Thursday, January 25, 2007

"Smart Power" at USC CPD

I haven't been blogging about soft power lately, but some folks at USC's Center on Public Diplomacy are taking up the slack in the form of a new blog, Smart Power. It's the outgrowth of a class by the same name taught by Ernest Wilson, who is guest-starring at USC for a semester rather than hang around the chilly University of Maryland campus all winter.

"Smart power" is Dr. Wilson's (and others') term for creative combinations of hard and soft power; check out the blog's introductory post and stay tuned for more.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Return of the Professionals


It’s odd to watch President Bush’s administration quietly recall to service people who are actually experts on the Middle East—a small group who can’t even be called Cassandras, so little were their advice and predictions about the Iraq war heeded.

Last night “Diplomat Tapped to Head Iraq Reconstruction” told the story of Timothy M. Carney, who headed Iraq’s Ministry of Industry and Minerals for two months in 2003 before deciding that then-Ambassador Paul Bremer’s nickel-and-dime approach to economic reconstruction doomed his mission. Carney resigned and headed home, firing off warnings that the administration ignored.

Now it looks like another old pro, Ryan Crocker, has been tapped as the newest U.S. ambassador to Baghdad. (He replaces Zalmay Khalilzad, scheduled to become neocon-in-residence as U.S. ambassador to the UN.) Crocker, the current U.S. ambassador to Pakistan, speaks Persian and Arabic and has been a diplomat long enough to have had at least one U.S. embassy (in Beirut) blown out from under him.

Crocker is the first career foreign service officer and Arabist to take the Baghdad job, which may put him at a disadvantage in persuading the administration on policy. The three previous U.S. envoys -- Khalilzad, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte and Coalition Provisional Authority chief L. Paul Bremer -- had all been political appointees who had a direct line into the White House.

"It's going to be a terrible job," says former ambassador to Lebanon Robert Dillon, who was also in the [Beirut] embassy when it blew up. "As a career guy, he's going to be under a lot of pressure and I'm not sure how much support he'll get in Washington."

But diplomats and military officers who have served with him say Crocker, who knows Iraq's tribes as well as its Arabic dialect, was the only realistic choice to deal with the country's labyrinthine politics.

Given the administration’s “surge” plan, which is unpopular in both the U.S. and Iraq, not having a direct line to the White House may actually be a blessing, enabling these two diplomats and others to distance themselves from policymaking and actually work on improving the situation in Iraq.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

AU Kurdistan


As much as I hate to sound like Thomas Friedman—not that I dislike him or his writing, it’s just that some days he’s seemingly everywhere—if you build stability, they will come.

In this case, what would come is an American University in Iraq, modeled on similar institutions in Cairo and Beirut. But as “An American University for Iraq but Not in Baghdad” shows, support for an American-style institution of higher learning in Iraq flows in direct proportion to distance from the capital’s chaos:

Their planned American University of Iraq is modeled after the famous private universities in Cairo and Beirut. The project’s managers have a board of trustees; a business plan recently completed by McKinsey & Company, an international consulting firm; three candidates for university president; and $25 million, much of it in pledges from the American government and Kurdish sources. To fulfill their dream, they need much more: $200 million to $250 million over 15 years, said Azzam Alwash, the board’s executive secretary.

But if it does become a reality, the university will not be built in Baghdad, which for centuries was a beacon of learning in the Arab world.

Instead, it is slated for what is the most non-Iraqi part of Iraq. The site is on a windswept hilltop along the outskirts of Sulaimaniya, the eastern capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, 150 miles north of Baghdad and far from the car bombs and death squads that are tearing apart the Arab regions of Iraq. Because of its relative safety so far, Kurdistan can more easily attract aid and reconstruction money.

It’s telling that Baghdad, for centuries a center of learning in the Arab world, is barely being considered for the next American University in an "Arab" country.

Say what you will about the Kurds—their government is corrupt, their intent to secede poorly disguised, their thumbing of noses at Ankara poorly timed—they are well-organized and have carved out a stable portion of Iraq, and those are currently the only factors that matter to those with money to invest in Mesopotamia.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Asia in Comic Form


Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal covered Virgin Group’s premiere of a new series of comics centered on South Asian mythology:

A sexy villain swoops out of the night sky, her hands morphing into terrifying swords. She intends to kill a girl named Tara, who is driving home from a nightclub. But suddenly a secret society of caped men whisks Tara away—aboard an elephant.

Soon Tara will learn the startling truth: It’s her destiny to become a Hindu goddess.

It’s a key scene in “Devi,” a new comic book that’s part of an ambitious effort by a unit of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group Ltd. to develop story lines based on Indian religion and mythology. Others take inspiration from the Sanskrit epic poem Ramayana and traditional legends such as one involving snakes that can take on human form.

East Asia has been big in the comic-book world for years, and appears to be reaching a peak; a friend of mine didn’t see daylight for most of 2006, so busy was he helping to translate Japanese manga comics into English 18 hours at a time.

That said, turning South Asian mythology into comics for both Western and Indian audiences is a new phenomenon. But the Virgin brand is a strong one and chief Richard Branson has a knack for attracting talent; one of the titles at Virgin Comics, “The Sadhu,” is already slated for moviedom with Deepak Chopra writing the screenplay and Nicholas Cage playing the title character, a British chap who finds out he was an Indian holy man in a previous life. (Cage now has his opportunity to mangle two accents in a single film.)

Virgin Comics is “aggressively targeting Indian-Americans, by sponsoring Indian-American events and linking up with student clubs at colleges.” Although the comics are being created in Bangalore, will Desis here respond to Branson—who after all is just a particularly hip white guy—appropriating the foundations of subcontinental culture?

Up next for cultural strip-mining: Perhaps Iran, with the release of a movie based on Frank Miller’s 300, which involves 300 Spartans holding off thousands of Persians at Thermopylae.
Site Meter