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?
Site Meter