There has been some web chatter about public diplomacy in general, and social media in the particular. Of course, since it involves technology invented since the wireless, the State Department has to call it something slick, so eDiplomacy.
The idea is actually not eNew. Throughout the Cold War the US used the social media of the day, eRadio, TV and musical tours to spread a message into the exSoviet Bloc. Not sure what the effect there was (though lots of older Russians do like jazz) but the ideas presented as revolutionary are not so new. And neither is the debate over their effectiveness.
As propaganda. Really bad propaganda.
Really, do we think that spending American tax dollars on creating YouTube videos that supposedly show American Citizen Anwar al-Awlaki (assasinated by drone along with his 16 year old son) solicited prostitutes are going to win any war?
But with all the distractions lately about my own struggles getting fired from State, it is useful to return to what the hub-bub is all about: the waste and mismanagement by the State Department in the reconstruction of Iraq. It was that failure which indeed lost the war. Not that you’d know by watching some of the State Department’s own public diplomacy drech about the “success” of their efforts:
(If the video fails to load, you can see it here)
Though no one actually takes credit for that pile, the people in the video are mostly Embassy folk. The ones without the neat button downs are contractors, their love of the program no doubt inspired by the $250,000 a year State paid them. The others are real-live State Department types: Interestingly, Aaron Snipes appears in the video and, coincidentally, Snipes also is one of the most prominent names in the State Department investigative report on this blog, helping defend the mistakes in Iraq even to the point of smearing a colleague with whispered emails to Diplomatic Security years later back in Washington. Anyone who thinks this is about anything but defending bureaucratic failures is a big believer in coincidences.
There are many highlights in the video, but one to point out is the meme with “Little Yasser,” the orphan boy whose school was rebuilt towards the end of the program. The PRTs were working on Little Yasser three years ago, when I was there. Real good news was hard to find, so when it happened we tended to overdo it. Even worse was when we manufactured the illusion of good news and beat the hell out of that. Look at the story of Operation Little Yasser. A sister PRT singled out an orphan and built a whole phony project around him, something about bringing a green house to an orphanage so the kids could heal by growing squash. The kid, Yasser, was just a prop for the media to write stories about, describing him as a “sweet, fragile child, whose soulful eyes reveal some of the heartbreak he’s endured.” That line was written in a project grant in 2009, and they repeated it verbatim in the video. The kid did not get anything out of his exploitation, kids rarely do, but the Embassy sure got some major “social media” miles. We were like the pedophiles of PRT work.
One feature of these propaganda videos is their crudeness, primarily in their shameless lack of objectivity and balance. It is not unexpected that the Embassy would want to put a positive spin on things, but to present the PRT program as a singular savior of Iraq seems a bit much.
The world needed this piece of self-congratulatory crap like I need a third nipple. Who outside of the State Department is the intended audience? The video is obviously too one-sided for even the fanboys, and an Iraqi audience would pee themselves laughing. Then it dawned on me: the video’s audience was State. They made this video for themselves.
Real development work is slow, hard and often unphotogenic. The Iraqis got some charity, handouts really, but mostly ended up as background actors for our fantasy that we were liberators not occupiers. Watch in the video as the stalwart PRT members hand out pencils to schoolkids. The flak-jacketed American has the kids take one pencil from his box of many, making each kid look him in the eye as the price of accepting the handout. The visual is clear: we have a lot, you have nothing, this process is to make me feel good at the expense of your self pride. The process– armed soldiers and disingenuous officials coming into a school and co-opting the kids while the cameras rolled– must have reminded the Iraqis of Saddam’s own clumsy attempts at buying love. Would Americans feel pride seeing Chinese troops handing out school supplies in some Detroit shithole neighborhood?
Resorting to gifts to seem popular was quick and easy but, like most quick solutions, really didn’t help. Once you started down the path of easy answers, your methods tended to sabotage later efforts to try the harder way. In a counterinsurgency campaign, there were several ways to make friends, most of them slow and difficult, like building relationships within the local community over time based on trust earned and respect freely given. Each iteration of handouts caused you to lose respect from a proud group of people forced into an uneven relationship, no matter how many self-congratulatory Tweets you sent out.
It does, however, seem quaint (as well as exposing the utter shallowness of this swipe at public diplomacy) to hear Americans talking about rebuilding Iraq. I’ll go report about that on Facebook now…
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