Clever Girl! (Blogging Black Lamb and Grey Falcon)

“He does not so much split his infinitives as disembowel them.” (Rebecca West on Dr. Lionel Tayler, The Clarion, 1913) 

CONSIDER THIS INTERACTION recorded by Ian Parker about the late Christopher Hitchens in The New Yorker:

And then the young doctor to [Hitchens’] left made a passing but sympathetic remark about Howard Dean, the 2004 Presidential candidate; she said that he had been unfairly treated in the American media. Hitchens, in the clear, helpful voice one might use to give street directions, replied that Dean was “a raving nut bag,” and then corrected himself: “A raving, sinister, demagogic nut bag.” He said, “I and a few other people saw he should be destroyed.” He noted that, in 2003, Dean had given a speech at an abortion-rights gathering in which he recalled being visited, as a doctor, by a twelve-year-old who was pregnant by her father. (“You explain that to the American people who think that parental notification is a good idea,” Dean said, to applause.) Dean appeared not to have referred the alleged rape to the police; he also, when pressed, admitted that the story was not, in all details, true. For Hitchens, this established that Dean was a “pathological liar.”

“All politicians lie!” the women said.

“He’s a doctor,” Hitchens said.

“But he’s a politician.”

“No, excuse me,” Hitchens said. His tone tightened, and his mouth shrunk like a sea anemone poked with a stick; the Hitchens face can, at moments of dialectical urgency, or when seen in an unkindly lit Fox News studio, transform from roguish to sour. (Hitchens’s friend Martin Amis, the novelist, has chided Hitchens for “doing that horrible thing with your lips.”) “Fine,” Hitchens said. “Now that I know that, to you, medical ethics are nothing, you’ve told me all I need to know. I’m not trying to persuade you. Do you think I care whether you agree with me? No. I’m telling you why I disagree with you. That I do care about. I have no further interest in any of your opinions. There’s nothing you wouldn’t make an excuse for.”

“That’s wrong!” they said.

“You know what? I wouldn’t want you on my side.” His tone was businesslike; the laughing protests died away. “I was telling you why I knew that Howard Dean was a psycho and a fraud, and you say, ‘That’s O.K.’ Fuck off. No, I mean it: fuck off. I’m telling you what I think are standards, and you say, ‘What standards? It’s fine, he’s against the Iraq war.’ Fuck. Off. You’re MoveOn.org. ‘Any liar will do. He’s anti-Bush, he can say what he likes.’ Fuck off. You think a doctor can lie in front of an audience of women on a major question, and claim to have suppressed evidence on rape and incest and then to have said he made it up?”

“But Christopher . . .”

“Save it, sweetie, for someone who cares. It will not be me. You love it, you suck on it. I now know what your standards are, and now you know what mine are, and that’s all the difference—I hope—in the world.”

This is very confusing.  When Hitchens died ten years ago, his many friends heaped praise on the pyre.  So where in this boorish altercation is that “fine, funny orator,” “quietly self-parodying,” (Ian Parker)?  Is this an example of the “master of the extended peroration, peppered with literary allusions, and of the bright, off-the-cuff remark” (William Grimes)? What happened to the “brilliant speaker and debater,” “in conversation incomparably interesting and engaging” (James Fenton)?  Did I miss the “elegance, wit, and brilliance” (Victor Navasky)?  The “mischievous laugh,” “mock outrage,” “devilishly clever,” “devastatingly pointed phrase,” “…striving for some conversational prize in erudition” (Meryl Gordon) must have passed over my head.   Did the transcriber fail to underline that this exchange was uttered in “that insouciantly charming tone of his” (Fred Kaplan)?  Were these women unaware that he was “the thinking woman’s crumpet” (Joanna Cole)?  Is this some hidden example of his “intense personal generosity and kindness” (Hussein Ibish)?  Did he pick a fight with two young women in the absence of “starting fights with God, assuming there is one, which he doesn’t” (Alexander Chancellor)?

I cannot see any of that.  What I see is a mean drunk, the fuel for which has been amply and admiringly documented; a wolfish domesticate.  The misogyny is plain on the surface: The need to dominate, the dismissiveness triggered by disagreement, the sexist apodo, the abrupt fellatory vulgarism.  The constellation of logical fallacies (I count six) that must have been learned while studying Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at Balliol College of Oxford University in the late 1960s.

New Yorker illustration by Ralph Steadman

Reading Christopher Hitchens after this very unnerving dust-up it is impossible not to see his sexism everywhere.  Visiting Afghanistan in 2004, he is “obsessed with women” which manifests itself in the actually common and prosaic revulsion that consumes Europeans confronting the veil.  “My sex obsession got the better of me again” meeting a female Afghan doctor who survived detention under the Taliban to become the only woman candidate for the presidency of Afghanistan.  He “made bold to inquire” about “a headscarf that didn’t seem all that comfortable”: “How long have you been wearing that?  Have you always worn one?”  He writes:

Her downcast-eyed yet stirring reply was that, in her days as a medical student, she had worn what she liked.  This was a nervous compromise.  Even her revolutionary candidacy was, in a sense, being conducted with male permission.

This would be very funny – “The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad” (Mark Twain) – but for the wager Hitchens solemnly places at the very top: “the future of democracy may be at stake.”  These are abstract stakes for him but very much not so for the woman sitting in front of him.

Back in the gender-liberated citadel of American democracy he crumpets on. Asked “what’s it like to be a minority of one,” when it comes to his ill-considered stance on invading Iraq, he responds, “It washes off me like jizz off a porn star’s face.”  To his wife: “Darling, you would be so much more convincing if you were dressed.”  About Ann Coulter: “If I can’t fuck up Ann Coulter before lunch, then I shouldn’t be in this business.”  In Vanity Fair he wrote a thoroughly unnecessary and unconvincing paean to head and its alleged American character.  His opening salvo, as it were, was a complete misread of Lolita as an erotic novel – his commonplace error compounded by a shuddering appropriation of the world’s most famous book depicting child rape to rhapsodize about oral sex.  He stumbles forward (“Stay with me,” he begs the reader.  “I’ve done the hard thinking for you.”).  Rhetorically he asks why Nabokov refused to apply the English translation of souffler as if there were some profound Platonic form to be elided from the text.  In reality, the answer is easily available given Lolita’s colorful publication history: even when self-scrubbed of explicit descriptions of sexual acts, the first edition had to be printed by a French pornographer rather than an English or American publisher.  Hitchens considers the virtues of the gay hummer – he partially admits to such activity in English boarding school – which is not a very brave or original argument to make in 2006.

Hitchens was at least as famous for his enemies as for his friendships.  He emigrated to the United States in 1982 and quickly ingratiated himself with the ruling class of Washington, D.C.  It is telling that most of those who wrote eulogies for Slate’s Hitchens tribute tell banal anecdotes rather than assess the character of the man.  This suggests to me that Hitchens didn’t have friends so much as potential adversaries.  As Meryl Gordon describes him, in “Washington society these days, he’s like a gunslinger with an itchy trigger finger.”  In other words, a very dangerous man.  In his career he managed to estrange Eric Alterman, Colin Robinson, Alexander Cockbridge, Michael Kinsley, his own brother Peter (for four years), his first wife (until after the baby), and most famously, Sidney Blumenthal.  In most of these cases the split was the result of personal or political differences, which means Hitchens was willing to abandon friends and family over his opinions.  That is the very essence of the fanatic whom Hitchens insisted he hated.

Never mind. Hitchens was an acolyte of George Orwell, who like Hitchens was not a uniquely gifted or capable writer. Still, profundity can emerge from prose but only if the source itself is pure. Orwell’s canny judgment – of the reality in front of him and its moral implications – distinguished him among his generation.  It also separates Hitchens most starkly from his hero.  Hitchens was wrong about almost everything he ever wrote about.  Orwell was right about fascism and communism at the same time.  He was right about socialism.  He was right about the Soviet Union.  By contrast Hitchens was wrong about communism, Trotsky, Iraq (twice!), “Islamofascism,” Mother Teresa, Paris Hilton, female humor, and atheism.  On those subjects where he coincided with historical judgment, he was late to join an already crowded field.  So he discovered The Clintons were corrupt the year after the president was impeached.  Henry Kissinger was deemed a war criminal 26 years after the end of the Vietnam War.  George Orwell and Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were good men and very smart.  In other words, all of his opinions about important public subjects were wrong, tardy, or commonplace.  And this is because instead of being a moralist, which is the role of a great writer like Orwell, Hitchens was mercenary.  He had no moral core beyond the fight itself.  He was a pugilist.  Fighting was all he knew how to do, and if he was not fighting, the vacuum was plain.  And like a boxer taking too many roundhouses to the skull, the constant fight did not improve his judgment.

Still, I continue to search for this reputed rhetorician, the “easiest job in journalism” (June Thomas), “who didn’t need much editing” (Jonathan Karp), the sharp insight, cutting moral judgment, or mordant summary that define a keen observer and vital journalist.  Or at least that is what very many other writers publishing in legacy media insist is there.  What I find instead is slack prose, literary cliché, and astonishing ignorance.  While Hitchens accurately if obviously describes Kabul in 2004 as “battered and filthy” he also reads too much meaning in a restaurant sign titled “Shame,” ignorant of the anglicization of the Dari word for “dinner”.  He cites “David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia” for no apparent purpose, in addition to Harry Flashman and Rudyard Kipling, the default settings to any discussion of colonialism.  What on earth does this mean: “A Kuwaiti woman, who hadn’t wanted to dismount from the bus, found her privacy and modesty invaded by a small lad who nevertheless proffered a sharp knife.” In 1992, he asked the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Ilija Izetbegovic – while under active mortar fire – his opinion on the Iranian fatwa against Salman Rushdie issued in 1988.

To borrow a phrase, I now know what his standards are and that’s all the difference in the world.

It was this Christopher Hitchens who was asked, for reasons unknown, to write an introduction to the 2007 Penguin single-volume edition of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.  All the precipitate pugilism, simmering misogyny, masculine toxicity, and inattention are manifest here.  On the surface, at least, it appears that he knows what he is doing, which is a hachet job disguised as an encomium.  By treating a clear superior as an equal, he boosts himself up a notch by taking her down.  But given his record outlined above, I cannot confidently say that’s what he meant to do.

I will give Hitchens one point: he was right about Bosnia and the whole of Yugoslavia during the 1990s.  And he was courageous, at least, visiting the country during the war in addition to Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kurdistan and Romania in 1989.  He wrote compellingly, if not originally, about the siege of Sarajevo as early as 1992.  But while his reportage crossed the conventional wisdom in Washington and Brussels, he reported what better observers than he – Samantha Power, Christiane Amanpour, Pierre Hazan, Roy Gutman, among many others – were seeing at the same time.  And then he made his career-ending error, also quite common among ex-leftist interventionists, by extrapolating what should have been done in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan and Rwanda (in the last country a fait accompli by the time he writes about it) to Iraq in 2003.  Here again his judgment is not just poor but unoriginal.

By contrast Rebecca West, like Orwell, did not lack for good judgment in anything other than her personal life.  She was right about feminism, suffrage, socialism, fascism and communism (at the same time), Yugoslavia, Germany, Italy, World War II, the meaning of treason, and Margaret Thatcher.  Unlike Hitchens, her astute observation came from a moral core.  While he kept looking for the fight and adapting his sophistry to the argument, she argued for what she truly believed in. She was also intensely loyal to friends, even those (like H.G. Wells and her own sisters) with whom she had difficult relationships over the course of her tumultuous life.

In his introduction, Hitchens logs a small handful of the standard panegyrics to build rapport with the reader and establish that West is worth his time.  From this low mezzanine he slowly descends into his very English oblique reproach.  While no author is beyond scrutiny – although, ironically, Hitchens’ literary estate does not apparently believe that – introductory writers do not normally disparage their subjects.  Whether Hitchens saw this opportunity or not, he took to it with his patent combination of latent misogyny and misapprehension as amply documented above.

One of the strange and irrelevant strands Hitchens picks up stems from his hackneyed student days as a “Baillol Bolshevik” at Oxford. That is when he realized Joseph Stalin’s genocidal paranoia was no longer socially acceptable in polite company. So he shifted allegiance to the original communist martyr, Leon Trotsky, who did not live long enough to direct the repressive and failed political and economic experiment of the Soviet Union.  Like a tic from the old days, he lays Stalinist sympathies at West’s feet.  This is bizarre and untrue. Hitchens quotes a vague reference to Soviet agriculture policy to pin on West support for its murderous collectivization. Additionally, he rather specifically notes “her complete failure to anticipate the rise of Yugoslav communism during the Second World War.” This is nonsense. Following her British Council visit in 1936, as part of the official report to her sponsors she warned that Yugoslavia risked being “overrun either by Germany or, under Russian direction, by communism; which would destroy its character, blot out its inheritance from Byzantium.” West in fact denounced Stalin, the Soviet Union, and communism. More importantly, she helped regime apostates like Emma Goldman, who came to England following her departure from the Soviet Union and her deportation from the United States.

Hitchens continues to descend.  He attacks West’s work as “not history.  It is not even journalism.  It is passion.”  Elsewhere, he accuses her of “gushing” romantically about the peoples of the region.  While there is certainly an argument to be made about Orientalism and the Western Gaze, he does not make it here.  And in any event, Hitchens might know more about gushing passion than he would let on.  As his friend Martin Amis wrote about him (while he was still alive):  “Your corporeal existence, O Hitch, derives from the elements released by supernovae, by exploding stars.  Stellar fire was your womb, and stellar fire will be your grave: a just course for one who has always blazed so very brightly.”  Gushing indeed.

Hitchens takes as easy bait West’s preoccupation with sex and gender.  He luridly focuses on West’s use of “impotent,” a word that appears very rarely in the book.  He revels in her account of the homespun trousers of Macedonian Albanian men adorned with exaggerated representations of the male member.  His sexism then precipitates.  He gleefully touts West’s “ability to detect a pure bitch at twenty paces” in her criticism of Austrian Archduchess Sophie.  “Against this woman,” he writes, West “deploys a rhetorical skill that is perhaps too little associated with feminism”.  With the viscera of modifiers slip-sliding across the butcher’s table it is not precisely clear exactly what he means.  In any event he appears to be set off by West’s ultimate cut: “[Sophie] was also a great slut”.  I will skip the etymology of this term but it is likely it meant something completely different in 1941 than Hitchens thought it did in 2007. All of this was purely unnecessary, the result of scratching at some subdural burr. I would not dare to suggest it has anything to do with his mother abandoning his father and committing suicide with her lover in Athens in 1973.

Hitchens’ creepiness extends and pervades.  He blames West, as did so many men during the 1990s, for influencing Western inaction in Yugoslavia. He blasts her sincere defense of English-ness, a plaint she also shares with Orwell.  This, Hitchens argues, “must count as one of the most halting and apologetic proclamations of patriotism ever uttered.” This is extremely hard to take given his own, very English, overreliance on modifier mash-ups, meandering subordinate clauses, and maddening imprecision. He states “the book fails certain tests as a history, and even as a travelogue, and …it has little predictive value…and it shows some ‘unreliable narrator’ characteristics.”   “[W]hy should it remain a classic?” he asks rhetorically.  His own “tentatively offer[ed]” (halting?) response is that Rebecca West is very very smart, and she “makes a sincere and admirable effort,” and that she “understands that there are things worth fighting for, and dying for, and killing for.”  In other words: clever girl!  But it is hard to stomach that epithet as applied by a dilettante who was neither.

###

The ontology of the ‘Unknown’

Errol Morris’ documentary on Donald Rumsfeld, “The Known Unknown,” was accompanied by an extraordinary series of interview-essays in The New York Times where the filmmaker acknowledged that he felt he now knows less about the former twice-serving Defense Secretary and White House chief of staff than he did before he made the film. Rumsfeld’s clear pleasure engaging in verbal and semantic sparring, combined with a maddening lack of concern for concrete truth and that opaque Cheshire grin of his, made for an utterly compelling subject but brought no more illumination to his character or the matters of state that he influenced during his tenure.

I always felt that in the great “mystery” — John Keegan’s words — of the Iraq war, the political, strategic, and tactical dynamics of the conflict hinged on any number of key individual decisions and judgments. Had the French been convinced early on to join the Coalition and adopt the latter U.N. Security Council resolution authoring the invasion. Had the coalition force package been doubled or tripled for the invasion. Had the Iraqi Army not been disbanded. Had more time been allowed the U.N. weapons inspectors. The war would have gone very differently, and we would think about very differently. And so on.

The most important variable in the conflict were the weapons of mass destruction. If they had existed, and if they had been found, the political understanding of the conflict would be irreparably altered. (That may not have affected the insurgency afterward, but perhaps it would have if a larger, U.N.-backed coalition were on the ground.) This is, of course, the largest question involved in Morris’ Times essays, and yet unfortunately he forgets to mention (although this may be in the film, which I have not yet seen) perhaps the most important aspect of these weapons — that while they did not exist, Saddam Hussein acted as if they existed, and the fear of these weapons was just as important to the survival of his regime as their existence.

This ontological paradox is examined in one of the post-war CIA reports on the intelligence failures. It notes, in effect, that the CIA had little ability to interpret what looked like a cover-up of something as a cover-up of nothing because Saddam needed to appear to have weapons that had been destroyed in 1998 to deter internal threats rather than outside attack. This is at least as a complex puzzle to solve as any verbal jujitsu Donald Rumsfeld engaged in from the podium at the Pentagon.

But to unpack it also requires something that neither Rumsfeld really demonstrated during his years at the Pentagon nor what Morris (or, for that matter, many political observers during those years) manifests in his articles: keen analytical judgment. The conventional history of the “intelligence” about the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq says it was made up entirely by those looking for a pretext for invasion. But that’s not entirely the case.

I worked for a nonproliferation nonprofit at the time of the invasion. I knew about Iraq’s chemical weapons program and had studied deeply Iraq’s crash nuclear weapons program prior to its destruction after the 1991 Gulf War. In the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, I felt it was highly unlikely that Iraq had restarted its nuclear weapons program because of the intense capital development that would require. But I also knew how well Iraq had hidden their nuclear weapons development program prior to 1991 — and the lengths to which the regime went to deceive weapons inspectors — and felt that it was possible it had hidden a chemical weapons program about as well since then. Not having any access to classified information, it was reasonable to assume that the Administration had better data. Many people in our coalition made the same assumption. Indeed, I think there was a broad presumption that Iraq had something, but our political position was to force Iraq to submit to U.N. inspections that would eventually uncover it. In other words, our judgment was faulty, too.

If there were others out there putting together the pieces and drawing the opposite conclusion — that Saddam had no clothes, that he had no weapons of mass destruction — I don’t know who they are. But that is the nature of good, keen judgment — facing incomplete information (especially when “incomplete” actually means absent, an abstract point about which Morris and Rumsfeld argue) and drawing the most accurate conclusion.

Morris is so disturbed by Rumsfeld’s deflection and penchant for argument that he wonders if there is anything substantial behind the quip and self-satisfied grin. Maybe there’s nothing more beyond the clever debate team captain’s tricks, he argues, and a mind made up to invade Iraq. Maybe there is no actual mind there capable of pure reason and problem-solving; no mind dedicated to, never mind interested in, concrete truth in the actual world.

It would seem from Rumsfeld’s record that Morris would be right. A mind like his is designed for and honed by a life in politics — arguing a point, driving a cause, giving no quarter, relentlessly in pursuit until he wins. The winner defines the political reality and that was how his political career evolved. But the one reality he could not shape was Iraq after the fall of Saddam in April 2003 and he did not have the imagination (a term he used relentlessly and with great irony prior to the invasion) to comprehend what was happening nor the ability to find a way out of the debacle he created. He fell back on the tools that had served him so well for so long, which were mostly language. But at a point early on those tools failed him — when his language no longer had any connection to the reality of the chaos in Iraq.

Morris doesn’t write about this, either, and Rumsfeld doesn’t seem to have been humbled by his experience.  Morris appears amazed by this, and perhaps we are, too, given the experience he and we had with former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. Rumsfeld doesn’t give us the satisfaction of McNamara’s comeuppance, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from his experience and judge him for it.

###

Religion, politics, and public diplomacy

Today my interview with the Public Diplomacy Council — the association of retired US Information Agency and Foreign Service Officers involved in public diplomacy activities — was published online. I talked to Donald Bishop about my recent book and some other subjects of recent import in the arena of public diplomacy. I was especially pleased to be able to talk about religion and faith.

Once again I am happy to extend my sincere and great thanks to Don Bishop and the Public Diplomacy Council for publishing this interview.

###

How This Could End

Old Kabul, 2006. Photo by John Moore/Getty Pictures (via NATO Review)

Washington Post/ABC News poll of the American public released before Christmas may have been ignored for the negative tone typical of surveys of this type. Thirteen years into the war in Afghanistan and months away from a definitive withdrawal, the conflict is far from popular. But buried in the poll and the story, which also includes a recent AP/gfk poll reporting similar results, is an ominous trend of American public opinion that could slam the door on our political effort in that country, turn us away from the Afghan people, and irreparably rend the strategic relationship we have built in Central Asia. This only becomes clear when you understand the nature and history of public opinion and American entanglements overseas.

The Washington Post/ABC poll reported that a record high number of Americans believe the U.S. effort in Afghanistan “has not been worth it”. This characterization is different from saying they support the war or support the troops, the President or his foreign policy. This is a referendum on the entire effort.

The AP/gfk poll used similar language, with 57 percent of American suggesting that we “did the wrong thing” by invading the country in 2001-2002. The Washington Post poll demonstrates a majority of Americans have felt this way for some time, at least since early 2010.

The language is similar — but importantly not identical — to language that Gallup used to track American public opinion in Vietnam and Iraq, and this is why we should look very closely at the Post language and wait to see if Gallup might confirm it. Because the Gallup language is the absolute bellwether of political support for counterinsurgency efforts like those we are undertaking in Afghanistan.

Source: Gallup

Specifically, Gallup asks whether the effort (in Vietnam, in Iraq) was “a mistake”. And once U.S. public opinion tips definitively to a majority believing the effort was “a mistake,” political support for the war has been irreparably undermined. The geopolitical consequences are obvious. Americans believed the war in Vietnam was “a mistake” after the Tet Offensive in 1968 and material American support for the South Vietnamese government began to evaporate leading up to a full withdrawal in 1972. Saigon collapsed under North Vietnamese assault in 1975 and Americans effectively ignored the takeover by Khmer Rouge communist radicals of neighboring Cambodia the same year.

Americans similarly turned on the war in Iraq definitively in September 2006 — remember the “thumpin'” President Bush and Congressional Republicans received in November that year — and only a token military presence remains in the country today. Longstanding political-military efforts like these cannot last without broad-based political support at home. All major American engagements since World War II started with high public approval rates at the outbreak of hostilities.

“Mistake” seems to be the all-important language defining the collective change of mind, and the other polls’ characterizations don’t quite capture its definitive connotation. But they come close, and that’s ominous. Insurgencies like the one we are fighting, and supporting the Afghan government in fighting in their country, on average last about 15 years. As the old expression goes, the insurgent has the time while we hold the watch. That is especially true for democracies. But that does not mean we and our Afghan friends cannot prevail.

That requires leadership. I have written before about how the President does not seem to carry his rhetorical talent over to matters of war and conflict. I have also written about how we may not have the language to articulate progress and contextualize setbacks in an insurgency. And this past year has certainly assailed the President on other issues. But he has also consistently demonstrated that when he has needed to rally the public to him, he can. Now is the time to do so, before it’s too late. Fortunately, the same Washington Post poll also reported that 55 percent of Americans also supported leaving some U.S. forces in Afghanistan to continue counterinsurgency operations, which suggests that we have not quite made our minds up about this endeavor.

Because too much is at stake. We have committed too much to our friends, taken the fight too hard to our enemies, and borne too much sacrifice, to walk away from the struggle. The struggle is not so much with al Qaeda, or the Taliban, or their kith, but for the desire to establish a decent society with commerce and institutions that promote and preserve the dignity of people in a region that has long lacked these things. It is that lack that our enemies have exploited.

###

Now Available: The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy

SnyderFinalToday my latest book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy, is available from Palgrave Macmillan.  It can be ordered from Amazon.com, the publisher, or from any book store in your neighborhood.

The Challenge of Public Diplomacy is based on my years working in the Public Diplomacy Division on NATO’s International Staff and brings the crucial experience of a public affairs practitioner crossing the last three feet every day to the important discussion of policy — a perspective I feel is all too often missing and is the primary reason why I wrote this book.

I relate my personal experience to illuminate the proposals I make in the book, which include deconflicting military public affairs and information operations, expanding our international arts portfolio, liberating U.S. international broadcasting, reforming language education, expanding our understanding of international public opinion, and taking a more aggressive approach with our political detractors.

As I’ve used this site to write about public diplomacy, I’ll continue to expand (and likely correct) my proposals, so please return often for updates. Feel free, too, to contact me by e-mail (in “About,” above) or through the comment forms, below. I look forward to hearing from you.

###

9 Things I Learned Crossing the Last Three Feet

From the cover image of the most recent Small Wars Journal. Malian Army Col. Youssouf Traore, left, practices the use of a ring cutter on U.S. Army Sgt. La Tonia R. Luna, with the 807th Medical Detachment Support Command during a medical equipment demonstration in Mopti, Mali, Feb. 7, 2012. U.S. Army photo by Spc. Kimberly Trumbull.

My latest article, “9 Things I Learned Crossing the Last Three Feet,” was published today in Small Wars Journal, which published an earlier article I wrote about the Arab Spring and the repercussions around the Benghazi incident.

My sincere gratitude goes to the editors of Small Wars Journal for agreeing to publish my article. I greatly admire the breadth and creativity of the work they publish and it is a distinct honor to appear under their banner.

###

Along the 30th Parallel: What NPR Gets Wrong about Public Opinion and Foreign Aid

NPR’s new headquarters (NPR)

A recent blog post by Greg Myre on NPR’s web site (“Which Nations Hate the U.S.? Often Those Receiving the Most Aid,” July 23) is a typical example of reporting on international public opinion. Myre attempts to correlate a Pew Research Center report on foreign opinion of the United States and a U.S. government site listing our foreign assistance contributions. It’s amisleading piece of work, although not immediately clear on its face, inclined to do more harm than good, more obscuring than illuminating. Myre is an established reporter with Middle East bona fides and should know better.

To give an example of why Myre’s argument is so farcical, I’ll demonstrate how an analogous argument has a higher rate of correlation yet proves exactly nothing – which is only slightly better than I can say for Myre. Myre correlates the “high” U.S. foreign assistance rates for a series of countries, in particular Egypt and Pakistan, with our abysmal public approval ratings in those countries (in the case of the Pew report contrasting to China). So far, so good – we gave Egypt about $1.5 billion mostly in military aid and have a 15 percent approval rating to show for it. Similarly, our public approval ratings in contrast to China don’t show so well for foreign assistance above $1 billion in countries like Pakistan. The only country that has a high approval rating of the United States, and received $3 billion, is Israel.

But my equally arbitrary measure has a higher rate of correlation: every country that receives more than $1 billion in U.S. assistance – and includes Myre’s Jordan and Palestine, which receive around a half-billion dollars – falls along the 30thparallel, including Israel. Clearly, the United States has some sort of vital interest along this region of the world and is willing to spend whatever it takes to secure it. In the politics of international aid, the 30th parallel could be called the One Billion Dollar Parallel.

My correlation is absurd, of course. But so is Myre’s. Because correlating real dollars against public opinion percentages is ridiculous when we are measuring 1) vastly different economies and populations as well as 2) greatly different political contexts. For example, Israel and the United States are close allies. Public opinion of the United States is strong in Israel. In the case of Pakistan and the United States, China is considered by Pakistan as a bulwark against the latter’s primary enemy, India. Myre cited aid to and abysmal approval ratings in Egypt, the Palestinian territories and Jordan, all of which have very specific histories with our ally Israel which must surely outweigh a few billion dollars – never mind the fact that when the Egyptian army arrested President Muhammad Morsi, American-built M-1 tanks and M-113 APCs rolled through city streets to assert control. Egyptians know very well what $1.5 billion in U.S. aid buys them.

And these numbers look very different in Africa, where the United States is popular. Former President George W. Bush poured billions of dollars into AIDS/HIV relief on the continent, and the public opinion in those countries reflect that. Look at South Africa, Ghana and Uganda in the Pew poll. Both Uganda and South Africa received more than $400 million from the United States, but they don’t quite fit Myre’s thesis.

At the same time, Myre doesn’t even try to examine what China gives to any of these countries – probably because China gives hardly anything. China is exploiting many of the countries in Africa for raw materials, and delivering shoddy infrastructure in return.

It is beyond my mathematics ability, as well as my patience, to put together a complete matrix that would more accurately capture what you could expect to get in public opinion for every American aid dollar. That is clearly the implication of Myre’s article. You would have to zero out each economy and population, as well as aid and public approval rating, and compare those numbers as a common denominator or baseline measure.

Let’s try this admittedly crude measure…

(Real dollar aid / GDP ) x (population x public approval rating %) = baseline

…and compare Egypt and Israel for the sake of illustration. Just inputting the numbers into my equation demonstrates the absurdity of correlating aid spending to public opinion:

Egypt: ($1,559,300,000 / $548,800,000,000) x (85,294,388 x 16 %) = 27,294

Israel: ($3,100,000,000 / $252,800,000,000) x (7,707,042 x 83 %) = 76,762

(Population and GDP figures are taken from the CIA World Factbook. Aid figures and public opinion drawn from the sites listed above.)

In other words, using these baselines, for slightly less than double the real dollar investment in aid to Egypt, we get nearly triple the “return” per dollar in aid to Israel. But putting this into such a stark numeric contrast further heightens the outlandishness of trying to make these kinds of comparisons and correlations. We don’t really expect a “return” on aid. Assistance for disease eradication doesn’t get a “return” – it cures people. Economic aid to an emerging former communist country is entirely different from aid given to a country recovering from a natural disaster, or aid to a war-ravaged Central Asian nation. And so on.

Moreover, even with a baseline, it is ridiculous to compare these countries. Egypt is not Israel. Nigeria is not Pakistan. South Africa is not Afghanistan. We give more or less aid to some countries because the challenges or politics they present are unique or particular to them. Aid is political – what we think we should be doing – and doesn’t necessarily follow the laws of economy or business. That’s why it’s aid.

In short, we give aid to achieve specific political objectives in a specific political context. And more often than people might think, we give aid simply to do the right thing. If a billion and a half dollars buys us influence with the Egyptian army, and with that we can constrain their action and keep the country from becoming Syria, who is to say that isn’t worth the cost?

###

NATO Wins, Again

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) during the transition cermony, June 18 2013. (NATO)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (right) during the transition cermony, June 18 2013. (NATO)

Today NATO handed off operational security responsibility for all of Afghanistan to the Afghan government, a dramatic turning point in the war that began in the days following September 11, 2001. But as a former member of the NATO International Staff and informal scholar of the organization, I can predict what will happen next: a series of box-kit essays by academics on the make about how NATO has outlived its original purpose and, of course, an entirely contradictory set of kippered set pieces about how NATO has utterly failed to bring about a stable, secure and prosperous Afghanistan. More Ph.D.’s have been converted to fellowships and tenure-track positions on NATO’s back than I have patience to count.

It’s considered gauche to issue bald declamations like the one I’m about to state, but I’m going to do it anyway in order to illuminate my point: NATO wins again. There will be the usual NATO naysaying nabobs out there who insist on believing that 28 Western democracies can’t find consensus to order lunch, much less how to rout a remorseless 14th-century insurgency. And lest some believe the war is lost – the transfer ceremony itself was marred by a bomb attack – remind yourself who’s running the government, security services, borders, businesses, NGOs, mosques, universities, schools, hospitals and clinics. And then remind yourself who, exactly, requested peace and reconciliation talks with the Americans from their office in Qatar.

The Cold War, Bosnia, Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan. Never in history has one organization, over so long a period, prevailed over such a diverse array of adversaries. No one should doubt the ability, creativity, and tenacity of a group of like-minded democracies bound by an oath of common defense. That such defense could extend as far as the Hindu Kush is testament to all the NATO Member countries – and nearly two dozen partner countries – committed to supporting Afghanistan in the years ahead.

Because NATO is an alliance of values, rather than of interest or convenience, the organization has endured longer than the leagues and ententes of generations past. And because its founders recognized NATO’s political significance foremost, its strength has always been political first and last. These are the two most important attributes the organization’s detractors consistently miss. Yet they are what set NATO apart and guarantee its success – and our security – for the future.

###

Coming in October: “The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy”

9780230390706I’m pleased to announce that Palgrave Macmillan USA will publish my book, The United States and the Challenge of Public Diplomacy in October 2013.

Based on my six years’ experience in public diplomacy at NATO and more than 15 years in strategic and political communications, Challenge explores the experience of public diplomacy and makes recommendations for improving American PD policy and practice.

Importantly, the book focuses on practice as the critical ground to cover — the “last three feet” in the words of Edward R. Murrow — in order for our public diplomacy to succeed. I look at not just the traditional modes of public diplomacy such as educational exchange, cultural engagement and international broadcasting but propose launching an arts restoration initiative, reforming military communications, expanding the definition of public opinion, reconsidering the Internet, and partnering with civil society.

I’ll launch the book with Palgrave Macmillan when it’s published but I hope you’ll look for it when it’s on book shelves and online after the summer.

###

Commander Salamander’s NATO Headquarters Bellylander

The new NATO Headquarters under construction in Evere, Brussels

A recent post by the blogger Commander Salamander, who writes about defense matters, was brought to my attention for his skepticism about the new NATO Headquarters being erected across Boulevard Leopold III from the current headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Cdr. Salamander quotes extensively from a recent American Spectator article by Joseph Harriss criticizing the cost of the new Headquarters and other projects undertaken by NATO.

NATO’s Headquarters in Evere, a commune in eastern Brussels, was built in 1967 as the organization’s temporary headquarters. In 1967 NATO had 15 members. Since then, the organization has nearly doubled its membership to 28 countries, expanded to the Baltic and the Black Sea, gone operational on three continents, fought two wars, and extended its political partnership mandate to include nearly double again the number of countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The Headquarters’ physical footprint, on an old German airfield just a few miles from Brussels’ main airport at Zaventem, has accommodated these dramatic changes with a series of temporary or semi-permanent structures not intended to last more than a few decades. As I used to tell visitors, NATO has been here, temporarily, for more than 40 years.

Unfortunately, a legion of observers – mired in a Cold War mindset like some congenital deficiency – still believe NATO should have closed up shop with the Warsaw Pact. (Vladimir Putin vainly wishes the same thing.) They have been simply or willfully ignorant of how political geography has shifted during the last 20 years, like addled Rip Van Winkles not realizing they have slept since 1988. NATO has never been more relevant, operationally active or politically engaged than now.

A permanent headquarters fixes that political reality to the ground.  NATO member countries have long intended to build a permanent headquarters similar to the United Nations but didn’t get around to it until the last decade and long before the recession that throws its construction into ironic relief. Harriss is a little late to this game. What he only recently got around to complaining about has been in the works since before NATO deployed to Afghanistan.

As for the cost of building the new Headquarters, the analogy may not be best, but controversy over NATO’s new headquarters is similar to the hand-wringing about cost overruns and quality controls with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Many of the Allies are expected to take delivery of this aircraft and given the mounting costs they are second-guessing this decision. But the real question about the Headquarters is the same with the F-35: it’s not what you’re going to work with now that matters most but what you will work with 15 or 30 years from now.

Today’s fighters – the F-16s and F-18s the F-35 will replace – were designed in the 1960s and 1970s. Both are nearly 40 years old. You can’t work effectively with old or outmoded technology, especially when our adversaries are barreling ahead to catch up with us. We can’t fly these planes two decades from now (although in the case of the F-35 our Allies can buy the Typhoon or Rafaele). It’s the same principle with the headquarters. Never built to last in the first place, it is hard to imagine working in the temporary headquarters in 2035. A new headquarters is needed.

I served six years on NATO’s International Staff in Brussels. The Headquarters’ age is visible and tangible. I worked with thousands of visitors who were routinely less than impressed by its appearance: expecting a kind of multinational Pentagon, they found an unassuming retired hospital, minimalist in design and construction; a long, awkward cough from Cdr. Salamander’s admired “neo-Classical, Romanesque, neo-Gothic” architecture that only appear together in the Dom in Trier, Germany. When I worked at NATO, whole sections of the core headquarters were closed off, opened for exercises only, because they stank of sewage. We had no air conditioning until individual units were installed in 2008. All the restrooms reeked. Power outages were routine. External window blinds failed and collapsed, one after the other, in my corridor one summer. A balky elevator in my unit reliably jammed. And for anybody who’s been overwhelmed by the vastness and complexity of the Pentagon, the Headquarters’ ad hoc layout more than rivaled the Defense Department maze on a much more compact scale.

Such conditions may not bother the likes of Cdr. Salamander, accustomed to austere shipboard life. But NATO Headquarters is a misnomer: SHAPE is NATO’s true operational headquarters. NATO itself is a political body akin to the United Nations or the European Commission (unpopular equivalents perhaps, but mature observers will understand the comparison); it has more in common with Congress than the Pentagon. With ambassadors, ministers and heads of state visiting regularly, the West’s dignity and standing demand better than the current Headquarters shows.

That should be enough for the Paris-glutted Harriss to restrain his snark. But he continues his attack with a thrust at the NATO Undersea Research Center (NURC) in Italy, criticizing its frivolous protection of sea mammals from sonar frequencies (which the U.S. Navy is also researching). I would expect Cdr. Salamander, as a retired Navy officer, to defend NURC here. NURC has worked with the NATO navies to find and dispose of underwater unexploded ordnance (UXO) left over from both world wars. As this video demonstrates, UXO threatens Mediterranean and Baltic fishermen particularly, who drag up old sea mines, shells, torpedoes and even chemical weapons (the latter dumped en masse by both Americans and Germans after the Second World War), leading to horrific injuries.

Harriss also takes aim at my division which worked with academics and universities. I find his criticism especially odd coming from an avowed conservative who should be particularly suspicious of the anti-American bastions on campuses in Western Europe and North America. We at NATO recognized the opinion trends that academics could set and engaged directly, truthfully and effectively with them. (Maintaining an open and accessible library, which Harriss also inexplicably attacks, was part of this strategy. The Russians, Harriss might discover if he asked around, are not quite as helpful.)  We also spoke directly to thousands of high school and college students who visited Headquarters each year. Our approach may be naïve, but the alternative is far worse: abandoning campuses to entrenched anti-American, left-wing and (worse) terrorist narratives is pure negligence.  I hope Harriss and Cdr. Salamander would agree.

###