunisia, Jordan and Egypt in July. This is a much gutsier call by State and presumably by Karen Hughes; although Ozomatli exemplifies L.A.'s multicultural melting pot and plays in well-known Latin, African and American musical styles, some of their lyrics talk about American racism and fears of a coming race war.

But if you want to give people an honest idea of what America is about, along with a positive message of peace and a great vibe, I can't think of a better group to send abroad. See this video of their mellow "After Party" here.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

On Vacation

Taking vacation from today through August 19. Rural. Low-tech. Distant. Before I head to the hinterlands, a few quick shots:

Some U.S. brands' popularity may be declining because their newness has worn off or because people don't like America. Where does that leave China, with its latest product-safety disaster that the Wall Street Journal captioned "Poison Me Elmo"?

If you haven't read Mark Bowden's Guests of the Ayatollah, do. I'm only fifty pages in and it's been tough to put down since page one. Bowden interviewed participants on all sides of the Iranian hostage crisis and his reporting makes those events fresh nearly 30 years later.

Finally, the "Karen Hughes is too prominent/Karen Hughes is nowhere to be found" debate rages on as the undersecretary for PD quietly pops up on the West Bank, says a few words in support of U.S. policy, then leaves. I suspect Hughes simply can't find a happy medium that will satisfy the press between now and 2009, but wish her luck anyway.

Off to vacation.

Monday, July 30, 2007



In Sunday’s Times, “China Moves to Refurbish a Damaged Global Image” documents Beijing’s belated efforts to institute top-down quality control and, more importantly from a public-diplomacy standpoint, show the world that it is doing so:

Last week, Beijing unveiled new controls aimed at fighting counterfeit drugs and substandard exports. High-ranking officials and regulators vowed to strengthen China’s food safety system, tighten controls over chemical use by large seafood and meat producers, and create a system that holds producers more accountable for selling unsafe products.

The government also announced that it had broken up a series of criminal rings that operated huge manufacturing centers, producing goods as varied as pirated Microsoft software, fake Viagra and imitation Crest toothpaste.

Authorities here have also reached out to Ogilvy Public Relations, an international corporate consultancy on crisis management.

As the article notes, Beijing has instituted reform drives before, only to see its efforts against corruption, food adulteration, and product counterfeiting peter out after weeks or months once public attention shifted elsewhere. These programs have for years spawned jokes among China-watchers about the Four Must-Nots, the Five Better-Do-Its and the Three Deadly Appositives. Perhaps China’s new list-based slogans will be export-based, e.g. the Three Must-Not-Adulterates: Tickle Me Elmo dolls, pet foods and erectile dysfunction drugs, in rough order of overseas outrage.

Ogilvy PR certainly has Chinese government officials keeping a higher profile, the better to publicize their reform efforts:

“They have not historically been advice takers,” said Scott Kronick, president of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide China, part of the WPP Group. “But they are reaching out in a genuine way to seek advice. I think they recognize everything doesn’t have to be rosy.”

Since then, officials from various regulatory agencies and ministries have held news conferences to announce new regulations or to brief the news media on successful crackdowns.

The PRC has lurched in just two decades from a corrupt overly controlled economy to a corrupt minimally controlled one. But as the Times article notes, China has 5,000 companies that produce medicine alone, and the PRC will have to backtrack toward its over-regulated past in order to arrive at a system that satisfies its trading partners of the safety and efficacy of Chinese products.

As long as those trading partners can make noise about China’s unsafe exports—China, through its inaction, is poisoning our pets and toothpaste—the PRC’s other public-diplomacy efforts will stall.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Sources Open and Closed


Early this week I attended the DNI Open Source Conference, a two-day Washington affair keynoted by the Director of National Intelligence, Mike McConnell, and attended by roughly 900 people from intelligence agencies, private companies that want to do business with them, and academics.

The conference’s topic was the gathering, care and handling of open-source (OS) information, such as from news media, commercial databases and libraries—basically, anything that’s not stolen or obtained surreptitiously. OS has recently become a priority thanks to the efforts of McConnell and others who contend that OS should be the “source of first resort” for the U.S. intelligence community (IC).

I attended panel after panel in which current and former IC members described the virtues and drawbacks of open-source collection: how to vet it, recombine it, and even how to get access to it at all, since many IC computers are purposely isolated from the Internet. (Internet connections risk giving away IC intentions since an adversary could monitor intelligence-agency searches and results.)

Although some of these breakout sessions were useful, most were inordinately heavy on panelist presentations and light on Q&A time, reducing opportunities for useful give-and-take between panelists and audience members.

The plenary sessions, held in an amphitheatre, were uncomfortably repetitive. Officials with long experience in the IC each welcomed us, heralded a new dawn for the IC’s embrace of OS, asked our help, and solicited suggestions. Not one of these plenary speakers—high government officials all—provided contact information for themselves, so the idea of people in the OS community making helpful suggestions remains a bit distant.

Unfortunately this trend of one-way communication reached up to Tom Fingar, deputy director of national intelligence for analysis, whose talk on Tuesday followed the release of a two-page, unclassified summary of the new National Intelligence Estimate on terrorism. Perhaps trying to motivate his audience, Fingar briefly discussed the NIE’s findings, which boil down to: Al-Qa’ida still threatens the U.S. from its Pakistan “safe havens.”

After the director’s remarks, Lawrence Wright of the New Yorker asked Fingar why the NIE took three years to conclude what anyone reading the newspapers would already know. Fingar testily replied that a) the media don’t have as many sources as the IC, which therefore b) has a higher confidence level in its conclusions.

Considering that the conference’s purpose was to promote OS sources and thinking, Fingar's reversion to the old-school IC line—We know more than you, so please don’t question our thinking—was remarkable. Particularly on the topic of al-Qa’ida, whose plans and intentions the IC has misread more than once.

Afterwards, I shared a chuckle with Wright, a Pulitzer Prize winner for The Looming Tower, when I accused him, personally, of lacking both good sources and confidence.

Fortunately, the real story of the DNI Open Source Conference wasn’t on the agenda. Someone once told me it’s the ‘walks in the woods’ that matter at conferences, and the myriad conversations between panelists, attendees and exhibitors between sessions generated real sparks. I was hard-pressed for a moment to talk with many of the panelists since so many others also sought them out.

I have no doubt that hundreds, maybe thousands, of useful connections were made between IC, private-sector and academic intelligence professionals, whose enthusiasm for talking and debating one-on-one was obvious and contagious.

This is where the DNI Open Source Conference’s real value to the U.S. lies; hopefully, next year’s conference will move beyond the introductory, isn’t-this-great phase and plan in more time for people to mix, mingle and create connections that will lead to better OS intelligence collection.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Absurd Denials

When the more clueless Iraqi imams accuse the U.S. of importing "Jews" who will somehow enslave Mesopotamia, the U.S. doesn't usually issue a denial because the idea is so absurd.

Unfortunately, British forces felt they should deny importing the dread honey badger to Basra.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

A Note from Secretary Rice

Len Baldyga forwards a cable that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently sent to all U.S. diplomatic and consular posts around the world. In it, she thanks U.S. diplomats for tolerating the State Department's redeployment of personnel from comfy, overstaffed places like Germany to more wretched, frequently isolated but vital postings.

The Secretary also explicitly puts Embassy Baghdad at the top of the heap in terms of getting first pick of staff—which is hardly necessary to emphasize to U.S. diplomats, who understand that the only route to advancement at State is through the Green Zone:


1. Around the world, the men and women of the Department are doing important work. The work may vary, from traditional partnership and alliance building to the cutting edge of transformational diplomacy. Whatever your work, it is all necessary and vital to our nation's security.

2. I am very grateful, and pleased, that so many of you have responded to the Director General's call to serve in difficult posts. The changes he has instituted are making a difference for Iraq and all of our difficult yet critical posts. Those changes, together with global repositioning, are ensuring that more of the Foreign Service and the Civil Service are on the ground in transitioning countries. It is there, on the frontlines of diplomacy, that I believe we can have the greatest immediate impact.

3. As I am sure you are aware, the number of unaccompanied and limited accompanied posts has grown in recent years. The decision to serve at these posts requires personal sacrifice. I would like to extend a personal thank you to each and everyone of you who have made this decision. I would especially like to acknowledge the difficulties such service imposes on our families. We are now preparing for 2008 openings, and I am committed first and foremost to ensuring that Embassy Baghdad has the staff it needs.

4. Why is all of this so important? I believe we are at a crossroads in history. The decisions we make and the actions we take will shape our world for years to come. I believe that we, like our predecessors, must actively commit to building a better world where terror, injustice, and extremism cannot gain a foothold. To win this struggle, we must mobilize more than our military. We must also deploy our democratic principles, our development assistance, our compassion, and the power of ideas.

5. I, therefore, encourage each of you -- and your families -- to look to the future, consider where you can best make a difference, and then pursue the assignments and training that will get you there. I encourage you to serve in transitioning countries, to learn their culture and their language -- from Arabic to Chinese to Hindi -- and to share the principles and the story of the American people. I especially encourage your continued commitment to serve at our most difficult and essential posts, such as Baghdad and Kabul.

6. In the past, those who helped shape a better future became the leaders of their time, and of this Department. I urge you to seize the opportunities before you and lead.

7. Thank you again for your commitment to public service.

Item number six is perhaps the most interesting; Secretary Rice calls on staffers to sacrifice but also publicly implies a quid pro quo: Work hard now at your hardship posting and you too can be great, and perhaps even stride in the footsteps of Cordell Hull and Dean Acheson.

It's a small bit of inspiration, but it may be vital for U.S. diplomats to hear as it places them in a larger context of diplomacy stretching all the way back to the first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Much More than a Mouse


I’d been thinking that Farfour, Hamas’s Mickey Mouse lookalike, had quietly retired under a combined assault by Disney lawyers and world public opinion. Good riddance, I thought; Farfour had been used by Hamas to indoctrinate Palestinian kids on the importance of being good little martyrs, outraging Disneyphiles and trademark lawyers alike.

But I was wrong, as an un-bylined story in yesterday’s New York Times will show:

Farfour, Hamas’s TV Mouse, Dies ‘Martyr’s Death’ at Hands of Israeli

JERUSALEM, June 30—Farfour, the giant Mickey Mouse look-alike who was the host of a Palestinian children’s program on Hamas-affiliated television and drew international ire for what critics saw as incitement, died a “martyr’s death” at the hands of a fictional Israeli on Friday.


In the final episode of the program, “Tomorrow’s Pioneers,” Farfour’s grandfather, a Palestinian refugee, entrusted him the deeds and a key for property abandoned by the family when Israel became a state and Palestinians fled or were chased out. After leaving his grandfather, “Jews” went after Farfour and asked him to hand over the deeds and the key. When he refused, he was beaten to death.

I used to get riled when right-wingers would refer to some Middle Eastern dictatorships as “totalitarian.” It was a stretch that the corrupt, ramshackle state structures of an Iran or a Saudi Arabia could drive every aspect of a citizen’s life and thoughts toward a specific thought pattern, as the Soviets once tried to do.

But there is nothing ramshackle about Hamas, which is attempting a total brainwashing of its citizenry from the crib on up. The merits of Hamas’s cause can be debated but its efforts to create an anti-Israel Jesus Camp of the airwaves make me regret my earlier lighthearted treatment of Farfour and Hamas.

I now wonder when some anti-Semitic version of Thomas the Tank Engine will hit the airwaves, and figure a Two Minutes Hate for adolescents can’t be far behind.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

"Our Independence from Foreign Funding Is Our Only Strength"

The Times magazine ran a depressing little piece this past Sunday on successes and failures in public diplomacy toward Iran ("Hard Realities of Soft Power"). It dissects the disposition of about $75 million in funds meant to influence Iranian opinion, but unfortunately, the funds—and administration officials' pronouncements in support of Iranian civil-society organizations (CSOs)—have had unintended consequences.

It seems like most of the failure has come from this combination:

Publicized U.S. Funding of Iranian CSOs + Administration Sabre-Rattling + Absence of External Oppressor = Tehran Crackdown on CSOs

I occasionally give Cold War-era FSO and USIA types a hard time, because some seem to reflexively reach for a toolkit that contains some combination of Voice of America programming and touring American musical groups as our front line of public diplomacy; but in this case, it would be nice to head back to a Cold War model that looked something like this:

Highly Covert Funding + Steady But Judicious U.S. Talk About Democratic Futures + External Oppressor + Patience = End of USSR

Maybe it's time to redouble U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, where the Taliban are at least externally inspired and supported—and get out of Iraq, where we are the external oppressor of some large fraction of the population.

Monday, June 18, 2007

That Was the Zombie War That Was


It’s an article of faith among fans that any time science fiction says something important, it is not taken seriously outside the fan community. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War fits this model, as novels with much larger palettes (Dune and Foundation) did before it.

Author Max Brooks sets World War Z 10 years after the last major world power has subdued a plague of zombies, which occurs sometime in the near future. It includes wide-ranging interviews with those who survived the decade-long war against the undead, putting the novel’s “present” somewhere around 2030 and gazing back at the 2010s.

Brooks’s zombies are pure George Romero: mindless yet strong, vulnerable only if you destroy the brain. Hungry. They spread, of course, by killing and partially eating victims who then return to ‘life’ as zombies themselves. They generally cannot climb obstacles, and the moans of one attract others within earshot to an unlimited extent.

But zombies are just the gory gift-wrap for some acute social commentary. Like Warner Brothers cartoons featuring smart-aleck rabbits and overconfident coyotes, World War Z works on several levels. For teenagers and young adults, Brooks paints a pulp picture of the near-destruction of humanity.

For adults who think about U.S. society and international relations, the book has a second level:

Take a threat with X qualities (add robustness and strength to normal humans; subtract reason, speed and tool use; the zombie disease spreads by direct contact). How will X threat affect Y type of society (post-industrial, high-tech, increasingly insular)?

Seen through this lens, World War Z is an examination of society’s weaknesses and strengths relative to that threat.

The zombies overrun large sections of the earth, including the entire U.S. east of the Rockies, before humanity manages to counterattack years later. World trade collapses, and widespread fires combine with a small nuclear exchange to drop global temperatures 10-15 degrees Fahrenheit.

Various societal weaknesses aid the zombies’ rise:

The high-speed international trade in bodily organs speeds zombies’ spread via transplants—especially from China, where the zombie plague is thought to originate. It also makes advanced Western hospitals the sites of zombie outbreaks, quickly crippling nations’ medical capabilities.

First-world militaries’ shock-and-awe attacks fail against opponents that cannot be shocked and awed (read as “non-deterrable” in current jargon).

Training riflemen to aim for center body mass, rather than to take head shots, also works against human forces.

Many spend time Googling for answers rather than grappling with physical-world factors that could help them escape or fight the zombies.

A sedentary class of white-collar workers is useless to a society that suddenly must fight a large-scale infantry war. Physical stamina and blue-collar skills (as farmers, machinists, factory workers, etc.) are suddenly highly prized, leading to general social upheaval.

The unwillingness of some societies to accept an unimaginable threat causes much unnecessary death, adding to the zombies’ numbers. For example, many Arabs initially believe the zombie plague is merely a Zionist lie.

China’s penchant for secrecy catches up with it, as it successfully deceives foreign intelligence agencies into thinking that early zombie outbreaks are themselves rumors spread by the PRC government to hide a massive political purge.

On the other hand, various societal strengths help humanity eventually beat the zombies:

White South African paranoia emerges as the unlikeliest virtue, in the form of an apartheid-era plan that becomes the basis of each country’s merciless decisions about which human groups to protect and which to abandon, essentially as bait, so that others may reach safety.

As with invaders throughout history, even one that gets behind its lines, Russia’s vast interior and unforgiving winters give it periodic respite from the zombie invasion (the zombies are inanimate when frozen, then thaw each spring).

After a disastrous opening engagement in Yonkers, N.Y., the U.S. military completely redesigns its weaponry, doctrine and training to fight a years-long war on foot, which sweeps the U.S. from west to east. Needless to say, this infantry focus does not please the Air Force, whose high-tech weapons platforms are now useless and largely mothballed in favor of low-tech aerial resupply.

Max Brooks had previously written The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead, which treated episodes from horror movies as straight-faced fact and showed how one could avoid the mistakes that caused the deaths (and undeaths) of so many B-movie actors. World War Z is a logical brand extension—but one that also happens to illuminate some of our current world societies’ weaknesses.

I contacted Brooks’s publicists about an interview for Beacon in which we could discuss this further—does he realize this is the most entertaining social commentary in years?—but they replied that Brooks won’t be doing interviews until the fall release of the World War Z paperback. I’ll try and get hold of him then.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Drift of “Public Diplomacy”


For years the term “public diplomacy” has been fought over by specialists and pundits. I’d initially thought that public diplomacy could and should be defined as:

governmental expressions of the best of your nation’s culture, science and style of government in all their messiness

but the term has drifted as its use has widened. Readers will recall me insisting over the years that “public diplomacy” should not consist of a Karen Hughes-style rapid-reaction force that sat there watching TV all day, responding instantly to foreign badmouthing, but I lost that one and PD went through a period of being defined as:

top-down unity of messaging and prompt correction of disinformation about the U.S.

and now “public diplomacy” is becoming synonymous with mere “diplomacy”—the actions of our ambassadors. This latest watering-down of “public diplomacy” is illustrated in a bit of critique from Davids Medienkritik, which purports to analyze the German media:

The fact that members of the American Foreign Service haven't more effectively engaged German media has been a costly failure. The system of two year rotations in the US foreign service clearly makes it more difficult to establish an effective media program. The fact that the Foreign Service and State Department tend to lean undeniably to the left also means that there is currently less desire to go out and explain and defend the positions of the US government on mass media forums - despite the fact that that is the very mission of the public diplomacy officials.

No, day-to-day explaining and defending is not what public diplomacy is about! But I’ll probably lose this one, too, since “public diplomacy” now seems reduced to:

ambassadors and staff staring down hostile local media.

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

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Science Fiction Writers Aid DHS


In “Sci-fi writers join war on terror,” Mimi Hall describes Sigma, a group of science-fiction writers who are helping the DHS brainstorm ways to protect the U.S.:

The last time the group gathered was in the late 1990s, when members met with government scientists to discuss what a post-nuclear age might look like, says group member Greg Bear. He has written 30 sci-fi books, including the best seller Darwin's Radio.

Now, the Homeland Security Department is calling on the group to help with the government's latest top mission of combating terrorism.

Although some sci-fi writers' futuristic ideas might sound crazy now, scientists know that they often have what seems to be an uncanny ability to see into the future.

"Fifty years ago, science-fiction writers told us about flying cars and a wireless handheld communicator," says Christopher Kelly, spokesman for Homeland Security's Science and Technology division. "Although flying cars haven't evolved, cellphones today are a way of life. We need to look everywhere for ideas, and science-fiction writers clearly inform the debate."

Bear says the writers offer powerful imaginations that can conjure up not only possible methods of attack, but also ideas about how governments and individuals will respond and what kinds of high-tech tools could prevent attacks.

The group's motto is "Science Fiction in the National Interest." To join the group, Andrews says, you have to have at least one technical doctorate degree.

Bear is the perfect pick for a group like this; I had the good fortune to meet him a few years ago, at a conference that looked at ways to enhance human performance, and he had the twin attributes of deep insight (Darwin’s Radio and its sequel deal with periodic jumps in human evolution) and the affability needed to work in group settings.

Authors Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle are also Sigma members, and they’re no strangers to thinking hard about the future, either. In fact, they’ve been doing it for over 30 years, by my count, having co-written the seminal asteroid-impact epic Lucifer’s Hammer in the mid-1970s.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

All You Bhojpuri Speakers


Hollywood is increasingly cutting into Bollywood’s ticket sales thanks to simultaneous releases of blockbusters in Indian dialects like Bhojpuri, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu.

As this Christian Science Monitor article notes, Hollywood movies have frequently not done well in India since dubbed versions, if any, tended to be released only after English-language versions had finished their runs.

U.S. studios are wising up, and Spider-Man 3 is breaking the recent record set by Casino Royale—an American movie about a British spy that takes place in Africa and Europe—which was also released in multiple Subcontinental dialects.

It’s clearly worth the money for Hollywood studios to dub films into major foreign languages and dialects, although I’d love to see where the cut-off is; hypothetically, do the studios decide to spend money to dub for 101 million Bhojpuri speakers but consider dubbing for 90 million Gujarati speakers not worth the investment?

If Hollywood moguls can bring the cost of dubbing for smaller and smaller dialects down, they will. The question is, will Bollywood do the same, toning down its musical melodramas for non-Indian audiences and dubbing into Mandarin, English and Spanish for overseas consumption?

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

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

From the Mouths of Mice


It is extremely rare that Hamas makes a strategic mistake. But it has.

The Palestinian militia/political party/social-services agency has adopted a thinly veiled ripoff of Mickey Mouse as the mascot for one of its kids’ shows:

A giant black-and-white rodent — named "Farfour," or "butterfly," but unmistakably a rip-off of the Disney character — does his high-pitched preaching against the U.S. and Israel on a children's show each Friday on Al-Aqsa TV, a station run by Hamas. The militant group, sworn to Israel's destruction, shares power in the Palestinian government.

"You and I are laying the foundation for a world led by Islamists," Farfour squeaked on a recent episode of the show, which is called "Tomorrow's Pioneers."

"We will return the Islamic community to its former greatness, and liberate Jerusalem, God willing, liberate Iraq, God willing, and liberate all the countries of the Muslims invaded by the murderers."

Children call in to the show, many singing Hamas anthems about fighting Israel.

The reason I call this a Hamas mistake is that the group can face down the U.S., stand off the Israeli Army, alienate the European Union, and even thumb its nose at various regional sponsors—but it is now subject to attack by the most relentless opponents in the Western Hemisphere: Walt Disney Co. intellectual-property lawyers.

Nothing can stop them. Nothing can placate them. Unmarked private jets have been seen flying east from Bob Hope Airport even as I write this.

It’s a shame that none of Osama bin Laden’s broadcasts have tried to appeal to kids in this way; Osama would long ago have been found by Disney lawyers and flown back to Burbank to face justice.

On the other hand, only after a pricey out-of-court settlement had been reached would Disney have released Osama to U.S. officials for trial.

Update: The last surviving child of Walt Disney condemns the Hamas ripoff as “pure evil.”

May 10 Update: Disney's lawyers have achieved the inevitable victory, and in record time: Mickey Hamouse has been taken off the air and "placed under review."

Thanks to Tyler Davidson for forwarding the initial story as well as a follow-up.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Beacon No. 103: National Security for the Sesame Street Set


It’s nearly impossible to see your foreign-policy tax dollars at work, but in one case your tax dollars are teaching dozens of six-year-olds to speak and write in Arabic.

In eastern Iowa.

At Kalona Elementary School in Kalona, Iowa, Susie Swartzendruber recently won a three-year, $600,000 grant to teach Arabic to all the school’s K-5 students. The Iowa native had lived in rural Egypt from 1982-1985, speaks the Egyptian dialect, and applied for the grant with the goal of increasing cross-cultural understanding.

That hopeful phrase has additional resonance in Kalona, a largely Mennonite farming community of just 2,300 where road signs caution motorists to yield to horse-drawn vehicles.

The Kalona Elementary grant is part of the interagency National Security Language Initiative (NSLI). It can be renewed twice depending on favorable reviews, so by the time today’s first graders turn nine, they’ll already have several years’ more Arabic instruction than almost any other native-born Americans.

I visited Kalona Elementary on May 2 for the premiere of Arabic DVD Dictionary, starring one of the school’s first-grade classes. This video is the brainchild of Erica Ruen, an about-to-graduate education student at the University of Iowa who taught at Kalona Elementary as part of her degree work. Arabic DVD Dictionary is designed to showcase the kids’ achievements and maybe teach viewers a bit of Arabic as well.

The dictionary begins with the first-graders welcoming viewers, introducing themselves (“Ana ismiy Hali!” “Ana ismiy Payton!” “Ana ismiy Paul!”), and naming months, numbers, and some of their favorite things (including several floppy dolls and stuffed animals) in Arabic. They’re clearly having fun and by report are picking up Arabic words and numbers quickly, to the point that can do simple math in Arabic.

The students pronounce their words with a distinctively Iraqi accent thanks to their instructor, Zahra al-Attar, an Iraqi immigrant living in Iowa City with her husband—a doctor at the University of Iowa’s hospitals—and their two children. Al-Attar left Iraq for the U.S. in 1994, finding life under Saddam’s regime intolerable, and lived in Georgia and Michigan before settling in Iowa.

Erica Ruen thinks that having Iraqi students create an English-language video dictionary would be an excellent tool for increasing cross-cultural understanding on the Iraqi end, and her fiancée Peter, on leave from duty in Iraq, agrees, saying it would help the U.S. mission in Iraq to have Iraqis know more about the U.S.

Iraq war or no Iraq war, the U.S. will always need Arabic speakers—and people who have a thorough understanding of the Arab world. Hopefully President Bush and his successors will extend and enhance NSLI funding so these kids can continue learning and, by the 2020s, be part of this country’s first post-9/11 generation of native-born strategic language speakers.

Thanks to Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Lee Hermiston for writing both the original story that led me to Kalona Elementary and his post-premiere follow-up.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Freeway-Collapse "Terrorism"


All that separates the Oakland freeway collapse from terrorism is a claim of responsibility.

If some far-sighted aide had reached Osama bin Laden in his Peshawar apartment and successfully urged him to release a statement about how the tanker-truck fire was part of his Master Plan to bleed the U.S.—direct economic losses from freeway closings are at $6 million/day, never mind the repair costs—the entire United States would be on red alert right now: cops and dogs everywhere, National Guardsmen at the airports, air passengers being fluroscoped.

Better yet: The freeway fire/collapse was an accident, but imagine for a moment that the next such incident is intentional. Create a poisonous cloud by driving a second tanker-truck full of chlorine or anhydrous hydrogen flouride into the fire, add an Osama bin Laden claim of responsibility, and you combine big economic punch with a high body count and extreme terror—all at extremely low cost and risk to al-Qa'ida leadership.

I've previously written about On the Edge of Disaster and want to recommend it again. Stephen Flynn's book gets you thinking about how fragile U.S. infrastructure is, and how terrorists can use that fragility to magnify the effects of system disruptions. And it's got some pretty terrifying scenarios. ...

Monday, April 30, 2007

Frank Luntz on "Words That Work"

Love or hate the guy who coined "Contract with America" and a bunch of other memorable phrases that defined GOP success in the 1990s, Frank Luntz is worth reading for a brief education on efficient use of language. Focus on results, not process, Luntz says; don't dwell on 'putting more cops on the street'—talk about 'public safety' instead. It worked for Luntz when he worked for Rudolph Giuliani.

Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear is not as colorful as Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up, but I'd recommend it for a look at GOP and corporate opinion-making.

PD applications? If you're of the "the policy's fine, we're just not telling it right" school, this book is for you. Luntz would argue, though, that efficient wording can arise only where a policy that people actually agree with is in play—and Luntz's descriptions of the mechanics of figuring out whether that's the case is another good reason to read the book.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In Memoriam: David Halberstam

I was appalled to hear that David Halberstam died yesterday in an auto accident in California. He was 73 and had years of productive life ahead of him.

The Times's obituary and the Post's.

Typically, Halberstam died on his way to interview a subject for yet another book.

I had the good fortune to see him speak several years ago in San Francisco, where he uttered the words that became part of my e-mail signature for years: "This is a great country to be a reporter. Everybody talks."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Seven Days in April


The best job title to have in the military right now is “retired.”

Groups of retired U.S. generals have recently sounded the alarm about climate change and slammed President Bush’s “surge” plan from big-media megaphones and the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This morning’s Wall Street Journal ices the cake with “The Courting of General Jones,” an account of a politically hot retired Marine Corps general. James Jones is friendly with bigs in both major political parties and has indie cred, causing those parties to chatter about how he could help them in presidential politics:

Gen. Jones is a freshly retired Marine Corps general who stands 6-foot-5, speaks fluent French and served until December as supreme allied commander in Europe. He says he thinks that the troops should stay in Iraq but that the U.S. should close the Guantanamo military prison “tomorrow.” He advocates engagement with friends and enemies alike. And, more to the point, he pledges allegiance to no political party.

All of which has made Gen. Jones one of Washington’s hottest political commodities. As they look toward an election sure to be dominated by issues of war and national security, candidates from both major parties are clamoring to get Gen. Jones on their side.

How have generals (and admirals) gone from being the cagy coup-plotters of Seven Days in May to being accorded unlimited access and attention?

—They’re in a position to know the true state of the military and the situation on the ground worldwide, especially in Iraq.

—Their words, resumes and appearance are polished and measured, thanks to a lifetime of high-level education, grooming, and successful movement within the Pentagon bureaucracy.

—They have had to keep their personal opinions hidden for decades and are now presumed to be telling the unvarnished truth.

—They are usually tilting against the Bush administration—which is only expected from those wronged by the administration, like Anthony Zinni, but which is surprising in so many successful, high-level military men whose retirements were handled more gracefully.

The courtship of General Jones isn’t surprising; for those too young to remember the Eisenhower example, Gen. Colin Powell was similarly feted in 2000, declared himself a Republican and was anointed Secretary of State for the first Bush Administration. Unfortunately, at that point he had to participate in making U.S. policy rather than executing it, and had to either get on board with the Iraq war or resign. Powell chose the former, destroying much of his soft power and causing him to vanish from public life.

Will today’s crop of retired generals remain on the sidelines in blue-ribbon commissions and CNN green rooms, or will they jump into actual policymaking Wesley Clark-style, and risk success or failure in their second (civilian) careers? Watch for much side-taking and policy-making from today’s retired generals as grow more comfortable in their civilian suits.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Controlling Gaza Inputs


Anyone who doubts that soft power is important should look to the Gaza Strip where, as the Wall Street Journal reports today in “Uncertain Fate of Gaza Reporter Deepens Concerns,” a new breed of radicals is focusing on control of information:

JERUSALEM—Fanatical Islamists of the type sowing chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be operating with increasing impunity in the Gaza Strip, heightening concern about the rising danger posed by al Qaeda-inspired groups or similar violent fringe groups in the Palestinian territories.


The same day [a] claim about [the kidnapping and alleged killing of BBC reporter Alan] Johnston was made, two Internet cafes and a Christian bookstore in Gaza were bombed. That followed last week’s bombings at a computer lab and library of a cultural center. Since the beginning of this year, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights has documented a string of such attacks, targeting businesses or institutions with products or services that are deemed by Islamic radicals to be impure or potentially corrupting.

The article implies that these are not Hamas- or Fatah-inspired bombings, but either homegrown freelancers or the leading edge of an al-Qa’ida surge into Gaza. In either case, the perps are clearly concerned about cutting off Gazans’ access to any information flow but their own—and it’s unclear what their views are at this point. Next up, I’d watch for bombings of broadcast facilities and news crews, and there are a few in Gaza.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Best PD Quotes from 2006

John H. Brown recently compiled his PD quotes of the day for 2006 here, and they're a hoot. My fave: "When you are persuaded by something, you don't think it is propaganda." Give it a look.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Arab Media React to Speaker Pelosi’s Trip to Damascus


Those who thought Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Damascus was purely about head scarves and poking a finger in the president’s eye might want to look at MEMRI’s roundup of Arab media reaction to the trip. It was as mixed as U.S. reaction, but for different reasons: Where U.S. reaction played out entirely along the left-right axis, Middle Eastern reaction questioned whether Pelosi’s visit presented possible changes in U.S. policy—some welcoming engagement with Damascus, others considering it a sham, still others dreading that it will leave Arab democracy activists twisting in the wind.

But all seemed to consider Pelosi’s visit a serious move of some sort, with the possible exception of Al-Riyadh, which hinted dismissively at “supreme interests ... that do not change with a change in leadership.” Now, who the heck could the Saudis be implying pulls the strings?

Monday, April 09, 2007

First Impression: John Edwards


This will be the first in a series of reports on the Democratic and Republican candidates as they make their rounds here in eastern Iowa, because even though the presidential election has little to do with public diplomacy it does have to do with soft power—reputation, branding, recovery from setbacks, long-term message management.

Iowa provides unique opportunities to vet presidential candidates early. For example, on Tuesday, April 3, I had the choice of seeing Hillary Clinton in Iowa City, or John Edwards or Rudolph Giuliani at separate events in nearby Cedar Rapids.

I chose to see Edwards because he threatens to disrupt the Clinton “inevitability” strategy which reportedly is playing out even at the local level; I read a newspaper account claiming that even minor-league Iowa Democratic officials are being buttonholed by the Clinton campaign and told to endorse now—11 months before the caucuses—or forget any future consideration from the nominee-presumptive.

I’m not sure how well this kind of hardball plays here—I’m not involved in Democratic politics—but former governor Tom Vilsack recently got on board with a Clinton endorsement in exchange for help retiring his campaign debts—a rather naked use of the power of the purse.

The Edwards town-hall meeting took place at Prairie High, about two miles from the Cedar Rapids airport. Hundreds—I would guess about 750—filed into a gymnasium festooned with one giant and two merely huge American flags, plus banners relaying Edwards’s message that “tomorrow begins today.” The gym was harshly lit to accommodate cameras from the local CBS affiliate and others; sitting behind what was the “stage” by virtue of the TV cameras being at the opposite end of the gym, I stared into high-powered lighting for over an hour.

Campaign workers passed out the standard “John Edwards ‘08” placards to wave before the cameras and then, somewhat more cynically, a large collection of handmade signs saying things like “Live Strong Elizabeth” and “Iowa Is a Blue State.” I should put “handmade” in quotes because although they were obviously made by hand on posterboard with Magic Markers, they were not made by anyone who wound up holding them at the rally.

Two officials warmed up the crowd for Edwards: the school’s associate principal and Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller, a white-maned Vietnam vet who also worked for Edwards’s 2003-04 run at the presidency. Here I encountered the rally’s only technical stumble: After Zeller gave a rousing intro emphasizing his first-hand experience with Edwards during the last election, there was a gap of 7-8 minutes before Elizabeth and John Edwards entered the gymnasium.

Still, the place went nuts—the crowd on its feet, applause, cheering, the former senator and his wife making their way, Moses-like, through the slowly parting sea of handshakes.

John Edwards gave a short talk warning against candidates who don’t give specifics about their policy plans, a clear shot at Barack Obama and an echo of last week’s Big Horserace Question about the Illinois senator: Isn’t he a little weak on specifics? Edwards also stated that he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq sooner than later, and outlined a healthcare plan that would put the country on the road to single-payer coverage. Both these lines got lots of applause.

In fact, the line I remember getting the most applause (besides curse-this-awful-war sentiments) was Edwards’s line about how his healthcare plan would eliminate pre-existing conditions. People connected very strongly with this idea, and I think this issue is one to watch through the remainder of the primaries.

Edwards, a former trial attorney, seemed to enjoy one-on-one interactions during the Q&A session. One questioner put him in Tony Blair’s shoes regarding the captured sailors: What would he do as commander-in-chief had the sailors been Americans? Edwards answered that he would first try to ascertain the facts; if U.S. sailors had indeed been trespassing, he would have no trouble apologizing—unlike the current president, he implied. But if U.S. sailors had been seized unfairly, he would have demanded their return and sent his secretary of state directly to Tehran to negotiate, another unsubtle jab at the Bush administration, whose secretary of state sometimes seems to operate only at the grand-strategic level.

I asked Edwards how he’d gone from an undergraduate degree in textile design (I believe) to a career in the law, and how that would inform his presidency. He answered that his father had been a mill worker, so that was one factor; but he’d also been concerned with being able to make a living once he got out of college, which ruled out a liberal-arts degree. (This got some polite chuckles.) Edwards insisted that he’d always wanted to be a lawyer, and thus his textile degree was a pragmatic move to be able to have an income until he could get into law school.

He then connected this remark with the second part of my question, saying that his career helping defend (mostly) little guys had given him empathy with them, and that this would influence an Edwards presidency.

It’s hard to overstate how focused Edwards is in answering this and other questions. He simply never takes his eyes off whoever asks him a question unless it is briefly, for the dramatic effect of including the rest of the audience in his reply. This makes him a potentially superb one-on-one campaigner—a crucial quality as the money primary continues and Edwards has to grip and grin with ever-increasing numbers of donors.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

On “The Edge of Disaster”


Terrorists and even some nations often hold that their adversary governments can’t take a punch. The North Vietnamese used to maintain that the U.S. was a “paper tiger,” Saddam Hussein predicted swift U.S. withdrawal once the body bags started heading home in 1991, and the U.S. thought that without Hitler and later Castro, Nazi Germany and Communist Cuba would simply collapse.

Jihadists frequently use the “paper tiger” argument about the U.S., and it seems to have been a rationale for the 9/11 attacks: Cause enough bloodshed and terror—shock and awe, to borrow a phrase—and the U.S. will leave its Arabian bases, stop supporting Israel, et cetera.

The 9/11 attacks didn’t cause any such thing, but Stephen Flynn, among many others, worry that jihadis won’t stop trying. Flynn’s new book The Edge of Disaster details all the other infrastructure that remains exposed due not so much to poor security as sheer ricketiness and lack of maintenance: bridges, dams, the electric grid and, in one memorable scenario, a vulnerable Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia that, when bombed, releases a cloud of highly toxic anhydrous hydrogen fluoride onto the crowd at a nearby Phillies-Mets game.

Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer who has helped game out terrorist disruptions for years, doesn’t argue that the U.S. can throw a punch militarily; he worries that it can’t take a punch very well because terrorists + rickety infrastructure = unnecessarily spectacular civilian death tolls + weakened national will.

Update the infrastructure—rebuild the bridges and dams, move the refineries away from population centers as they age out, update the electrical grid—and you automatically lower the body count and disruptions to large, complex systems like the U.S. economy and polity, whether from terrorism or natural events like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Robustness, resilience, call it what you will; terrorists who take such pains to stake out their targets as al-Qa’ida does will be discouraged by the low return on their lives, and the systems themselves will be more reliable in natural disasters. Would-be terrorists will have to gravitate toward trying to disrupt higher-value targets which will tend to be better protected.

I’m about halfway through so far but am interested in Flynn’s arguments for resilience from a public-diplomacy standpoint. A United States that is rapidly updating its infrastructure and talking about that update is also improving its technologies and its ability to export them to other countries, helping those countries update their own facilities while indirectly stating that terrorists looking for the U.S.’s glass jaw will be disappointed.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Soft Power, the Undiscovered Country


With absolutely no news hook, Jackie Northam still ran “Bush Team Explores Use of Soft Power” on Morning Edition today. It’s deadly boring unless you’ve never heard of soft power or public diplomacy, or dislike breaking news.

Northam’s thesis: the Bush Administration may be taking a softer line on foreign policy!

The usual soft-power suspects were there: Ex-neocon Francis Fukuyama as “The Penitent,” Joseph Nye as “The Thought Leader,” ex-Colin Powell deputy Richard Armitage as “The Unshackled,” plus some of the usual D.C. think-tank talkers (James Carafano, Edwin Luttwak) in supporting roles. Kevin Spacey was about the only one missing from this line-up.

And what did these Wise Men say? The same things they’ve been saying for years—the right things, words about the value of soft power, about the need to mix hard and soft power, about the need to win when you use hard power. The same things, Northam points out, that candidate George W. Bush proclaimed during the 2000 campaign:

“If we're an arrogant nation, they'll view us that way. ... But if we're a humble nation, they'll respect us."

Soft power, all too easily discovered by the rest of the world, remains the Undiscovered Country at 1600 Pennsylvania—deathbed conversions to diplomacy and soft power notwithstanding.

(Thanks to Len Baldyga for the initial item.)
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