Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Did you hear? Did you hear the news...?

 ... Russians are spying on the super-secret American nukes!

I've been having a blast following some of the reporting, reactions, and the commentary on the story. The best word I can come up with to describe it all: RIDICULOUS.

Oh well, and sad. Ridiculous and sad, because, as mentioned earlier in this blog, Cold War stereotypes and attitudes are still very much alive and kicking - especially in the U.S. The story was so "well-received" and there was so much enthusiasm about it, that it managed to capture headlines for two consecutive days now (and I'm sure it will continue doing so for at least another day or two, unless there is another "catastrophe", with global repercussions, to overshadow this great calamity that has come upon the American people).

Ridiculous. Now, everyone can relive the dearly-cherished memories of the past: the Russians are back to being "the Soviets" (just pay attention in the CNN video below: at about the 1:23-27th minute), KGB still exists (even if under a different name... surprise-surprise!) and has actually revived its strength under former President Putin, while the photos of the Russian "femme-fatale" and "beauty with beastly intentions" (these are real headlines!) are going viral in the media.

Despite the fact that the Justice Department has stated that the alleged spies did not have any access to valuable information and/or intelligence, their "methods" and "tactics" are discussed - in all seriousness - by officials, as well as analysts and experts. The Red Scare is back in full swing! But we should not worry, for FBI has got it all under control. Ridiculous.

I find it ridiculous that alleged spies are charged with "conspiring to act as unregistered agents of a foreign government" (see the full text of charges here). Does this mean that if they were involved in the same "operations", but had a diplo-cover, the FBI - being aware of it all - would not have a problem with it? (Somehow reminds me of South Carolina's Subversive Activities Registration Act passed earlier this year.) Money laundering? Fair enough. But then, I don't see the spy connection there.

It's ridiculous to watch Russian intelligence services being made fun of in such a way: unsophisticated, "old-school" and, in short, lame. Well, I should admit, it would be even more ridiculous if these individuals were indeed Russian agents under "deep cover", and indeed used those methods for their "operations". Come on, SVR. I thought better of you...!

It's ridiculous to see currents - obvious in the media - trying to undermine the slowly improving attitude toward Russia. Apparently, the fact that Obama and Medvedev bonded last week - shared some Tweetenthusiasm, greasy burgers, and freedom fries - didn't go down all that well with some. Oh, and if you didn't know, Obama is to blame for this crisis. Just by the way.

The Russian response has been ridiculous as well. Obviously, there has been no outright denial of involvement; rather, Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that they "did not act against the interests of the U.S." The more ridiculous thing is that Moscow actually expressed hope that in light of the recently-improved relations, the American side "will show proper understanding" when handling the case. I'm still wondering as to what "proper understanding" really means.

Of course, RT has been very busy pushing the somewhat logical arguments against these individuals being Russian government agents.

And yet, there has been a lot of ridiculousness, too. Trying to bring in "lobbying" and "journalism" as arguments in the attempt to justify and exculpate the alleged spies' activities in the US is certainly not a good approach, especially when you represent Russia and have a public diplomacy crisis spiraling out of control. No matter what the leaders say in an effort to downplay the effect of the case on the bilateral relationship, it is the public opinion, especially in the U.S., that's going to bear the loss. After all, it plays in well into the pre-existing stereotypes and nostalgia that many seem just too happy to revive.

Well done, FBI, with this PR move. (Even the Gulf oil-spill story seems to have got pushed further back. Wait, what if BP had something to do with this?!)

On a second thought, though, SONY seems to be a better candidate standing to benefit from this charade. With its SALT movie due to come out in three weeks, a fresh real "Russian spy" case would guarantee box office success on its very first weekend. Without this story, the Cold War seemed just too distant to make the movie as thrilling and marketable...

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Turkey and Iran: America's true allies in the region?

Yesterday I got to attend one of the many "launches" of Stephen Kinzer's new book: Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America's Future - the one hosted by HasNa (apparently, he had been going around various think-tanks and organizations over the past two days, actively promoting it). Certainly, the title speaks for itself and, just as in all book presentations, the major idea was to sell without giving away much of the content. Despite that, however, Kinzer did make a substantial presentation, outlining his views on the current and future U.S. policy in the Middle East.

As the author himself stated, Einstein's definition of insanity lies at the core of his perspective: "doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results." According to him, the United States has found itself in such a situation, since its Cold War policies and approaches in the Middle East have remained largely unchanged, while the strategic interests and the facts on the ground are transforming fairly rapidly.

In a nutshell, the major underlying theme in the book - as presented by Kinzer - is the need for the U.S. to recognize that Turkey and Iran hold the key to America's (as well as Israel's) true, long-term, interest in the region: stability.

Iran is important since it has effectively become the regional superpower: politically, economically, militarily, and even socially (owing much to Americans themselves, who helped by ousting Saddam). Given its size and influence, then, Iran can be the kingmaker in many issues that involve American interests in the region. Therefore, Kinzer said, it is absolutely crucial to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and show true good will from the American side. "Countries make security concessions only when they feel safe," he pointed out.

Turkey, in its turn, can play the role of the key mediator between the two, as well as between Israel and others, especially given its increasing influence over the past several years in the region and around the world.

Kinzer also emphasized that both these countries are perhaps the only ones in the Muslim world that have the true potential for becoming true democracies, given their past experience and socio-political culture. Interestingly enough, he said he believes that if Iran's religious cloak is removed, it stands an even greater chance of becoming a genuinely democratic nation than Turkey. He further clarified that he was referring to the somewhat different understanding of the concept that exists in Turkey: namely, the "guided democracy" approach (i.e. supported by the military establishment). Kinzer also talked about the Iranians' general lack of an extremely nationalist strain in politics (referring to the population at large, and not the current President), which is essentially at the core of the Kemalist legacy.

Talking about Iran, Kinzer also made sure to point out that Iranians are an extremely pro-American society: exceptional in the region, if not the entire world. "American pop culture is huge there. The Internet culture is huge." He suggested that the explanation for that is the increasing recognition among Iranians of what they are missing in terms of socio-political and economic freedoms in their own country, while it is not the case in Turkey, for instance.

Kinzer said the key challenges for the U.S. to handle are its own short-sightedness and rashness of acting on emotions. He suggested that America undermines its national security by disregarding the long-term implications of its current actions, as well as by indulging in wishful thinking as to what the Middle East should look like. Instead, the U.S. should start operating in the "real world": recognize the status quo as it is and try working within the given circumstances. The Iranian regime is here to stay, Kinzer said, and the U.S. "needs to deal with it as it is." Waiting for "the right time" is wrong, since it might be a long wait.

The greatest highlight of his talk for me, however, was his reference to the underlying cultural differences between the U.S. and the Middle East. He said, "Americans don't really know how to translate what the Middle East is saying." Here, he suggested the example of the 2009 Presidential Elections in Iran and his own observations about perspectives from Iranians. According to him, most of the people he talked to believe that change is inevitable, but that it will happen some time in the future, when sufficient momentum and right circumstances coincide. Thus, for Iranians who have a history that goes back 2,500 years, taking time for a gradual transformation is quite understandable, Kinzer said. Americans, on the other hand, are "very positivist and impatient" and strongly cling to what he calls the "can-do mentality", which requires immediate, even if unsustainable, results. (Here I can't help but recall Fisk's reference to most of the American policies in the Middle East as "the band-aid approach".)

He reiterated that by doing so, the U.S. is actually undermining its own goals and interests, since its policies intensify the anger and make the region all the more explosive. "We need some big thinking. Some new ideas." But the American foreign policy establishment, according to the author, does not want to listen to its true allies in the region, since taking advice does not correspond to "the American way of thinking."

It is also noteworthy that Kinzer called for more, what seemed to be, public diplomacy. He said it is important to think beyond the "narrow spectrum of acceptable options", and switch from a "regime-to-regime" approach to one that considers the people of these nations. Thus, a hostile American policy toward Iran (or, especially, a military action) will "kill the biggest strategic asset in the region": the pro-American sentiment. He said the U.S. needs to involve, rather than marginalize hostile regimes, since that will expose the cracks to their own publics and thus, facilitate an organic process of change. Such an approach would be more viable in the long-term, as opposed to attempts to "impose democracy" in places where its natural pace simply needs more time.

Kinzer concluded his talk by quoting the famous Sufi poet Rumi: “Why do you stay in prison when the door is so wide open?” I don't believe his book can provide an answer, though.


Monday, June 14, 2010

"Militainment"? Or "Operation Perception Management"?

One of the major public diplomacy discussions I have come across in class is the use of the entertainment industry to promote the country's relevant interests. The US government is, perhaps, one of the few major countries that does not directly support the production of from-America-with-love type movies (with a single exception that dates back to the 1960s), and my understanding is that it prides itself for that. "Hollywood will do the job by itself." And yet, the case is far from being such for Pentagon, which has a long-running relationship with the film industry (and not only).

I will be honest and say that I was naive enough never even to consider the possibility that all those war movies - that have been fairly popular over the past decade or so (not very recently, though), and which I have, myself, watched with great disgust but also interest - could have had their scripts pre-approved by the Pentagon before production. That is, not before I saw the latest episode of The Listening Post:

And no, none of that is "secret" of course. A simple Google search resulted in some articles from the earlier 2000s, that talk about this fact (Top Gun had resulted in some discussion too, back in 1986). There is also another one, as recent as 2006. And yet, there is nothing in the mainstream news today that would discuss the issue openly. Is it taken for granted that the Military "provides support" or, especially, pre-approves scripts of movies to be made? (For example, The Hurt Locker ran into a problem with the latter issue, apparently. Still got the Oscars...) Or is it just that we all conveniently forget about it?

Pentagon is willing to provide "technical support and advice" to any movie that deals with the subject, since that, in itself, provides access and direct (even if limited) control over the image of the US Military, as well as over the image of the wars it fights. But even if the script does not provide any venues for specific "message transmission", the simple fact of advertising the Military in movies should be worrisome.

All that is overshadowed by the role that video games play, though. These are much more effective - especially when it comes to potential recruiting - since they are more engaging and interactive, unlike "simple" movies. Having known some avid video game enthusiasts, I can say that they do indeed "work", especially when played from a younger age. Not only do they pump adrenaline - much the same way real battle supposedly does - but they also provide a sense of invincibility, power, and pride (now that I come to think of it, it might be really dangerous to go into a real battle zone with such a mindset...).

Furthermore, the story becomes ever more interesting when the virtual enemies are the Russians, or the Iraqis. The following trailers from a couple of very popular video games speak for themselves:

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare

Red Alert

Although "just a game", the players are much more likely to enthusiastically despise the "Russian comrades," the Arab "terrorists", or the "world-ambitious" Japanese in the real life, too. (As I was reading up to write this post, I came across a plot that sounds very, very interesting, and involves Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and a Russian double-agent. Should I start playing, now...?!)

Wonder where they are getting all their awesome ideas? Well: Hollywood and the Pentagon. Apparently.

And the result? War becomes "fun", despite all the blood and killing, as the target audience is desensitized and gets disconnected from the real, human aspect of it. All that is, in turn, reinforced by one-sided, embed-provided reporting by the "news media". Seems like they found a smart, shrewd, and effective way of conducting domestic PsyOps of some sort, since the audience is mostly unaware of the DoD support (of whichever nature), while entertainment is increasingly taking over every aspect of life (especially so in the case of "impressionable youth").

What I would personally want to find out, however, is whether the Hollywood Liaison Office falls under the Strategic Communication division within DoD, or...?

(Here I will take the liberty to share my "favorite" military recruitment ad. I kept seeing it in the cinemas for quite a long time, several months ago. I think I illustrates the convergence of Hollywood-style entertainment and the Military "communication techniques" very well. The only difference in this case, of course, is that it's clearly labeled as an ad.)


The Football Craze

As the greatly-anticipated Football World Cup (oh, pardon me, should I refer to it as "soccer"?!) kicked off last week, a significant percentage of the American population seems to have suddenly realized that they appreciate the world's number one sports, too. For now, at least. Dr. John Brown has a great post on the subject, from a couple of days ago.

What I wanted to share, however, was my astonishment at the anti-British "zeal" among the crowd of the fans in DC during the USA-England game on June 12 (yes, I did join them at Dupont Circle for a while). Of course, nationalism (or patriotism: feel free to choose, since in this case it's all the same) runs high - especially - at such events. But many of the chants and comments went far beyond that. Here are a few that I can recall (I still do regret not having my recorder and/or a notebook with me):

- "Liberty"
- "Freedom"
- "Independence"
- "#### BP"
- "America: fighting for freedom since 1976"
- "####-ing colonizers"
- "#### Spice Girls. Miley [Cyrus, I presume] rocks" (--> pop culture ruleZ?)

I think the game on Saturday should have been called "The Freedom Match", since it was a fight, and whenever America fights, it fights for freedom. The problem I see, however, is the people's attitude toward UK: supposedly, America's closest ally in the world. Supposedly.

(Photo courtesy of Mirror Football)

Of course, seeing the "negative impact" of the BP oil spill story was inevitable. But after all the love and affection between the couple (US-UK, that is) over the past several decades, this comes as a major disappointment. Perhaps, reconsidering the "special relationship" was not too bad of an idea for the British, after all?

Would be really interesting to attend USA's other matches as well. Wonder what the major "themes" will be, then. I just hope terms like "communist" and/or "terrorist" won't surface with Slovenia and Algeria (coming up on June 18 and June 23, respectively)...

In the meantime, it's really sad seeing the FIFA World Cup craze overshadow all that's going on in Kyrgyzstan. As a friend remarked on Facebook: "The World Cup for Kyrgyzstan is like the death of Michael Jackson for Iran" [i.e. in June 2009]. Unfortunately, I couldn't agree more.


Monday, June 7, 2010

Gift Shop PD

I finally made it to the UN Headquarters building on this trip to NYC. Studying international relations and history for so many years, this has definitely been the trip I was very much looking forward to.

As we took the tour, we were reminded every minute or so, how “democratic” and “righteous” the organization is. That aside (although this could make a nice story in and of itself: the “public diplomacy” of the UN), I was particularly curious to visit the UN gift shop, which, I heard, carries certain traditional “items” from various countries.  As I found out, a large number of countries was not represented at all; but many – of my interest – were there and provided a wonderful opportunity to compare the mini “exhibits.” After all, the “showing off” of one’s own country at such a location of global importance could be considered an aspect of one’s public diplomacy effort: impressions, and more importantly, comparisons and contrasts, are very easy to make when the various countries are “present” in the same room with all the best they’ve got to offer (supposedly). Perhaps, something along the lines of the Shanghai Expo...
Not to make it a long and tenuous post, I’ll focus on the countries I – personally – paid special attention to.
U.S. apparently certain they don’t need to “impress” the curious visitors of the UN gift shop limited their section to a small selection of some depression glass. It’s still a mystery to me as to why the most influential country in the world, as well as the largest contributor to the UN budget, could not come up with something better for the world public (makes me wonder whether it’s really a reflection of the more general American attitude towards PD…)?
Russia has a very small but impressive “exhibit”. As you can see, they made sure to show off the traditional Russian dolls and the hand-painted jewelry cases. They also had the traditional Russian earrings and pendants, the amber, and of course, the matryoshkas. Small, but certainly cute and more or less representative of Russia as a whole. Still, I did not get any impression of grandeur or vastness.
Georgia apparently made sure to outdo the Russians and had two sections: the jewelry and the traditional “exhibit.” Gold and silver? Check. Traditional “kinto” dolls and scarves? Check. Certainly impressive and lavish, especially for a country of that size. Also, quite telling about the ambitions and the role that it wants to play, be it on a regional or the global stage. Well done!
Armenia? One word: lame. Of course, our UN Mission should be given credit for making sure that we have our section in the shop, at least. But the exhibit is truly pathetic, whether in absolute or in relative terms: a horrid doll, a silver platter, and two wooden/carved souvenirs. I couldn’t find Armenia in the jewelry section, so I asked the shop assistant about it, to make sure I don’t miss it somehow. But no, they don’t carry anything Armenian. Such a shame! What about our gold and silver jewelry tradition? What about our crystals, minerals, and stones that make such beautiful bijoux and souvenirs?  What about our carpets and khatchkars (cross-stones: traditional Armenian), at the very least? I’m very disappointed…
Azerbaijan did a good job too, especially when I compare their section to that of my own country. Lots of colors, typical carpet souvenirs, and “slippers”. Traditional and cute. Of course, a much greater variety could have been included, especially given that the country takes up the “shelf space” anyway (I do think some of the carpets and slippers could have been replaced with other items); yet,  the Azeri section certainly makes a much better impression than that of its first rival: Armenia.
Turkey, the “big brother” around, made sure to have a “special” representation. It had three sections (the only country to do so, as far as I noticed): an abundance of Turkish pottery and enamel-plated ceramic souvenirs, scarves and needlework, typical jewelry, and the traditional “blue eye” to protect from malice. Of course, the blue color and the Islamic floral patterns dominate, but other than that, there was nothing to speak of Turkey’s religious identity. Beautiful, impressive, and with taste.
Israel took up two sections: jewelry and glassware. The bright pomegranates made sure to catch the shopper’s attention, while the silver and bijoux featured some traditional patterns, shapes, and of course, the khamsa (Fatima’s Hand). Neat.
Again, this is by no means a comprehensive review of the country sections or the items available at the shop, and I might as well have missed some important parts. These are just some quick, first-time impressions, from my personal perspective as a curious UN HQ visitor, who just happened to stop by the gift shop. But then, this can arguably be similar to the perspective of any other UN visitor, and countries should not lose the opportunity of “impressing” other “publics” at such venues.
I don’t know whether the sales there are for profit, or rather donations from the mission members, and what it takes for a country to obtain a “section” at the shop. It might be a fairly expensive “venture”: costly to get and difficult to maintain. However, given they occupy the space anyway, its utility and effectiveness can be maximized, and certain countries (Armenia especially) could have put more thought and effort into what they show off at the heart of the "true international community".


Thursday, June 3, 2010

Ahmadinejad: The Celebrity

Yesterday, my week off the DC routine officially started. As I was walking around Times Square last night, I was reminded, again, that politics is present everywhere: even at the center of the "Cult of Consumerism."

I wonder how much did it cost the UANI to have the billboard up there? Also, is it a call to join a certain cause or, rather, a conspicuous statement of political (and/or financial) influence of the organization that put it up there?

And if you hadn't noticed, Ahmy has become the latest celebrity in DC as well. (Seems like a textbook example of a bad public information campaign: bad visuals + unclear text + the lack of information/connection.)

Public opinion "management"? Seems to have been working, especially when the efforts are in unison with other "interested" parties.

Implications? A poll conducted by CNN in February showed that 7 in 10 Americans believe that Iran already has nuclear weapons, while 1 in 4 support immediate military action. All this despite the continuous IAEA statements that "there is no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapons program in Iran" (although, yes, the latter is not being cooperative with the Agency).

Iran is dangerous and Ahmadinejad needs to be dealt with. But public education - even if limited to the location of the country on the map, its history, and its real current politics - would be much more useful and truthful, unlike such irrelevant references (DC) or "partial" but conspicuous statements (NYC)... Having a  better informed public could open a door for further dialogue and understanding, and especially so, when it comes to people-to-people public diplomacy.

Such pieces of "art", however, perpetuate the ever-presence of the "evil Iranian" and go a long way in curbing that possibility.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Israel's tweet-o'hasbara

Israel has been dominating the news for the past two days and, obviously, that "domination" has not been positive at all. John Brown had several insightful pieces in his PDPB Review yesterday about the effect of the Free Gaza Flotilla issue on Israel's image in the world.

What I wanted to point out here was the Twitter "information campaign" organized by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As I first saw the news on Twitter Sunday night and started following the story, I tagged @IsraelMFA in some of the tweets... and got a reply! The interesting thing was that earlier, as the story got viral on the social networking sites, @IsraelMFA braced itself for the Twitter battle, tweeting every other minute or so within the last 48 hours. I've got to admit: they deserve credit for the intent and the attempt. I'm not quite sure about the consideration of the effectiveness of such a strategy, though.

Some of the weapons allegedly found on board of Mavi Marmara by the Israeli soldiers. Shared on Flickr by Israeli MFA.

In many ways it very much resembles the idea of the American Digital Outreach Team or Hugo Chavez' 200-strong "tweeter legion". Impressive, but lame. Given the flood of angry tweeters, though, responding to each and every single tweet with a pre-packaged piece of "enlightening information" is far from what Israeli MFA can handle: effectively, that is. Of course, there's always an enthusiastic team of volunteers - like the Jewish Internet Defense Force - to whom such efforts could be outsourced. The hope is - most probably - that together with the official statements on the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Israel's representations abroad, those will suffice in winning over support from the international community. Didn't really work out the way it was hoped to, apparently. Not yet, at least.

In short, Israel can spend hours on Twitter and YouTube (and the like), but then again, in public diplomacy actions speak louder than words, especially when the latter are limited to 140-character statements.

But then, as Morozov tweeted (this is ironic, I know): "I bet that Israel will crumble once the # of angry tweets reaches 1 trillion. Cuz tweets change history, didn't ya know?"

N.B. - Watch Mr. Erdoğan making an exception to his "zero-problems with neighbors" policy ("just" in this instance), and earning brownie points for his own PD effort. (To be continued...)