Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Smith-Mundt Symposium: Get Accredited


When I got back from Afghanistan in October, my colleague Matt Armstrong at MountainRunner was flogging a January 13 symposium in D.C. on the Smith-Mundt Act, the enabling legislation for U.S. overseas propaganda efforts. While funding overseas propaganda, it specifically prohibits the U.S. from propagandizing at home.

Silly, I initially thought, in an Internet age where all information is local. Still, I asked Matt to keep me informed, worried that he'd be standing there on January 13 with a stack of blank "Hi, my name is..." stickers and too much undrunk coffee.

Boy, was I wrong. All 200 slots at this one-day symposium filled up, the waiting list is apparently zaftig verging on large, and Matt's saying only accredited journalists get to jump the line.

Somebody please get accredited today and let me know what goes on, as I won't yet have arrived in D.C. at that point. ...

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Beacon Hiatus

Dear Reader,

Due to what I expect will be an all-consuming work engagement, I'm putting Beacon on hiatus for about the next six months. I'll try to post if and when I can, but meanwhile please look at some of the excellent soft power, public diplomacy and foreign policy blogs in my sidebar.

Thanks for reading,

Paul Kretkowski

Friday, March 07, 2008

The Madrasa We DO Know


Andy Valvur forwards a story from the Financial Times on how a U.S. provincial reconstruction team is building madrasas in Afghanistan's Khost province.

So much for separation of church and state, you might think--is this where U.S. taxpayers' dollars are going?

But wait: The PRT is making a rational calculation that it's better to build a madrasa in Afghanistan, where the government at least has some say in the curriculum, than have Afghan parents send their kids to madrasas over the hill into Pakistan and spend all their time memorizing the Qur'an. And State is on board as well:

John Kael Weston, the State Department's political representative in the Khost reconstruction team, holds weekly meetings with madrassa students.

"Just look at it from their perspective - if we just talk about girls' education, for example, it just plays into the propaganda about the US. They think that the Americans will be opening up strip joints and restaurants selling alcohol on every corner."

Building madrasas dovetails nicely with something I wrote awhile ago about how U.S. policymakers must address the primacy of religion in many other cultures. Chalk one up for this PRT's pragmatism.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Terrorists Don't Even Have to Succeed Once


You can spend years developing counterinsurgency-warfare doctrine, deploy a fairly successful "surge" to tamp down violence, and train U.S.-born linguists until you're blue in the face, but if your own civilians stop supporting your efforts--if they lose the "will to fight"--you lose.

Charges that U.S. forces kill civilians in war zones--as happens unavoidably and usually by accident--enrage the people that counterinsurgents are trying to pacify.

Videos of U.S. forces killing or tormenting dogs in war zones create a whole different set of problems--on the home front. (I should note that the accompanying videos are graphic.)

These knuckleheads aren't Lt. William Calley, but they'll do until Calley comes out of retirement.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Looking Long in Pakistan


The BBC's Owen Bennett-Jones wrote a nice piece for the Stanley Foundation, Iowa's surprisingly prolific and well-funded foreign-policy think tank. In "US Policy Options Toward Pakistan: A Principled and Realistic Approach," Bennett-Jones argues that a long view is everything in American policy toward Pakistan--first because the U.S. left Pakistan to groan under the burden of millions of Afghan refugees during and after the Soviet war, and Pakistanis think the U.S. will shortly cut the country loose again; second, because a short-term focus on pressuring Pervez Musharraf to move against Taliban and al-Qa'ida elements in Pakistan has backfired; and third, because the only way out of Pakistan's consistent poverty, corruption and ineptitude is through a focus on education, which takes well over a decade to have any effect.

Bennett-Jones argues that the U.S. should grit its teeth and say less about perceived front-burner problems such as the Taliban, al-Qa'ida, and Pakistani internal politics and nuclear command-and-control, while increasing accountability for how Pakistan spends U.S. military funding and boosting the percentage of overall U.S. aid that goes to education.

I agree with Bennett-Jones' diagnosis and prescriptions but worry that it's unrealistic for the U.S. to do nothing when it has a wanted militant in some Predator's sights. However, he argues strongly that killing militants via missile attack is a short-term gain that only causes long-term harm in terms of Pakistani public opinion; the average Pakistani sees Islamic militancy as a lesser threat than day-to-day problems like inadequate medical care, and is outraged by perceived U.S. violations of Pakistan's sovereignty.

The problem with Pakistan for U.S. policymakers comes down, as it always seems to in counterinsurgency, to winning small today versus possibly, maybe, hopefully winning big sometime after you're out of office.

I could only advise them to think about Ronald Reagan, who was out of office by the time the Berlin Wall came down but is revered for taking a long view of facing down the Soviets, or Rep. Charlie Wilson, who only recently started to receive public recognition for aiding the Afghan rebels' decade-long war against the Soviets.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Disney, Management Consultant

Bet you didn't know Walt Disney Co. was in the management-consulting business. They are, and today's Post reports that the Disney Institute is giving Walter Reed Army Hospital tips on customer service. Using video of an enraged Donald Duck. No, I am not making this up: "... experiential training, leadership development, benchmarking and cultural change for business professionals across the globe."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Africom, R.I.P.

When President Bush announced plans for a DoD African Command (Africom) last year, it raised hackles across the very continent it was intended to help.

Africom's flaws were many:

—The administration put forth no clear rationale for why Africa needed its own command, when U.S. military interests in Africa were being managed adequately from Germany.

—Similarly, there was no strong idea for how Africom would differ from its more combat-oriented cousins, beyond vague ideas that it would be decentralized in five African nations and more focused on soft power.

—African nations were not consulted beforehand about hosting Africom bases or other operations.

In "No Bases Planned for Africa, Bush Says" in today's Post, President Bush admitted that Africom was dead in the water, but only after Ghanaian president John Kufuor was, well, rude to his guest:

...The Bush administration has had trouble convincing Africans that it wants to use the new command to coordinate humanitarian and security aid to Africa more effectively, not to station large forces on the continent.

The tension evidently came to a head during talks with Ghanaian President John Kufuor in Osu Castle, a 17th-century oceanfront estate once used as a slave-trading post and now the seat of government. By Bush's own account, Kufuor brought it up pointedly during their private meeting.

"You're not going to build any bases in Ghana," Kufuor told him.

"I understand," Bush recalled replying. "Nor do we want to."

It would have been preferable for the Bush administration to prepare the ground in Africa for Africom before making an announcement last year; the president could then have appeared with a stage full of African leaders to announce the new command as the final step in a consultation among partners. Now, unfortunately, those consultations have to take place ex post facto, and will be the next president's problem, as this quote by J. Stephen Morrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies implies:

"They're now in a quiet phase where they're trying to build up their credibility and their consultations."

For now, the [Africom] headquarters remains in Stuttgart, Germany, home of the European Command.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Wrong Briefing


Peace Corps volunteers live in host countries’ hinterlands for years at a time, building, cultivating and teaching. And then, whenever the host government feels put upon by the U.S., it uses Peace Corps volunteers as convenient whipping boys because, of course, they are “foreign influences” or worse, spies.

A friend of mine had to abruptly evacuate her post in Chad’s hinterlands in the late 1990s after Libya’s Qaddafi made these kinds of accusations, and another friend had to flee the Philippines with just the clothes he wore after Abu Sayyaf threatened that country’s Peace Corps contingent.

And now to Bolivia, where U.S. embassy official Vincent Cooper apparently gave the wrong briefing to a group of inbound Peace Corps volunteers and a Fulbright scholar:

[U.S. Embassy La Paz] released a statement Monday explaining that Peace Corps volunteers had been mistakenly given a security briefing meant only for embassy staff, asking them to report "suspicious activities" [of Venezuelans and Cubans in Bolivia].

"Nobody at the embassy has ever asked American citizens to participate in intelligence activities here," U.S. ambassador Phillip Goldberg said during a flood relief visit to the eastern city of Trinidad. "But I want to say that I greatly regret the incident that was made known this weekend."

Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, declared Cooper undesirable but no word so far on whether La Paz formally PNG’d him. Regardless, Cooper has left Bolivia, but not before creating an excuse for Morales et al. to jack up anti-U.S. sentiment and hysterically summon the armed forces to protect it from sinister yanquis.

How’d the story break in the first place? Apparently, a Fulbright scholar who Cooper also mistakenly asked to “spy,” John Alexander van Schaick, went public with the news:

"My immediate thought was 'Oh my God. Somebody from the U.S. Embassy just asked me to basically spy," he said. "I was in shock that something like that would happen to me -- just a humble Fulbright scholar who's here to do research."


The controversy erupted after van Schaick said Cooper asked him in a November meeting at the U.S. Embassy in La Paz to report the names and addresses of Cuban and Venezuelans working in Bolivia, according to the Bolivian Information Agency.

"I smiled and just sat there because I did not want to show that it completely dismayed me to be asked such a thing," van Schaick said, according to the news agency.

Van Schaick might consider turning the “shocked, shocked!” bit down in the future. The “humble” Fulbright scholar hasn’t been born yet, as indicated by the fact that he apparently outed Cooper to the press over a mistake, in the process damaging the Peace Corps program that’s probably helping Bolivia a lot more than his research.

Not to mention the Fulbright program itself, which is sponsored by the State Department and will now be looked on by host governments as yet another nest of spies.

But look on the bright side: Van Schaick is undoubtedly a hero in Caracas. He could always get a teaching post there.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Burqa Business


PostGlobal has a nice short piece on how cheap, machine-made Chinese burqas are displacing the hand-made (and Afghan-made) sort in Kabul.

I've heard some talk lately about how widely disliked Chinese workers are in any area of Africa where there are a lot of them. This is a purely economic dislike, as one person hinted, because when a PRC business does a big infrastructure project in Africa they tend to bring in a lot of Chinese workers, rather than employing local Africans. (Come to think of it, when the PRC constructs a new embassy in Washington D.C., they bring in a lot of Chinese workers too, but that's a different matter.)

However, when it's just inexpensive, well-made and even stylish goods that turn up in a foreign market, rather than Chinese workers visibly displacing locals, PRC businesses gain market share.

At least Afghans still have a choice about who they buy their burqas from. In contrast, the U.S. has completely lost the ability to clothe itself, a fact that must be widely known and operate to the detriment of America's usually can-do reputation.

The fact is that in 2005, 89.3 percent of apparel sold in the U.S. was manufactured abroad, and 98.5 percent of footwear, according to the American Apparel & Footwear Association's figures for that year. Insert your emperor-has-no-clothes gag here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Mr. Musharraf in Davos


I usually try to emphasize that soft power is a function of branding: Make an appealing promise and then keep it.

That’s what makes it tough to keep a straight face when I see headlines like “Musharraf Trumpets Stability” in this morning’s Wall Street Journal. The Pakistani president has been traveling in Europe the past few days and the Journal interviewed him at the World Economic Forum.

... Mr. Musharraf dismissed recent turmoil in his country as “minor irritations.” He said he would work with any government produced by Pakistan’s coming elections, even if formed by his opponents.

“Please differentiate Pakistan from banana republics” where a lowly colonel can take over the state. “These things don’t happen in Pakistan,” he said. “Pakistan is a nuclear state.”

The 64-year-old former army general, who came to power in a military coup in 1999 and was subsequently elected, ...

It just gets more surreal from there:

... rejected recent speculation that the U.S. could send special forces into Pakistan in search of Taliban and al Qaeda leaders such as Osama bin Laden.

Mr. Musharraf described the U.S.-Pakistan relationship as strategic and said the idea that a few U.S. forces could succeed better in Pakistan’s mountains better than 100,000 Pakistani troops was “sadly mistaken.”

“The real battle is not in Pakistan,” but in Afghanistan, Mr. Musharraf said.

Musharraf continues redefining reality for a dozen or so more paragraphs. Don’t have a URL, but all you really need to know is that the Journal’s reporters gave Musharraf more than enough rope to hang himself, brand-wise, and the Pakistani president happily put his head into the noose.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Douglas Johnston on "Speaking of Faith"


Krista Tippett's excellent Speaking of Faith recently interviewed Douglas Johnston, head of the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy, former submarine commander, COO of CSIS, presidential advisor, and all-around policy actor.

In books and in this interview, Johnston insists that U.S. public diplomacy engage the religious element in other societies as deeply as is consistent with the Constitution's establishment clause--not because religion is important to Americans so much as that it's the indispensable entry point for talking about anything else with the nations the U.S. most wants to engage.

Johnston, himself an evangelical, long ago found that listening to other people's faith frameworks ensures that you'll be heard when it's your turn to speak.

Listen online or download the podcast. It's well worth the hour you'll spend.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Innovation in India


Pretty soon it will be as difficult for American car companies to sell their cars in India as it is right now for U.S. aerospace concerns to sell small jets in, say, Brazil.

This cheerful news arrives courtesy “How to Build a $2,500 Car” in Tuesday’s Times, which details Tata Motors’ efforts to build an Indian volkswagen. It’s being introduced in India today, but the Times ran a preview: 30-35 hp, belt-driven transmission, low-speed bearings, tiny trunk—and no radio, power steering, power windows or air-conditioning.

Cries of heresy! would ring out in the West for Tata’s as-yet-unnamed car—but it’s set to be India’s Model T Ford nonetheless:

... Tata is not looking to ply California’s highways. Instead, the company wants to provide four-wheel transportation for the first time to people accustomed to getting around on two, including hundreds of millions of Indians and others in the developing world. ...

“It’s basically throwing out everything the auto industry had thought about cost structures in the past and taking out a clean sheet of paper and asking, ‘What’s possible?’” said Daryl T. Rolley, head of North American and Asian operations for Ariba, which sources parts for Tata, BMW, Toyota and other carmakers. “In the next five to 10 years, the whole auto industry is going to be flipped upside down.”

Not only is the car inexpensive to produce, designing it has upstream effects that benefit the rest of Tata’s and other manufacturers’ lines:

Manufacturers are searching for ways to make small cars for the middle class in India and China; to produce small cars for their own markets, hurt by rising gas prices; and to improve the profit of existing larger cars. Tata’s car would be mined for applicable lessons, Mr. Rolley said, predicting that more would be designed with cost in mind.

Tata understands its market deeply and decided to innovate down to India’s mass market rather than up to its elites. Hopefully Ford and other U.S. auto manufacturers—sorry, I mean “the other U.S. auto manufacturer”—can take Tata’s lessons as a spur to their own innovation, particularly since the developing world can’t afford most of what they and other First World manufacturers sell.

As the Times drily notes, the cost of the Tata “People’s Car” is “as little as the equivalent of $2,500, or about the price of the optional DVD player on the Lexus LX 470 sport utility vehicle.”

Monday, January 07, 2008


Grassroots with a Vengeance.

In 2005, when my wife first suggested moving from Los Angeles to Iowa so she could attend law school, I was skeptical for several reasons—but she reminded me that we’d have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to play a role in the Iowa Caucuses. And so we have.

I wound up being a precinct captain for John Edwards in Iowa City, and—without going into details about the Edwards campaign, since I’ve promised not to—here are a few observations about the caucus process:

On-the-ground organization is everything; media counted for little. My counterpart in the Barack Obama campaign benefited from the Illinois senator’s swelling popularity here, but she also by several reports simply out-hustled the other campaigns. The Obama campaign in my precinct not only had red t-shirts, private-label cupcakes, sign-waving volunteers and a visible organizational structure, it offered staffed daycare complete with toys while the caucus process took place. This put even the well-organized Clinton campaign, not to mention my own paltry efforts, to shame. My wife also observed that the Obama campaign signs actually de-emphasized the candidate’s name (!) in favor of themes like “Hope” and “Unity.”

People can be won over at the last moment. I and fellow Edwards volunteers increased the number of votes we had by nearly 50 percent between the first and second rounds of caucusing, as fans of Sens. Dodd and Biden, Gov. Richardson, and Congressman Kucinich realized their candidates would not be viable.

But not everyone. By report, several Richardson voters walked out of the caucus rather than throw their weight behind another candidate. Contrast this with the reasonableness of Kucinich supporters, who generally shifted their votes to Edwards or Obama.

Digging in pays off. An audible, prolonged gasp swept the room when Sen. Clinton’s representative announced that she didn’t have enough votes to be viable. That wasn’t the case for long, as the Clinton team doggedly worked the room and easily came up with enough additional votes for viability. Even though Clinton won just a single delegate in my precinct (there were eight up for grabs), her team’s fast work impressed me.

Political debate thrives at the grass roots. Of course it’s easy to say this in politically saturated Iowa, but I was impressed by the thoughtfulness of practically everyone I encountered, and the respect accorded to every candidate’s representatives as they sought votes from a crowd that numbered 541.
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