Middle East

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2014: The Year of Public Diplomacy

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (L-R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel's Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands at a news conference at the end of talks at the State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013. (Credit: Reuters via ChristianPost.com)

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat (L-R), U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni shake hands at a news conference at the end of talks at the State Department in Washington, July 30, 2013. (Credit: Reuters via ChristianPost.com)

2014 could be the year of public diplomacy, particularly throughout the Middle East where citizens continue to exercise enormous influence over the direction of events on the ground, from Iraq to Syria, and from Israel to the West Bank.  Public opinion in the U.S. matters, as does public opinion “of” the United States around the world in an interdependent world.

As Secretary of State John Kerry makes his tenth peacemaking trip to the region to broker a “framework” between the Israelis and Palestinians, the looming question is the degree to which ordinary citizens throughout the Middle East will pressure their own leaders to resolve conflicts in ways that avoid violence or maintain the status quo. The region is a giant puzzle with interlocking pieces and interdependent variables from economic stability to physical security.  For the United States, shaping a positive outcome in this region is a tall order at a time of decentralized decision-making in much of the region where the U.S. is trying to contribute to stability.  It is a tall order, but a vital one.

Official government-to-government relations will need to work in tandem with government-to-citizen relations in 2014 to take into account all the actors and voices in the Middle East drama of today. A critical pillar of 2014 foreign policymaking rests in trying to achieve some equilibrium and public calm to lower the levels of violence which, left unchecked, threaten all of us, everywhere.

American citizens should be supportive of American leadership as it tackles the thorny issues of countering violent extremism overseas and bringing about peaceful settlements of frozen conflicts—be they conflicts with Iran over nuclear weapons, or between Israelis and Palestinians over land and security.  American political will is best exercised with American public sentiment behind it.

What we know from past few years is how volatile public opinion in the region is, and how quickly the public mood can swing, making traditional diplomacy all the more difficult given 24-hour news cycles, the transfer of money and weapons, and the shifting political winds that make predictions difficult.  The rise of extremist groups seeking to take advantage of all the uncertainty adds another layer of complexity to al already complex situation everywhere from Cairo to Teheran, from Baghdad to Beirut.

Shaping public opinion requires paying close attention to national mood swings. For ordinary citizens, the direction of the economy, local unemployment, political representation, access to education and information, and day-to-day security top the list of concerns that impact how people behave.  Those are shared concerns around the world best realized without violence.

Let’s hope for bipartisanship and public support for peacemaking in the year ahead.

Making Sense of US Commitment to Afghanistan through Public Diplomacy

The recent decision by Afghan President Karzai to postpone signing a security arrangement on the continued presence of U.S. troops is apt to confuse an already confused Afghan and American public about the future bilateral relationship that will define post-2014. It is hard for any casual observer or media consumer to make sense out of the daily conflicting stories on whether or not American engagement in Afghanistan will be sustained next year. One of the key challenges of public diplomacy is to match rhetoric with actions on the ground and make a convincing argument to citizens.

An issue where the U.S. has stepped up its promises and rhetoric as well as its policy is around standing by Afghan women and girls—a promise we should keep. It is in America’s interest to see women-–a large segment of Afghan society–educated, trained, active and engaged in securing peace in a country in which we have invested a dozen years of money and lives. The women of Afghanistan are the loudest champions of peace and reconciliation in that troubled land.

Good public diplomacy and good policy are reflected in the announcement just a few months ago from the U.S. Agency for International Development a new, five-year $200 million assistance program for Afghan women called “Promote,” a sign of U.S. seriousness of purpose. The announcement, made in a speech by USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah at the U.S. Institute of Peace in July underscored the continued American commitment to success in Afghanistan—success that Shah argued is “fundamentally grounded in a society that creates opportunity for women and girls.”  The new USAID program will propel the education, training and promotion of young women in Afghan government, business and civil society, building on successes as measured in the rise of girls enrolled in Afghan schools.

Screen capture from a video featuring an expert panel on women's empowerment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute for Peace, July 18, 2013. Source: YouTube

Screen capture from a video featuring an expert panel on women’s empowerment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Institute for Peace, July 18, 2013. Source: YouTube

That announcement was echoed recently at Georgetown University by Secretary of State Kerry, standing with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush—another good example of bipartisan public diplomacy.

In the first few months of 2014, President Obama will have opportunities to clear up any fog about American ambitions for Afghanistan, including with the State of the Union in February—the ultimate public diplomacy opportunity.  (Twelve years ago in 2002, George W. Bush used his State of the Union speech to signal America’s commitment to Afghan women and to underscore signs of progress: “The last time we met in this chamber, the mothers and daughters of Afghanistan were captives in their own homes, forbidden from working or going to school. Today, women are free and are part of Afghanistan’s new government.”)

Another place to make the case for US-Afghan relations is on social media–a growing platform for public diplomacy around the world. Today, Afghan women and girls are using social media to make their anxiety about the future known. Zahra is a 23-year old Afghan woman, and currently an undergraduate student at the American University of Afghanistan studying business administration. She shared her anxiety on the website WhyDev, which is dedicated to the Voice of Afghanistan’s youth:

“I live in fear more and more as each day passes and it gets closer to 2014.

Everybody is talking about civil war again. Everybody has a plan to leave Afghanistan; they want to have a better life. .. Today, in our office, my colleague said she put her house on the market and wants to go to Australia. “But how?”, I asked. She said –like everybody else that goes… “With an invitation? Do you know somebody there? Will they send you invitation letter?

We are getting crazy thinking about 2014 and civil war. We can’t enjoy our time right now as it passes. We are losing our time as these fears enter our mind…

I fear what will happen. The only image that I have of the  Taliban is of men with a huge turbans, big weapons, Afghan clothes and lots of beards and mustaches. They do not like educated women like me. They want to kill those girls who go to universities or schools…. I am confused. What will be Afghanistan’s future?”

Zahra, like many Afghan girls, wants to know that America’s investment in Afghanistan doesn’t end as the troops leave.  Education for Afghan girls has improved in Afghanistan from the 1990s when the Taliban pretty much prohibited it. Today, according to the World Bank and USAID, close to a third of Afghan girls attend primary school. Around 120,000 young women have completed secondary school. In total, at least 200,000 Afghan women now have at least a diplomacy from secondary school, some form of a university degree or some equivalent study. But leaves two-thirds of Afghan girls, waiting for a chance.

In the end, time will tell what the Afghan government will do for its own society, what international foundations and funders will provide, and how committed the United States and the international community can afford to remain in the lives of the Afghan people, in particular its women and girls.  For now, the challenge is to keep hope alive and prevent backsliding.  Promises are important to keep. 

Lessons from the Field?

Cover of the latest report by the Center for International Studies on Public Diplomacy. Source: CSIS.org

Cover of the latest report by the Center for International Studies on Public Diplomacy. Source: CSIS.org

I had the opportunity to attend the public launch of a new report on Public Diplomacy today by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).  Entitled “Engaging the Muslim World,” the report is well worth reading and includes a few key highlights that are applicable to public diplomacy practiced by the U.S. worldwide.

The author, Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy practitioner Walter Douglas, noted that the report was intended to fill a gap left by many of the other reports and studies produced by think tanks and academia on the subject of public diplomacy over the last several years – namely, the perspective of PD practitioners in the field.

As a fellow PD practitioner (and colleague of Walter’s), I couldn’t agree more.  As Walter and his report point out, everything from the messages, audiences, tools, programs, partners, and resources that we deploy in our public diplomacy efforts will vary widely depending on the local context and the country that we operate in.  Such variety, moreover, defies easy characterization and generalization by Washington-based observers and policy makers.

Walter also made another important point in his presentation today.  No matter how important and worthwhile we think public diplomacy may be, in the current budget environment we should not expect the United States government or the U.S. Congress to dedicate additional resources to public diplomacy. As a result, we need to focus on using our current resources to maximum effect. This speaks to the need for good strategic planning; identifying, replicating, and scaling best practices; and – in my view – enlisting the field perspectives to make sure our efforts are targeted appropriately in each country and not simply scattershot to broad regions or the world writ large.

Other important points in the report that will come as no surprise to those of us who follow or practice public diplomacy include the value of exchanges, alumni, English teaching, and other traditional programs, as well as the importance of face-to-face diplomacy, vernacular language ability, and the need to get out of our secure embassy compounds and into the local societies that we are trying to reach.

I’d be interested in other reactions to the report and any comments on these or other recurring topics in the public diplomacy field.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

Annual Roberts Lecture Covers Benghazi, Iran, and Future of U.S. Diplomacy

Amb. Thomas Pickering (right) engages in conversation with Frank Sesno (left), director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, for the 3rd Annual Walter Roberts Lecture. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

Amb. Thomas Pickering (right) engages in conversation with Frank Sesno (left), director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, for the 3rd Annual Walter Roberts Lecture. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

On Tuesday, distinguished ambassador Thomas Pickering spoke at GWU’s School of Media and Public Affairs (on his birthday, no less!) about his experience on the advisory panel that investigated the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, as well as Russia, Iran, and the future of U.S. public diplomacy.

The talk was part of the Third Annual Walter Roberts Lecture, which brings in prominent figures in public diplomacy practice and academia to speak on relevant issues of the times.

Tara Sonenshine, who spoke at the Second Annual Walter Roberts Lecture, responded in a blog post on her sentiments in introducing the ambassador. Former Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs and current Professor of Practice at GWU, PJ Crowley, was also in attendance, as well as Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, who led the conversation with the ambassador.

Some tweets from the event:

Thank you to all who attended. Please visit our website for a video and transcript of the event here.

Public Diplomacy on the Front Lines of U.S. Foreign Policy

Kamran (actor Najebullah Sadiq) is the hardened but principled veteran police officer on Eagle Four, an Afghan TV show that its creators hope will have a positive effect on Afghans' attitudes toward the real police. Credit: Tolo TV/ Wakil Kohsar

Kamran (actor Najebullah Sadiq) is the hardened but principled veteran police officer on Eagle Four, an Afghan TV show that its creators hope will have a positive effect on Afghans’ attitudes toward the real police. Credit: Tolo TV/ Wakil Kohsar

Advocates of official U.S. public diplomacy have long defended the value of its programs and argued for resources to do even more.  But what exactly could be accomplished with such resources if they were, indeed, available?

In fact, we may already have an answer to that question, albeit in the context of a single country at the forefront of U.S. foreign policy—Afghanistan.  Even as the United States has invested considerable resources in its military presence and development programs, so, too, has it devoted additional resources to a public diplomacy “surge” in support of overall U.S. goals in that country.

Public diplomacy programs in Afghanistan deploy the tried-and-true models that we employ all around the world, including: educational, youth, and professional exchange programs; English language programs; establishment of American Spaces; and, cultural exchange and preservation.  The U.S. Embassy in Kabul also deploys additional public diplomacy resources to support non-traditional programs leveraging public diplomacy expertise, technological innovation, and local partners to further advance key U.S. interests in that critical country.

Noah Berlatsky’s thoughtful recent piece in the Atlantic reviews a new documentary film about Afghan Tolo TV and touches on a few of those public diplomacy efforts.  As one of the major Afghan media groups, Tolo TV is also a major partner for U.S. public diplomacy efforts and programs seeking to engage, inform, and influence Afghan public opinion.  Berlatsky notes U.S. Embassy support for Eagle Four, for example, “a high-quality-production action drama” about the Afghan national police force. He also highlights the U.S. objective in supporting the production “to demonstrate that those police forces are courageous, honest, and trustworthy.”

The establishment of security and stability in Afghanistan—one of the most important U.S. foreign policy goals worldwide today—will obviously depend on the capacity of Afghan security forces and, more importantly, the trust the people place in those forces.   Eagle Four, by reaching a mass Afghan audience and profiling real Afghan police officers helping Afghans, is a perfect example of how innovative public diplomacy practitioners, provided with sufficient resources, advances key foreign policy goals.

Berlatsky raises valid points, of course, about whether such a dramatic depiction of the police force might unduly raise public expectations, but we could also be arguing about the value of producing a stale, realistic documentary that reaches and engages only a tiny fraction of Eagle Four‘s considerable viewership.  I would argue that programs like Eagle Four take a risk, but that such risks are appropriate especially in places of conflict where the pay-offs can be so essential to advancing  U.S. national security objectives.

Another key objective of Eagle Four and similar programs in Afghanistan is to promote the development and capacity of the Afghan media sector itself.  The success of Tolo TV, as noted in the Atlantic article, as well as the availability of a multiplicity of television and radio stations, newspapers and magazines—in a country which not too long ago had only one state broadcaster—is a testament to the success of those efforts. Just as we hope that the Afghan security services will ensure long-term stability, so, too, do we believe that Afghan independent media will promote long-term democracy and government accountability in Afghanistan.

Eagle Four is, of course, just one of many such public diplomacy programs that partner with Afghan media, universities, civil society, women’s groups, and many others.  Keen observers and veteran public diplomacy experts will note that some of these programs go well beyond the role of traditional public diplomacy in simply “telling America’s story” but are the proof of what can be accomplished with additional public diplomacy resources.  The innovative U.S. public diplomacy programs in Afghanistan seek to positively engage, inform, and influence the Afghan public and in so doing to help maintain stability, promote democracy, and advance key U.S. foreign policy goals.

Note: Previous articles about Eagle Four were published in the New York Times and on NPR.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

War Fatigue vs. the President’s Syria Strike

All alone on Syria?

When President Barack Obama delivered his September 10, 2013 speech on Syria, his policy aim was articulated clearly:

after careful deliberation, I determined that it is in the national security interests of the United States to respond to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons through a targeted military strike.

This speech had a more immediate target however: the American public’s reluctance to support a limited and narrow strike on Syria.  Polls showed substantial public opposition despite the horrific images of chemical weapon attack victims in Ghouta just weeks before.  Support for a Syria attack was lower than it was with previous, similarly “limited” actions in Grenada (1983), Kosovo (1999), Haiti (1994) and Libya (2011).

Facing the apparent unpopularity of the proposed military action, the President decided to seek Congressional authorization rather than taking unilateral moves against Syrian military capacity.

His speech was meant to turn the tide in support of Congress’s approval.  While there is survey evidence that the speech persuaded some of those who watched it, it still only led to an aggregate split in public opinion.  Striking Syria simply did not resonate with a majority of Americans even though an estimated 32 million viewers tuned in and many more read and heard his arguments.

We know that the President’s power to persuade the public on foreign affairs is strongest when there is an elite consensus back his policies.  While there were voices of dissent in the House, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee ultimately endorsed what the President sought: a resolution authorizing military action against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government.  This signified a growing elite consensus.

TV news media were largely supportive of the President. As Robert Entman has proposed in the “cascading activation” model, lower-tier elites, and news media, echo the policy frames of the upper echelons in the executive branch.  After Obama first proposed a strike was necessary in late August, cable news channels were far more likely to feature pro-intervention messages than views opposed, according to a content analysis conducted by Pew Research. This is evidence of news media echoing officialdom.

Yet, House opposition to the President’s proposed course of action was considerable.  Factions in both parties, both liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans, voiced objections to the attack. It was not certain that the resolution would have passed through the House. At the time of the speech, CNN estimated 179 “no” votes to 25 “yes” votes. 223 were yet undecided.  This can’t be chalked up to deeper partisan polarization.  Members of Congress reported hearing universal opposition from their constituents. The public’s complaints overwhelmed the President’s position and undermined the dominant theme of news media coverage.

A Russia-proposed chemical weapons deal ultimately postponed consideration of a Congressional resolution, thereby preventing a test of whether the President was going to win on this.  Still, we witnessed a unique case of public opinion opposition to, and mobilization against, a President’s proposed foreign military action.

Perhaps it can be attributed to something deeper in American political culture. As Charles M. Blow suggested in The New York Times, “America may have lost its stomach for military intervention.”  After war of more than a decade in Iraq and Afghanistan, Americans may just be tired of getting into new skirmishes that could easily lead to deeper commitments.  Just five years into the Iraq war, US news media were barely covering it and Americans tired of hearing about it.  There is scant mention and public discussion of the war in Afghanistan today.

The idea of “war fatigue” is not a novel one.  It was widely believed that after the Vietnam War a syndrome set in: Americans were thought to be more likely to oppose to new wars out of a risk aversion resulting from the costly, bloody and protracted conflict in Vietnam.  Marvin Kalb argued the current form of this syndrome was apparent just from President Obama’s nominations of John Kerry and Chuck Hagel as secretaries of state and defense, respectively.

Curious about whether American views on the previous wars impacted their positions on the proposed Syria strike, I ran a study to measure what impacted American opinion. I tried to figure out how important various factors were: demographics, support for the president, prior positions on the Iraq war and how attentive they were to the President’s September 10th speech — to see how the President’s persuasive powers stacked up against war fatigue.

I asked 265 respondents on two separate days, September 9 and September 13, 2013, whether or not they support a US military intervention in Syria.  I asked different samples, one before the speech and one a few days after.  I found the following (shown in an OLS regression model).


Standardized Coefficients























GENDER (Female)








Sharing President Barack Obama’s views in general




Became more or less supportive of the US IRAQ war?




Watched or saw reports of President Obama’s speech on Syria?




(Adjusted R2 = .213)

Of traditional demographics, age and gender were significant predictors.  Older individuals and males were more likely to back a strike.  It is worth noting that party identification was not an important factor — when controlling for these other factors — despite being a usual factor in evaluating presidential policy proposals.  While it could be due to the break down in partisan lines on this issue, at least until the Russia deal, it’s likely not a factor because the most powerful variable — generally agreement with Obama on other issues — captures partisan differences. [Without partisan ID, the findings and model fit don't change much].

Despite being an “anti-war” candidate when he was first elected, Obama enjoys the unwavering backing of loyal supporters.  Being inclined to generally agree with him on issues was an expected, powerful predictor of being with him on Syria.  It was the strongest factor in the model.

As for non-Obamaniac tendencies, war weariness seems to matter. Becoming less supportive of the war on Iraq over time (my gauge of war fatigue) correlates with being less likely to back the strike.  The result is the same, though a bit weaker, if I replace Iraq with Afghanistan, also.  Rather than seeing Syria as a new and distinct issue, this finding suggests people interpret it within the context of prolonged and increasingly unpopular military commitments in the region.

Prior views on Iraq also matter more than does partisanship.  I ran the model with partisan ID, but dropped the tendency to agree with Obama. Declining support for the Iraq war over time was twice as powerful a predictor than was partisanship.

Back to the model above, we can see that changing support for or against the war on Iraq over time was a more powerful predictor than being attentive to the President’s speech.  His ability to persuade the public through strategic political communication was a less potent a force than the unpopularity of the wars of the past decade.  Even if the proposed strike was being sold as limited and narrow, it did little to relieve the public’s fear of deja vu.

Why Should Diplomats Care About Cultural Sites and Objects?

Credit: U.S. Department of State

Credit: U.S. Department of State

NBC news carried an interesting story last week highlighting a decision by the U.S. Department of State to return a million-dollar cultural artifact to Iran that had been seized by U.S. Customs a decade ago.  The return of the Persian Griffin, long sought by Iranian officials, may not seem like a big deal against the backdrop of the recent exchange of letters and phone conversation between President Obama and Iranian President Rouhani.  I have no idea whether this particular gesture will resonate in Iran, but we should not underestimate the significance of such cultural heritage for people around the world.

Some of the most undervalued tools in the public diplomacy toolkit explicitly recognize the fact that more often than not, a nation’s sense of self is closely connected to its cultural heritage.  The value of a particular cultural monument, an example of historic architecture, or a specific artifact in a museum goes well beyond its retail or tourism value, but instead is truly priceless in the eyes of those who consider it a part of their national identity.  There are well-known examples of how disputes over ownership of such culture, including the Elgin Marbles or the Preah Vihear Temple, have led to tense international relations and even armed conflict.  Few are aware, however, of how we routinely use cultural heritage to our advantage in public diplomacy.

One of the best such tools is the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau for Education and Cultural Affairs.  Under this program, public diplomacy officers at U.S. embassies and consulates all over the world work with local partners to identify worthy cultural heritage preservation projects and submit proposals for review and approval in Washington. Each year a few dozen of the best proposals are funded at a total cost of about $7 or 8 million.  In terms of bang-for-your-buck, it is hard to find a better investment of public diplomacy resources.  Perhaps every day somewhere in the world, a U.S. Ambassador is visiting an archaeological site, a museum, or some other cultural venue to cut a ribbon or otherwise celebrate a project that tangibly demonstrates U.S. respect for local culture and traditions.  In my experience, these events are widely covered by the local media and generally resonate with the local population in a way that signing ceremonies or diplomatic speeches can never hope to match.

I will cite just one example from my own personal experience.  In East Timor, a newly-independent country in Southeast Asia, traditional “sacred” houses all across the country were destroyed during the Indonesian occupation of that territory up until the late 1990s.  Several years ago, the Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation approved a U.S. Embassy project to work with the new Timorese Ministry of Culture and local villages to rebuild several of these houses.  Over the course of a few years at numerous nationally-televised groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting events, the U.S. Ambassador and the Timorese Secretary of State for Culture celebrated the “rebuilding” not only of these cultural landmarks, but also the Timorese nation itself.  At the cost of a tiny fraction of other more expensive development initiatives, this simple project showed all of the Timorese people that we respected them and their culture and were working to help them rebuild their country.

As the U.S. Department of State fact sheet last week on the decision to return the Persian Griffin stated — “The return of the artifact reflects the strong respect the United States has for cultural heritage property — in this case cultural heritage property that was likely looted from Iran and is important to the patrimony of the Iranian people. It also reflects the strong respect the United States has for the Iranian people.” The return of that artifact, of course, does not appear to have been the result of a particular preservation program or even particularly costly, but it makes good public diplomacy and policy sense.  As for our other public diplomacy programs, like the Ambassador’s Fund, even in an era of limited resources, let’s not be penny wise and pound foolish!  We would do well to continue to invest in such programs that help us build the mutual understanding and respect that we depend on to advance our policy goals around the world.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the State Department or the U.S. Government. The author is a State Department officer specializing in public diplomacy, currently detailed to the IPDGC to teach and work on various Institute projects.

Misreporting the Turkish Protests

Turkish Demonstrators during the Gezi Park occupation

Turkish demonstrators during the Gezi Park occupation. Credit: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty via TheGuardian.com

In late May, protestors descended on Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park.  At first, there was a small sit-in over re-development plans that would have it, one of the few parks in European Istanbul.  After months of unsuccessful petitioning to save the park, activists took to camping out there to prevent the demolition.  Police removed them by force, setting their encampment on fire in the process.

The state’s aggressive response was met with outrage as images of the police action spread.  This brought far more protestors to the park. They expressed a general dissatisfaction with the government’s increasingly restrictive policies and actions.  Some were displeased with new limitations on alcohol sales during certain hours, increasing censorship and bans on public displays of affection. The government deployed punitive measures against dissidents and those insulting religion.

Turkey’s contemporary politics is defined by a delicate, but tilting balance between the religiously-inclined socio-politics of the dominant AK party and the deep strain of Kemalist secularism. The latter is reflected constitutionally, going back to the founder of modern, post-Ottoman Turkey.  It’s a set of nationalist values entrenched institutionally in the military, which plays a vital role in shaping Turkey’s polity, as well as among a good portion of the Turkish population.  The AK party, however, was re-elected several times by a majority of the country, and therefore enjoys something of a popular mandate to legislate socially conservative policies.  The modernist, westernizing vision of Turkey is at odds with the outcomes of democratic process.

This turn in political culture matches Turkey’s pivot in foreign affairs, from its abandoned westward aims of joining the European Union to playing a more active role in Middle Eastern international relations.

Protests that began over a very specific qualm — the razing of the park — quickly grew to larger movements of general dissent in others parts of the country. Labor strikes, mass protests and organized action by professionals and academics confronted the government. Riot police frequently used force and instruments such as tear gas, clubs and other weapons to disperse crowds.

Turkish President Abdullah Gül recently praised the original sit-in for the values it espoused, though he differentiated them from the later agitators who he saw as perpetrating violence. In response to the accusation that the state’s response was overwrought, he said its tactics were quite consistent with the types of response in other countries.  Rather than seeing these as amounting to a crisis of legitimacy, he sought to normalize the protest and the state’s response: “These kinds of problems are mainly democratic and developed countries’ problems. Turkey’s problems have come to a point resembling these.” In other words, these are #firstworldproblems.

President Gül’s claims are hard to square with the extent of violence that ensued. Freelance journalist Ahmet Sik said: “I have worked in war zones but Taksim was terrible. The security forces were hunting people down. Media personnel are targeted twice over. By demonstrators who think they are siding with the government and not covering events properly. And by the security forces, who deliberately fire at us.”

I am sure reasonable people can disagree to whether this is hyperbole or not, but one less ambitious question could be: How capable was foreign and Turkish media in reporting the story?

At a recent one-day symposium at Dublin City University, Esra Doğramaci spoke on this exact topic. She highlighted numerous, systematic errors in traditional news coverage, and showed how social media helped correct misreporting.

Her most stinging critique was that foreign media reported these protests within an “Arab spring” frame.  This suggests a revolutionary purpose aimed at regime change, rather than towards specific policy reforms.  Referencing the protests as “Turkish Tahrir” was emblematic of “sensationalism and misinformation.”  The numbers, the eventual unanimity, and the scale of government repression did not match, making the Arab spring frame fall flat. As one analyst suggested the underlying issue is identity, and that Kemalism was a “spent force” while long-suppressed religious politics are emergent.

Not only did news media fail to explore this more relevant historic context, but they offered reductionist and ahistorical parallels instead.  She points out The Economist cover that superimposed Prime Minister Erdogan’s face on an Ottoman Sultan’s body.

The June 8th - 14th, 2013 cover.

The June 8th – 14th, 2013 cover.

Doğramaci pointed to blatant acts of misreporting, from identifying a mass audience for the Prime Minister as an anti-government protest, to outdated photos of an injured child, to articles gauging national opinion based on interviews with ten Turks. One rumor that the government shuttered cell phone service was reported, but shown by a social media user to be false. She attributed these, in part, to the problem of producing “news requiring least effort.” Social media users, could correct the record and push journalism to be better.

There are, however, other systematic issues.  The Turkish spring frame, could reflect a lack of familiarity with the idiosyncrasies of Turkey, such as the deeper tension in its changing political culture.  Editors or journalists may just collapse it in with the set of Arab countries that saw uprisings starting in late 2010 — Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Or, it could be a frame intended to grab more page views: a “hook.” That certainly seems to be the purpose of magazine covers, after all.

Covering it poorly is probably better than not covering it all.  CNN Turk, Doğramaci mentioned, famously ignored the story all together, showing a documentary about penguins instead of the first protests. CNN International was more on the ball, refusing to get scooped.  The CNN Turk documentary led to a fun protest meme. The penguin became the protestors’ new logo for neglectful media non-coverage.

One wonders, however, whether we can just fully blame faulty media coverage.  The Turkish government’s high rate of convicting and imprisoning journalists won it the nickname “world’s largest prison for journalists.”  When Reporters With Borders deems a country that, one wonders how state policy and pressures interfere with journalists’ access and ability to report competently on important stories, such as these protests. Documented reports of intimidation and censorship of journalists suggest government policy can also create reporting skews.  One impact is it discourages reporters from covering it. This could be the reason CNN Turk was slow to the subject.

Turkish repression of media is so extensive that it immediately calls into question President Gül’s assessment of the protests and the state response.

Despite the potential for social media users to circumvent traditional state instruments, such as its criminal law, the thick censorial regime would be very likely to impact how key moments in Turkey’s struggle for a new direction are presented, making the veracity of information more difficult to decipher.  Far from excusing sloppy journalism, unimaginative metaphors and skin-deep analysis in news media, pointing to the lack of press freedom in Turkey is an essential first step towards helping outsiders better understand what is happening within.

The Russian Proposal and the Public Diplomacy Battle over Syria


The already fascinating thrust and parry between the United States and Russia over Syria just got even more interesting with the latest Russian proposal calling on Damascus to give up its chemical weapons. This high stakes debate about war and peace unfolding in Washington, Moscow and other capitals around the world has important public diplomacy implications.

President Obama’s decision on August 31 to hit the pause button rather than launch button on military action against Syria reflected American concerns that there was insufficient political legitimacy to offset the lack of a United Nations Security Council resolution authorizing the use of force to punish the Assad regime for its alleged use of chemical weapons. There was a UN resolution two years ago when NATO intervened in Libya.

The pursuit of congressional and parliamentary backing was considered partial compensation, but there was an unexpected setback when the British House of Commons defeated a resolution to authorize force in Syria. The Obama administration continues to make its case for action, but getting a resolution authorizing the use of force through a deeply divided Congress is an uphill struggle, particularly in the House of Representatives.

The choice to seek popular and representative approval for military action is a political roll of the dice, but also an interesting civics lesson. The leaders of the world’s most enduring democracies are governing according to the wishes of their people, and subject to meaningful checks and balances by co-equal legislative branches. This assumes that President Obama would follow the lead of Prime Minister David Cameron and abide by the result of the congressional vote (assuming one takes place) that he said he didn’t need, but sought anyway. Meanwhile, a dictator uses all the weapons at his disposal, including chemical weapons, to hold on to power, backed by those who cynically use international law to undermine international norms. The process, slow and messy as it is, puts in sharp relief what is at stake in Syria.

The United States, Britain and France have presented compelling accounts that chemical weapons have been used in the increasingly brutal Syrian civil war. But there is not yet a “smoking gun” that definitively ties the latest chemical attacks that killed more than 1,400 people to the Syrian military or Assad himself. The results of a UN inspection to confirm the crossing of the red line regarding the use of chemical weapons are still pending, although its mandate does not include a judgment regarding who did it.

To many, this smacks of the Iraq debate ten years ago, a public diplomacy nightmare for the United States that will continue to handicap perceptions of American power and influence for years to come.

Mr. Obama has insisted that the unfolding tragedy in Syria represents a challenge for the international community, not just the United States. “I didn’t set a red line,” President Obama said about chemical weapons during remarks in Sweden recently. “The world set a red line.”

But while many countries are critical of the Assad regime, a lot less have openly called for a military strike. And fewer still seem prepared to directly participate. Many Americans are asking themselves, if the United States is considering defending widely accepted norms under the Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria is not a signatory), where is the rest of the world? Russia and China have effectively sidelined the United Nations. Many within the Arab League are hedging their bets.

But on the heels of a G-20 summit that featured open competition between Putin and Obama over international expressions of support for their colliding strategies on Syria, Putin has played a hole card that potentially takes the initiative away from Obama and shifts the debate from military back to political action.

While on the surface it appears to wrong-foot the president, it puts the onus on Putin to actually deliver. If Syria balks, it actually strengthens Obama’s argument for military action.

Obama should hit the pause button again, request that Congress suspend its consideration of a war resolution, move the debate back to the UN and see if Russia and China are prepared to give the international community a more meaningful role in the Syrian conflict. A UN resolution should authorize an intrusive international inspection regime to monitor Syria’s chemical weapons, since destroying its existing stockpile will take many years.

War-weary publics have expressed their fears that Syria would become another Iraq, circa 2003. Accepting the Russian offer, and then codifying and verifying it, would place UN inspectors on the ground who would work to at least take chemical weapons out of the deadly equation of the Syrian civil war. This would turn Syria into another Iraq, but circa 1991.

There are public diplomacy risks and costs to this course as well, but far fewer than starting another perceived American war in the Middle East.

Eye of the Beholder: Special Force 2 and the Propaganda Game

Special Force 2

“All art is propaganda. It is universally and inescapably proaganda; sometimes unconsciously, but often deliberately, propaganda… when artists or art critics make the assertion that art excludes propaganda, what they are saying is that their kind of propaganda is art, and other kinds of propaganda are not art. Orthodoxy is my doxy, and heterodoxy is the other fellow’s doxy.” – Upton Sinclair

A few months ago I wrote about America’s Army, a first person shooter game developed by the U.S. Army as a recruitment tool for young people. In it, the player participates in a round-based tactical confrontation with other players online, simulating realistic combat conditions. Judging from the series’ more than 11 million registered users who have played a combined 260 million hours, America’s Army has achieved a level of acceptance in American society. 

Special Force 2

The U.S. is not the only country where government actors have created a game as a recruitment tool. In Lebanon, the armed political and religious group Hezbollah has created its own video game franchise, in a similar vein to America’s Army. The Special Force games place the players in the shoes of a Hezbollah mujahid fighting against Israel. The most recent entry into the series, Special Force 2, was published on the anniversary of the 2006 war fought between Israel and Hezbollah.

Special Force 2 places the player in the midst of the 2006 war, reenacting several of Hezbollah’s victorious battles in the 34-day conflict. In the first mission, the player carries out the July 16 raid which captured two Israeli border patrol soldiers and brought them back into Lebanon to force a prisoner exchange. The second and third missions showcase battles where Hezbollah repulsed Isreali offensives – in Bint Jabril, a town that remained in Hezbollah position despite three Israeli attempts to take it, and in Wadi al Hujeir, a valley where Hezbollah guerrillas were able to hold off a massive Israeli offensive. A further challenge allows the player to capture a fictional island and sink a destroyer.

The propaganda twist with which Special Force 2 represents these battles is fascinating, if not exactly subtle. Lebanon is depicted as a bird-filled forest, with green, rolling hills; Israel is silent desert. At close range, Israeli soliders’ lips curl into a snarl – when killed, they fall to the ground calling out for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Video cutscenes between missions only depict dead or defeated Israelis, or Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah shouting before cheering crowds. It’s a one-sided depiction of the war, which in reality Hezbollah won only at great cost. At no point does the player learn that close to 1,200 Lebanese were killed in the conflict, or that Lebanese infrastructure suffered nearly to $2.5 billion in damages. Everything culminates to glorify Hezbollah as protectors of the realm, and the military equal (or superior) to Israel. 

Upon release, the game garnered little reaction (save scorn) from western audiences, but in the Arab world Special Force 2 gained plenty of positive attention. Special Force 2 quickly ran out of its initial 100,000 physical copies and soon became available for free online. The audience was Arab youth in Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Bahrain and the UAE, but before too long, an unofficial English patch was created so that non-arabic speakers could play the game as well. It is difficult to know how many people were playing the game, but by all accounts, Special Force 2 had reasonable staying power. A friend of mine reported to have seen the game played in Lebanese internet cafes more than three years after its initial launch.

The Special Force games showcase one way that governments can communicate with an audience using interactive media. They are a recruitment tool, proudly displaying Hezbollah’s military successes over Israel and projecting the career of a mujahid as one of power and strength. Speaking about the first game in the series, Mahmoud Rayya, an official from the Hezbollah media bureau, told the Daily Star that “in a way, Special Force offers a mental and personal training for those who play it, allowing them to feel that they are in the shoes of the resistance fighters.”

Special Force 2

Like America’s Army, Special Force 2 is targeted towards youth.

The game also provides an opportunity for youth to “resist the Israeli occupation through the media,” according to Rayya.  The box cover on the original Special Force declared that “the designers of Special Force are very proud to provide you with this special product, which embodies objectively the defeat of the Israeli enemy and the heroic actions taken by heroes of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon… Be a partner in the victory. Fight, resist and destroy your enemy in the game of force and victory.” By fighting in simulations of real battles, Arab youth experience these moments of Arab victories against Israel as a matter of personal agency. In a way, the game allows them to feel as thought they are a part of the battle against Israel, and that they can win.

For a game that stands so starkly to Western game experiences, Special Force 2 relies heavily on the work of Western developers. The game was built from assets illegally stripped the 2004 game Far Cry, developed by the German company Crytech and published by Ubisoft. Player controls, gun models, vehicles, animations, A.I. behaviors are all pulled from the original game, sometimes with a visual overhaul but often copied in their entirety. Whereas the Far Cry games take place in a tropical, leafy environment, Special Force 2 is largely barren. Looking at the game it’s clear to see which assets were created by Crytech and which were developed by Hezbollah – the quality of the textures as well as the level of detail applied to game objects is somewhat inferior for the latter. 

farcry guns

Guns from the original Far Cry (left) are copied wholesale into Special Force 2 (right).

The games market in the Arab world is growing, but still largely ignored by the majority of games publishers and developers. Most focus on North America, Europe, and South Asia as their primary markets, maintaining virtually no presence in the Middle East and North Africa. Few foreign games dedicate the time or expense to translating their game to Arabic, which would require the conversion of their engines to a right-to-left writing system. Many Western games are furthermore perceived as culturally insensitive. In this space, games like Special Force 2 have greater appeal. Mahmoud Rayya states that Special Force was “designed to compete against foreign computer games that show Arabs as enemies and Americans as the heroes that defeat them.” Arab youth looking for a game that caters to Arab experiences may find much appealing in Special Force’s unique message.

Special Force 2 is undoubtedly a propaganda game. For its one-sided depiction of the 2006 war with Israel, and for the demonization of enemy soldiers, the game has earned that title. Yet one could also argue that Hezbollah has simply done with a modern day war what many commercial American games have done with wars from history. Here in the U.S.,  there is an impressive litany of World War 2 games that pit the player against a one-dimensional German or Japanese foe. As terrible as either of these imperialist powers may have been, can we reasonably claim that American games as an industry represent war with more depth or subtlety than Special Force 2?

An excellent Extra Credits lecture points out that our ability to recognize propaganda in games often depends on whether we agree with the game’s underlying message. In recognizing Special Force 2 as a propaganda game, we must also be prepared to question whether the games that we play present a truthful reflection of reality or simply one that fits with our own preconceptions. It is also worth remembering that Special Force 2 represents a broadly held narrative in the Middle East, and that for many, it is less of a propaganda game than others produced here in the United States.

Follow Derek Gildea on Twitter: @derekpost

Readers interested in learning more about Special Force 2 may be interested in watching an analytical video series produced by the author, available here.

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