Middle East

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People of the Book: What Explains the Rise of Extremism in The Muslim World?

 

master narratives of islamic extremism ISIS ISIL

Islamic master narratives are blamed for the rise of terrorism at home and abroad. However, these assertions do not explain the seeming explosion of extremism. (Koran Image: CC BY 2.0 | Flickr: Crystalina, Video Still: Islamic State Video)

Perhaps one of the defining characteristics of religion is that it provides a structure for adherents to process the world around them. For the world’s Muslims, who have been rocked by isolated waves of violent extremism in recent decades, their religion provides a rich cultural history that is interwoven with grand narratives of holy wars, martyrs, and heroes. Scholars and public diplomacy officials are quick to point to these more violent narratives as the root cause of Islamic extremism—but these assertions do not explain why Islam, of all the world’s religions, has been most affected. These explanations, whether intentionally or not, ignore or minimize the effects of eroding political and religious control centers and rising global secularism that have acutely affected Muslim population centers.

The Rationale for Muslim Extremism

It is hard to fault scholars for trying to simplify the origins of this outbreak to a narrative susceptibility of the Muslim faith. In public diplomacy, where words are actions, exploring the cultural schema of a foreign community is an important exercise that can ensure that no communication further emboldens the very extremists that a communicator is trying to undermine. Of course, religions of all types include stories of war, conflict, and worldly struggles that have cosmic ramifications. And the overwhelming majority of religious scholars acknowledge that some of these cultural master narratives – especially the Abrahamic faiths of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – provide a framework for individuals to process events that can run counter to western secular values. One needs only to look to the overt religious themes of Islamic State beheading videos or the hate mongering screed that fills Aryan Nations message boards to see what a religious narrative used to mobilize extremism looks like.

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Three Aryan Nations members salute with a banner that incorporates religious and patriotic symbols in this undated photograph from a website purporting to represent the group. (Image: Susan Hillman | aryannationsworldwide1488.org)

However, the Muslim world has been suffering from the acute effects of power vacuums of religion and state that have left room for extremist groups to grow accompanied by a rising global secularism that has increasingly alienated devout Muslims. In the midst of this societal turmoil, isolated pockets of fundamentalist believers and psychologically disturbed malcontents are prone to radicalization and acts of violence.

Power Vacuums of Religion and State

While Western governments are not entirely immune to the effects of eroding public trust, Islamic nations — particularly those states where groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda have staked out a presence — have been racked by wars, coups and general unrest that involve complex structural problems in governance, demographics, and economics. Against this general backdrop of instability is an increasingly violent schism between various sects of Islam (namely fundamentalist Sunni and Shia groups) that can now reach a global audience with their specific brands of Islam.

At one time, the splintering effects of sectarianism were mitigated by the Muslim caliphs. As secular and spiritual leaders, they defined the faith for their followers and fulfilled a spiritual need for an Allah-sanctioned ruler on earth who could separate “right” interpretations from apostasy. Nominally secular governments took the caliphs place in the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, some even providing religious leadership in the form of state sanctioned imams who work closely with political leaders to align state policy with the Koran. Even today, the close relationship  between government and religion is supported by a plurality among Muslims in these nations who want to see religious leaders take on more political control.

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Image: Pew Research Center

However, when these secular governments fail to keep the peace in the Middle East, the power vacuums are often filled with religious extremists– especially in nations where government’s implicit support for harsh treatment of religious minorities, “heretics” and “apostates” is present.  Weak or oppressive governments in Afghanistan and Pakistan and in Syria and Iraq have been blamed for the rise of Al Qaeda and ISIL.

Rising Secularism and Group Identification Pressures

At the same time, devout Muslims are facing a world that is increasingly ignorant of and outright hostile towards religion. Western nations with high percentages of Christian residents like the U.S., U.K., and Germany embrace religious freedom and tolerate religious practice. There are correspondingly low rates of radicalization in these countries. However, nations like France, which enshrines secularism and the exclusion of ecclesiastical control and influence in its constitution, are moving towards a new paradigm where liberalism and secularization means rejection of the “close-mindedness” and “backwards” thinking that accompanies religious practice. Muslims, who are cast as demeaning women and are a rapidly growing demographic in Europe, have been a visible target of reforms that ban full body Islamic religious dress like the niqab or the “burkini.” Other Abrahamic religions have largely discarded these practices, or their religious dress has been normalized over centuries of exposure. These same conservative Muslims are being asked to condemn fundamentalist extremists’ faith and “moderate” their behavior. This in-group, out-group mentality, and the disdain for religious peoples that accompanies it, alienate Muslims who themselves are fundamentalists, but have come to different conclusions about what their faith requires. Charismatic extremist groups like ISIL use this forced black/white, secular/religious paradigm to recruit fundamentalists and other disaffected Westerners who are drawn to the meaning and sense of purpose that a religious group can offer in an increasingly relativistic world.

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A Muslim woman wears a niqab in France in this 2010 photo. Image: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 | Flickr User anw-fr

 A Rational Conclusion to Fundamentalist Oppression

After making the leap to extremism, fundamentalist adherents can easily rationalize acts of war and terrorism to further their geo-political goals as God’s will for their movement. For the Islamic State, this means conquering territory and drawing the west into a war that their members believe will trigger the apocalypse. For Al-Qaeda before them, it meant using terrorism to draw concessions from Western military forces abroad. Misguided attempts by the west to fight this extremism have only further inflamed tensions that excite members to join and fight.

Western nations must be vigilant in their efforts to minimize further impact of these global trends that have bolstered the rise of Islamic extremism and must be wary of ignoring these problems at home. Banning religious dress, forcing secularism, and otherwise alienating religious groups will only lead to more extremism, as France has seen after multiple local ordinances banning conservative Muslim dress became international news.

The rise of Islamic extremism is a lesson for the world’s leaders: Wherever people feel oppressed, ignored, and alienated in their own country; or where government leaves a vacuum of power, control, or support; there is ample opportunity for charismatic groups to provide the solution.

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s only and do not necessarily reflect those of George Washington University.

5 Lessons from a Public Diplomacy-Savvy Ambassador

Robert Ford (right), the most recent U.S. ambassador to Syria, engages in conversation with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at the 4th Annual Walter Roberts Lecture, November 12, 2014. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

Robert Ford (right), the most recent U.S. ambassador to Syria, engages in conversation with Frank Sesno, director of the School of Media and Public Affairs, at the 4th Annual Walter Roberts Lecture, November 12, 2014. Credit: Alexei Agaryshev.

“It is important to be ‘seen’ – being there physically matters if you want to be a successful diplomat,” noted Ambassador Robert Ford at the 4th Annual Walter Roberts Lecture last Wednesday.

Public diplomacy (PD) professionals have long emphasized that the last few feet of communication can make a huge difference in public perception and engagement. Ambassador Ford demonstrated clearly, through fascinating accounts from his tours overseas, that public diplomacy is essential to successful diplomatic work. Countering the notion that diplomats work behind the closed doors of government, the former U.S. Ambassador to Syria and Algeria emphasized the role of active public diplomacy in breaking down barriers and conveying policy messages.

Here are the five lessons that Ambassador Ford referred to in his lecture that he had learned were important for successful public diplomacy:

1. It is important to be “seen” – being physically there matters

We often forget that many people around the world have never met an American, much less an American diplomat. People in Syria, Egypt, China or Brazil have a vision of Americans that is often formed by television programs, movies, websites, the news or the anecdotes of friends who may have come into contact with an American. One “ugly American” can color the perception of a whole village; conversely, one open, warm and understanding American student or teacher can influence an entire student body at a university.

Ambassador Ford noted that his visit early in the Syria conflict to Hama to witness local demonstrations and listen to the points of view of all parties had an enormous impact on the people he met and policy makers in Washington simply because he was physically there. He believed that his visit sent a message to Syrians that the U.S. supported the right to freedom of expression and assembly.

Over the years, as a public diplomacy officer in the Foreign Service, I have worked with many ambassadors. We have debated together the merits of “being there” to convey a message that actions could express more forcefully than words. Should the ambassador attend a funeral of a prominent dissident? What about attending the opening event at a film festival that was airing anti-American films? Would it be effective to speak at the opening of a Special Olympics event to highlight our concept of equal access for all? Or, to demonstrate respect for local culture and religion should the ambassador visit an historic mosque, church synagogue or temple?

As I accompanied these ambassadors, I met people who would consistently note how important it was for the U.S. to send the message of support for human rights, tolerance or inclusivity through the presence of our ambassador. No matter what the activity, just “being there” always had an impact and conveyed the essence of American values.

2. Reach out to regular people

At my last post in Cairo, we debated the merits of what we called “grassroots public diplomacy” or reaching out to regular people, Ambassador Ford’s number two on the list of lessons. But, who are “regular people” and why are they important? Traditional diplomacy has focused on relations between governments and government officials. For centuries, diplomats met in offices at foreign ministries or at formal events. Over time, diplomatic activity expanded to include critical influencers of foreign policy or public opinion, such as journalists, writers or cultural figures.

Regular people are basically everyone from the doorkeeper, elementary school teacher, and NGO worker to the owner of the local café. They are important because if you take the time to meet them, discuss and listen you can really understand the local economy, political situation or mood of a country. And, in societies where people believe their neighbors or family members more than the evening news broadcaster, your meeting could be significant in influencing public opinion.

I still remember the eyes of a mother from a poor community in Tunisia who took me aside at a student graduation ceremony to note that our English language after-school program had kept her son off the streets and out of trouble. We sat, surrounded by other parents, as she discussed her dreams for her son and I presented our exchange program opportunities. Taking the time to listen changed the entire dynamic of the event for everyone at a time when criticism of U.S. policy on Iraq was on the front page of every paper.

3.  Keep up with technology

Ambassadors are notorious for their discomfort with the latest in social media. First of all – by the time you get to be an ambassador, you are usually older than the rest of the staff at the embassy (apologies to ambassadors!) Persuading an ambassador to tweet, use Instagram, or blog usually results in the Public Affairs Officer and staff being assigned another task.

The point is not whether the ambassador or other diplomatic staff knows how to use the latest technology – it is whether they understand how to incorporate it as a tool for planning and strategy in communication and outreach. In his speech, Ambassador Ford highlighted the use of social media in a restrictive communications environment. When he could not reach out to present the U.S. administration’s point of view on the treatment of Syrian demonstrators, he could still get out the word via Facebook. Whether it is Youtube, Twitter, Facebook or another platform preferred in a specific country, social media allows a diplomatic mission to reach large numbers of people.

In Cairo, the embassy currently has over 850,000 Facebook fans. They post questions and comments in Arabic and English, sign-up for events, or participate in competitions. Once we asked, who are all these people? And in keeping with point number two, an event was organized to meet 100 of fans. They came from all over the country and from every strata in society: students, businessmen and women, alumni of exchange programs, journalists, teachers… the list was endless. They all had one thing in common: an enthusiasm to engage. And in keeping with point number one, some of them had never met an American and now there was an opportunity for American diplomats to “be there.”

4. Don’t overuse access to the media

The usual modus operandi of all ambassadors is to get as much positive press coverage of U.S. policy or diplomatic activities as possible. Public diplomacy sections, especially the press officers, spend hours strategizing on how to make this happen. They work hard to figure out how to use media opportunities to convey important messages to local publics. And, the press officer will also arrange events where the ambassador and other officers have the opportunity to listen to the insights and opinions of local press.

Ambassador Ford, however, reminded the audience that more is not always a good thing: “Don’t overuse access to the media.” Some messages are better delivered in person behind the closed doors of a foreign ministry or in a speech to a specific audience of businessmen. The message, when delivered via the media, can result in host government backlash if it is unexpected. Or, because you just made the issue part of a public debate – it gets buried by the response of multiple and conflicting articles and opinions.

Public diplomacy officers are always aware, as well, that journalists want access to the ambassador just as much as we want to get out a good story. Sometimes that results in the equivalent of journalistic “blackmail” – “I am doing a story on X and it will run tomorrow. Can you give me a comment?” Or, they run a story and when you call to note they have the facts wrong – then the journalist asks for an exclusive to set the record straight.

So, use media access judiciously and with awareness that it is the right tool for the purpose.

5. Don’t underestimate the power of outreach and soft power.

As a public diplomacy officer, I was heartened to hear Ambassador Ford note that soft-power and outreach can have a tremendous impact on foreign publics. He recounted a story of visiting a university in Algeria. He told the PAO (Public Affairs Officer) to keep it low-key since he knew that U.S. policy in Iraq was not very popular at the time. When he arrived at the university, he was overwhelmed by a large and very public welcome. It turns out that the English language and skills building programs established by the Public Affairs Office and implemented by partnerships with U.S. universities where tremendously popular and successful. The university president wanted more! I could recount more stories where finding common interest has resulted in politics being put aside – but, I am running out of space. These blogs are supposed to be under 800 words and I am over!

We’re Giving the ISIL Media Campaign Too Much Credit

Demonstrators in support of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, June 16, 2014. Source: Voice of America

Demonstrators in support of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, 225 miles (360 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq, June 16, 2014. Source: Voice of America

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, commonly referred to as ISIL, ISIS or just IS, has certainly displayed not just surprising military prowess, but also significant communication skill as it has grown into a meaningful force in a vital region of the world. Buttressed by successes on the ground in Syria and Iraq, it has positioned itself in the Islamic world as a rival to al Qaeda and perhaps even its successor.

To the extent the Islamic State is engaged in an information war with al Qaeda, whose leadership threw ISIL out of the club for being too violent, it is definitely winning.

But a number of national security commentators have gone so far as to suggest the Islamic State is winning a propaganda war with the United States and the West. This is giving the Islamic State too much credit.

Exposure and influence are two different things.

The Islamic State is communicating effectively. It has shown remarkable sophistication in its media campaign. Its latest video, featuring British journalist John Cantlie in Shakespearian fashion asking his audience to “lend its ears” to hear the “other side” of the ISIL story is “diabolical” as one commentator suggested.

ISIL does seem to be growing in strength – at least for the moment. Its ranks include true believers in the formation of a Caliphate and others who see it as the lesser of evils compared to the governments of Iraq and Syria. It has shown an ability to attract a meaningful number of young men from Europe and the United States.

This is advertising. And as a relatively small but nonetheless a sadly compelling niche, the ISIL brand is advancing. Hopefully, as more and more people realize how unappealing the product really is, ISIL will steadily lose market share over time.

But in its outreach beyond the Muslim world, where the propaganda rubber hits the strategic road, the “information effect” of the media campaign is the opposite of what ISIL claims it wants.

In theory, the Islamic State message to the West is, “Leave us alone.” But the net effect of recent videos, particularly the gruesome murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, has been the formation of a coalition of countries dedicated to confronting and defeating the movement both militarily and politically.

Propaganda or strategic communication, its modern corollary, is supposed to create an information environment that enables a broader strategy to succeed. ISIL’s communications have actually crystallized international public opinion in opposition to its movement.

Sunni-led countries are prepared to take direct action in support of the Shia-led government in Baghdad, something that rarely occurred over the previous decade. Western countries that were previously reluctant to get re-involved in Iraq, including the United States, are now conducting air strikes against ISIL forces.

It is also possible the Islamic State is trying to draw America back into an active military conflict in the Middle East, trying to reinvigorate perceptions of a Western “war against Islam.” But here again, Washington, London and other capitals are committed to helping regional forces in Iraq and Syria against ISIL, ensuring this is appropriately framed as a struggle within Islam.

Strategic communications is not about the channel or the connection but the effect. If an information campaign actually makes it harder to win the war, it’s a strategic failure, not a success.

Public Diplomacy in Action at IPDGC

The author (far left) and Professor Nathan Brown (immediate right) discuss the importance of dialogue in public diplomacy with a delegation from the Middle East at the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

The author (far left) and Professor Nathan Brown (immediate right) discuss the importance of dialogue in public diplomacy with a delegation of Islamic scholars from Al-Azhar University in Cairo at the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

As the new Public Diplomacy Diplomatic Fellow at GWU, I still stand with a foot slowly lifting off from my last “post” – U.S. Embassy Cairo and the other foot planted in an office at the IPDGC.

On September 9, both worlds merged as IPDGC hosted a delegation of Islamic religious scholars from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the major center of Sunni learning in the Middle East, as well as imams and representatives from the Dar al Iftah and the office of the “Grand Imam” at al-Azhar. The visit was organized by the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (CECF) and its director, Imam Bashar Arafat; and funded via a public diplomacy grant from the Public Affairs Office in Embassy Cairo.

The program, a three-week visit to the U.S., took the scholars all over the United States to meet with representatives of religious, academic, government and NGO institutions. This people-to-people dialogue was aimed at increasing awareness among the delegates and the people they met regarding points of mutual interest, concern and potential cooperation.

Professor Nathan Brown from the Elliott School Middle East Studies program joined me in a discussion with the delegation. Previously, Dr. Brown had met some of the delegates during a speaking program in Cairo, organized by the Public Affairs Office, on comparative constitutions. Members of the delegation were glad to see a familiar face. They were curious about the School of Media and Public Affairs and how media could be used to improve understanding rather than increase stereotypes.

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Imam Bashar Arafat (right corner), director of the Civilizations Exchange and Cooperation Foundation, partakes in the discussion with the author (left corner) in the School of Media and Public Affairs, September 9, 2014.

They stated their dedication to increasing mutual understanding and their appreciation for the members of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities who met with them during their visit. Members conveyed their concern for the threat from terrorist groups, whom they noted had nothing to do with the real “Islam”. Their final request was for greater contact and cooperation between George Washington University and Al-Azhar University in Egypt.

Opening doors to dialogue is an important function of public diplomacy. Listening to the point of view of others and finding common interests is step one in the process of explaining American society and values. A common foundation of knowledge and understanding is useful when public diplomacy professionals at the Department of State are trying to explain and convey U.S. policy objectives. On September 9, GWU and the IPDGC played an important role by offering a warm welcome to the delegation and listening to their concerns, goals and hopes for the future.

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.

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).

Model

Standardized Coefficients

t

Sig.

Beta

(Constant)

1.469

.143

AGE

.120*

2.142

.033

INCOME

.079

1.350

.178

EDUCATION

-.086

-1.492

.137

RACE

.017

.302

.763

GENDER (Female)

-.180***

-3.213

.001

PID

-.028

-.369

.713

Sharing President Barack Obama’s views in general

.331***

4.456

.000

Became more or less supportive of the US IRAQ war?

.293***

5.211

.000

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

.100

1.794

.074

(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.

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