• State Department Holds a Car Show in Afghanistan, Saves Democracy

    August 19, 2013 // Comments Off




    By default, please assume every article you see here about State Department Public Diplomacy activities begins with “You just can’t make these things up.” It’ll save me a lot of typing. Thanks.

    Though indeed “You just can’t make these things up,” every once in a while something so ridiculous comes along that it refines stupid. Of all the critical issues that need attention in Afghanistan– poverty, corruption, the drug trade, cross-border war with Pakistan, the impending U.S. troop pullout/retreat/giving up because we’re tired thing, most informed people will agree that what has been missing from the conversation is that we need more car shows in Afghanistan. While there are no quick solutions to complex problems, clearly the missing piece after twelve years and a trillion dollars is a car show.

    Thus into the breach comes the brave lads and lasses of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul’s Public Affairs staff. In a very neatly-typed press release (the event was not covered by the main stream media, ‘natch), the Embassy congratulated itself heartily on the one-day event.

    Chargé d’Affaires Ambassador Tina Kaidanow said, “What you see here today is more than a car show; it is an example of how far Afghanistan has come in economic terms, and it highlights the promise of an even brighter and more prosperous future for Afghanistan if this country can continue on the road of economic reform and commercial development.”

    Because she works for the State Department, even when boldly fibbing about the idiocy of holding a car show in an active war zone, Ms. Kaidanow had to throw in the final conditional “if” clause. Well played!

    Now of course since Afghanistan is indeed still a dangerous, chaotic war zone mostly in the hands of thugs and terrorizers, the car show was actually held deep inside the walled grounds of the U.S. Embassy itself. One does wonder under such circumstances how many “Afghans,” as we call the still living local fauna, were able to attend.

    Sorry this is such a short blog post. Despite both extensive searching and an unanswered email to Embassy Kabul, I have found no notice or coverage of this historic event anywhere except the Embassy’s own press release. I was able to locate numerous reports and gory videos of the almost-daily car bombings that take place in Afghanistan, though sadly few seem to involve U.S. vehicles. It would certainly help sales if Afghans bought U.S. cars and then immediately blew them up and needed a quick replacement.

    Perhaps the Embassy will look into that marketing angle.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Winning Our Own Hearts and Minds, Again

    March 7, 2013 // 10 Comments »

    We have seen this movie before, but let’s allow the US Army’s own “public diplomacy” writer describe it to us once again:


    Service members and U.S. embassy employees took part in a sports day event at the U.S. embassy in Kuwait, Feb. 16, as a part of the English Access Micro-scholarship Program. The program is a U.S. State Department-funded, two-year English-language program for Kuwaiti youth to not only learn the English language but to learn about American culture as well.

    The story is that the US Embassy and the US military gather up a bunch of local kids as props, play at playing soccer, wrap it in the sweet coating that this is also some weird kind of English lesson, and make nice.


    “This is a very important part of the program,” said Airman Travis Holmes, a cable and antenna maintenance technician with the 386th Communication Squadron, 386th Expeditionary Wing. “I like being around the kids. This gives them a chance to get away from the stereotypical thoughts about Americans and get to know us one-on-one.”

    Missing from the article is why/how the US military is in Kuwait. Following 1991′s Desert Storm, the US never left Kuwait. Instead, the US appropriated as much land as it wanted to build vast military bases, adding jewels to the necklace of foreign military enclaves that stretches around the world. Much of the war with Iraq was run out of Kuwait. Imagine how welcome a Chinese Army base might be in say Kansas City.


    “These sports days are important for a couple of reasons,” said Grace Choi, the public diplomacy officer for the embassy and event coordinator. “It encourages these young people to participate in some of the core values we have at the embassy, like being healthy and maintaining healthy habits. And, because they’re doing it in English, it helps reinforce some of the things that they have been learning in class.”

    The United States holds these kinds of feel-good events all the time, everywhere. We want to be loved as occupiers, want to believe that we are welcomed as liberators instead of merely tolerated as conquerors. In that sense, these sorts of staged propaganda pieces are indeed a success– we’re not trying to convince the Kuwaitis to love us, we’re trying to convince ourselves that the Kuwaitis love us.

    BONUS!

    I took the photo, above, in Iraq, at a US-sponsored event to bring together our soldiers and some Iraqi orphans for a day of sports, food and fun.

    Also, this same week, NATO apologized after it said its troops mistook two Afghan boys for insurgents and shot them dead. One wonders how many English lessons and soccer matches it will take to overcome that incident?




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    How Your State Dept is Dealing with the Sequester ($$$ Edition)

    March 5, 2013 // 16 Comments »

    The sequester and overall budget mess in Washington is expected to impact all Americans. Money will get tighter, and government services will slow or stop– we’ve been told to expect longer lines at airport security, fewer park rangers, less money for schools and more.

    But wait… There’s more!

    Luckily, your State Department does not seem to be affected. Here are a few ways that your tax money is still being spent as Rome burns:


    UPDATE: Passport Day in the USA 2013: Due to the budget sequestration, Department of State Passport Agencies will not be participating and will be CLOSED. But…


    Secretary of State John Kerry announced the U.S. will provide $250 million in assistance to Egypt after Egypt’s president promised to move ahead with negotiations with the International Monetary Fund over economic reforms. Whew, close call on that one but no matter what happens here in Der Homeland, for only a $250 million bribe Egypt will “move ahead” on negotiation. And American struggling small business owners, $60 million of the cash to Egypt is for the creation of a fund to support small businesses– over there.

    Movie buffs all know that the “Afghan” film Buzkashi Boys almost won an Oscar this year, losing in the Short Film (Live Action) category to Curfew. But did you know that it was your State Department that funded the film, some $220,000? That small amount, was “funded almost entirely out of a $150 million State Department campaign to combat extremism, support Afghan media and burnish the U.S. image in Afghanistan.”

    It may be that fund that your State Department will draw from to support the “Afghanistan Is Getting Better, Website and Story Corps” grant of $250,000 of sequester-proof tax dollars to someone who can “create and design a stand-alone website or dedicated channel on YouTube.com that allows individuals from within Afghanistan and across the globe to upload short personally recorded videos describing why and how the individual is contributing to the betterment of Afghanistan and/or the ways in which the Afghanistan of today has provided opportunities that didn’t exist before, and offering messages of hope for the country’s future.”

    Though the sequester will impact American education funding, it will not stop our important educational relationships with Pakistan. We reported earlier on a $1 million of tax money State Department grant to any four-year college or university in the U. S. willing to establish a cooperative agreement with the University of Karachi in Public Policy and Public Administration. Good news! In addition to that grant, State is also offering another $1 million bucks to anyone interested in setting up a cooperative agreement to establish a University Partnership with Karachi’s Kinnaird College for Women in English Literature.

    Keep in mind that the items above are just a sample, drawn from a few random trolls around the web. Sleep tight, America, knowing that more of your money is being spent while you are napping.



    BONUS: Play a fun drinking game; re-order the list above by either “importance to America” or “biggest waste of money.” Then, drink.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Spring Break in Karachi, Pakistan!

    March 1, 2013 // 12 Comments »

    Woooooooooooooo! It’s soon Spring Break ya’all, so get ready to party. And what better way to get it on than to travel overseas on a university exchange program. Need ‘da dinero for party essentials? How about one million sequester-free free dollars courtesy of your Department of State?

    While you might have to leave the bikini at home in exchange for a head scarf, your Department of State is celebrating the upcoming Federal government sequester-driven furloughs by offering one million dollars of American tax money to any four-year college or university in the U. S. willing to establish a cooperative agreement with the University of Karachi in Public Policy and Public Administration.

    All you need do is setup some “collaborative research, curriculum development, and faculty and student exchanges. Faculty exchange programs of one semester and graduate student exchange programs of one month are preferred by the University of Karachi.”

    The tender does not say, but it is likely that collaborative research on nuclear topics is discouraged. It is good to know that the University of Karachi does already have some academic affiliations, including with the Pakistani Army School of Ordinance, Malir Cantt., Karachi in the subject area of “Explosive Chemistry.” (page 4, item 7). One wonders if the State Department read any of the fine print on the University’s own web site?

    Now the State Department does not feel the need to lay out in detail exactly why a million dollars of your tax money should be spent setting up a collaborative arrangement between some U.S. school and a Pakistani school, but we can assume the goals are vague and unfocused, you know, blah blah brotherhood of man and world peace.

    Even More

    But before you regurgitate breakfast over the one million bucks above, take a look at another tender from your State Department. This one is titled “Afghanistan Is Getting Better, Website and Story Corps” and offers $250,000 of sequester-proof tax dollars to someone who can “create and design a stand-alone website or dedicated channel on YouTube.com that allows individuals from within Afghanistan and across the globe to upload short personally recorded videos describing why and how the individual is contributing to the betterment of Afghanistan and/or the ways in which the Afghanistan of today has provided opportunities that didn’t exist before, and offering messages of hope for the country’s future.”

    Now in some forms of reality that might be called simple propaganda; however, in the new world of your State Department, it is known as “social media” and “public diplomacy.” Orwell would be proud.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Music to Our Ears: Failing in Afghanistan as We Did in Iraq

    February 18, 2013 // 6 Comments »



    (A version of this story also appeared on Huffington Post, February 5, 2013)

    Kids and music go together beautifully. Free from pretensions, children play from their hearts. Put that beauty into an international setting– in this case, young people from war-torn Afghanistan coming to the U.S. to perform traditional songs at the Kennedy Center and Carnegie Hall– and it becomes something of poetry, a breath of peace, a vision of a better world.

    “Normally, Afghan girls are not picking traditional instruments,” one young musician said in an interview. “I am one of the first. It’s an honor to play with the orchestra and to act as an ambassador for Afghan music and culture.” “Music can play a role in bringing about social changes and breaking taboos,” said another child.

    Unless it is all garbage.

    Exploitation ‘R Us

    This week 47 young Afghans are coming to the U.S. to play music. Their trip is being paid for mostly by the U.S. Department of State. Their school was started and paid for by the U.S. Government and sympathetic U.S. donors, as well as the World Bank. While the pure of heart might imagine those young girls’ sentiments about social change and women’s rights are coming from somewhere deep inside of their souls, they more than likely were fed to them by their handlers at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

    Not that the Embassy is trying to hide either its true intentions.

    “The Afghanistan National Institute of Music is an example of how far education, culture and youth have advanced since the fall of the Taliban,” said Eileen O’Connor, director of communications and public diplomacy for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department. “We wanted Americans to understand the difference their tax dollars have made in building a better future for young people, which translates into reduced threats from extremists in the region.”

    I’d heard this song before; we did the same thing in Iraq. Take the story of Operation Little Yasser. We singled out one orphan and built a whole phony project around him, something about bringing a greenhouse 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.” The kid did not get anything out of his exploitation, kids rarely do, but the Embassy sure got some PR miles out of Yasser’s crummy life. Who knows if the orphanage ever got the greenhouse?

    Bottom line: The State Department is sending these young Afghans to the U.S. to perform for Americans so that those Americans can see “the difference their tax dollars have made.” That’s a pretty bold statement given how, under even the best of narcotic influence, progress in Afghanistan over the course of the twelve years of U.S.-initiated war has been “uneven.” One is left with the distinct sense that one is being played, not unlike those traditional instruments, with cute kids and soothing music used to sell a meme that is blatantly untrue and make us feel better that the United States is still engaged in nation-building abroad despite the president’s promises to do it at home.

    The selling of that meme is also expensive. The two-week tour of the 47 kids is going to cost $500,000, $350,000 of which is being paid by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul using American tax dollars. That works out to more than $10,000 per kid, suggesting either some pretty swanky accommodations or a subcontractor getting rich. Like the war itself, propaganda isn’t cheap.

    But what propaganda effort is worth its cost without Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan, who oversaw the failed U.S reconstruction efforts in Iraq? Crocker, now at Yale (of course), said that “I think I can speak for all donors that support the institute, that helping indigent children is worthy in and of itself, but the school also creates a human bulwark that is effectively saying, ‘Never again. Those people will never rule us again.’ ”

    It’s Actually Worse

    While doing the same kind of development work in Iraq, chronicled in my book We Meant Well: How I Lost the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, I saw the U.S. spend money on cultural projects, translations of American classic novels into Arabic, pastry lessons for widows, producing plays with deep moral messages, sponsoring art shows and paintings. None of it helped Iraq in the end. What I learned is that while using U.S. tax money to propagandize Americans is bad, and exploiting children for political purposes is worse, the waste of money on such feel-good projects as the Afghan children’s music tour has an even darker side.

    The thing most folks say about this sort of cultural spending is that it is wasteful (yes, but by small amounts when the overall war costs one billion a week) but that really, at the end of the day, what was the harm? If someone enjoyed a play or some music, or a widow baked some wonderful date tarts, what was the harm? What’s wrong with helping a few kids?

    While there is nothing inherently wrong with helping children, the harm of these programs is this: We wanted to leave Iraq (and soon, Afghanistan) stable and safe. But how did we advance those goals when we spent our time and money on obviously pointless things, while most people lacked access to clean water, or regular electricity, or hospitals. Another State Department official in Iraq wrote in his weekly summary to me, “At our project ribbon-cuttings we are typically greeted now with a cursory ‘thank you,’ followed by a long list of crushing needs for essential services such as water and power.” How could we help stabilize Iraq when we acted like buffoons? Spending money on plays and art shows must have seemed like insanity, or stupidity, or corruption, or all three. As one Iraqi told me, “It is like I am standing naked in a room with a big hat on my head. Everyone comes in and helps put flowers and ribbons on my hat, but no one seems to notice that I am naked.”

    What will become of these young Afghan musicians when the U.S., searching for a new propaganda meme or just tired of Afghanistan in general, turns off the money tap? Why isn’t the Afghan government building such music schools themselves? Why, after twelve years of war, is the only thing we can think of to do in Afghanistan is to spend $500,000 on a propaganda tour? Indeed, to what life will these 47 young musicians return when the U.S. government no longer has a need for them? There, sadly, lies the long-term harm, long after the music has faded.

    Photo, above, is of new SecState John Kerry meeting the Afghan musical youth, his statesman legacy dissolving in real time.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    State Department Makes Gangnam Parody on Your Dime

    November 15, 2012 // 8 Comments »

    So there you were this morning, wondering what the State Department was doing with your tax money. They were making a “Gangnam Style” parody video!


    Have a look at this clip from a continuing series of “social media” produced by the American Embassy in Seoul:



    Now, in the words of Psy, let’s “break it down”:

    – State’s weird attempt at humanizing America abroad comes off instead as a lame attempt at creating a cult of personality around its ambassador. Truly, do Korean people care about his clothing (as featured in the video, hung in a messy closet)? Was the last “question” praising the embassy’s wonderful social media really a question that needed featuring here? And honestly, did US government employees on US government time really need to be forced to dance Gangnam style while the ambassador stood by watching like some playground pedophile?


    – What is the point? I get “social media” as a concept but I am unsure what the national policy goal here is, and there damn well better be one since taxpayer money is paying for this garbage. Are Koreans supposed to see the cartoon caricature of the Ambassador and “like” America? Are they supposed to see the Gangnam dancers and feel America is “with it”? Are we “groovy” yet?


    – Is this simply a silly shot at linking Psy’s 15 minutes of fame to the U.S.’ hope for another 15 minutes of fame?


    – Is the U.S. the only hip and cool country representing in South Korea? Because I checked the web sites of countries like the UK, Japan and China for Korea, and none of them feature silly poo stuff like this. I also checked the South Korean government’s web site in the U.S., and there are no YouTube videos of the South Korean ambassador lip syncing to Beyonce. Is America just that far ahead of the public diplomacy curve?


    – Why is State trapped in this loop of idolatry? The ambassador is the lead guy in these videos because he is the ambassador, and thus his entire staff is devoted to sucking up to him. If real communication was the goal, perhaps they could have found almost anyone else in the embassy with a teeny dollop more of charisma? Maybe someone who didn’t look deeply embarrassed alternating with deeply bored throughout the entire project?


    Anyway, hopefully State will show videos like this to Congress at the next budget hearings to help justify their requests for more money. I am sure Congress will be impressed.





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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Weird Moments in Public Diplomacy, No. 54

    July 2, 2012 // 8 Comments »

    Are the public diplomacists at the State Department getting cranky? This blog has raised questions in the past about gauging the impact of State’s Public Diplomacy and social media efforts.

    The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

    One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

    The good news is that apparently State is now ready to answer these questions, by the Twitter. Here goes:




    Um, OK. Any links to go with those? Proof? Statistics? Anything? Bueller? Need some help understanding the difference between an “assertion” and creating an “argument”?

    Credibility means more than just saying something in a loud voice over and over. God help us all, these are the same people we pay money to to carry America’s message abroad.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Great Moments in Public Diplomacy, No. 938

    June 30, 2012 // 3 Comments »



    Learning to love the one you’re with in Kabul social media. After all, if you don’t like yourself, how can others learn to like you? That said, many people believe that self-love is one of the purest forms of affection.


    One wonders how Embassy Kabul “liking” its own videos fits with these Public Diplomacy Tweets:




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Eat This, Not That

    May 22, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    Eat this…






















    Not that.







    Yes, another great moment in public diplomacy. We congratulate the public diplomacists at the Department of State for changing minds and winning hearts with their wicked Tweeting. Seriously dudes, who is that lame ass Tweet intended to persuade?

    I mean, besides your boss.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Does Public Diplomacy in Afghanistan Work? Go Tell the Marines

    May 9, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    In my interview with John Brown about Public Diplomacy and social media at the State Department, reprinted here by the American Security Project and also on HuffPo and this blog, we talked about the need to measure in some way the impact of public diplomacy efforts.

    The Security Project wrote:

    On metrics, Van Buren argues that they are needed to help determine is a goal is being achieved. Furthermore, he perceives that the State Department has been using volume, not results, as a primary metric for success. Creating volumes of messages and projects is an ineffective metric, and new methods for actually measuring the achievement of goals must be developed to ensure effectiveness.


    Metrics

    The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

    Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

    Several Public Diplomacists at State wrote in, claiming that they were “sure they were effective” but said that there was no way for them to measure their effectiveness, apparently apart from some gut instinct they acquired in training.

    Yeah, right. Go tell that to the Marines.

    The Marines Man Up

    The Marine Corps decided their own public diplomacy strategy in Afghanistan (though they call it psyops, and other refer to it as propaganda) needed to be evaluated by a third party. They hired the Rand Corporation to review their programs, and then freaking published the results, good and bad, for the world to see. Some takeaways:


    – An assessment of the effectiveness of various themes in prior U.S. military psychological operations revealed that certain messages were never effective, and other messages were effective for only a limited amount of time.

    – Likewise, the methods used to disseminate these messages, as well as an understanding of the diversity and culture of target audiences, played a significant role in the reach and outcome of messaging campaigns.
    There Have Been Both Notable Successes and Notable Weaknesses in the U.S. Military’s Messaging Campaigns in Afghanistan

    – The most-notable shortcoming has been in countering the Taliban’s propaganda campaign against U.S. and coalition activity, which has focused on civilian casualties and has found a broad national and international audience.

    – While the success of Taliban propaganda efforts has not translated into widespread support for the movement, it may have weakened support for the U.S. and coalition presence and activities in the region.
    The biggest successes have been in the area of face-to-face communication and meetings with key communicators, such as local councils of elders, local leaders, and members of the Afghan media.


    Warts and All

    Now of course someone can bark that a third party consultant isn’t a proper metric, or that the report was biased or should have been written in Klingon, but the point here is that unlike the State Department, which conspicuously left even John Brown’s interview about metrics out of its daily media summary, the Marines were willing to seek an assessment, and then published that assessment, warts and all, on the internet. Sure, this is not perfect. But the assessment does include recommendations, and so now anyone concerned, including the entire Corps, is aware of the good and bad, and knows the way forward. One team, one voice kind of thing.

    It is of course more likely that I will awake tomorrow with a third nipple than that the State Department would seek such an assessment of its efforts in Afghanistan and then go on to announce the results publicly.

    In fact, with a great sigh of relief from the State Department, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy was shut down in December 2011, closing off even that modest portal of review.

    Want $10 Million Dollars?

    Meanwhile, the American Embassy in Kabul is moving ahead, offering grants of up to $10 million a project for things as vague and broad as “Strengthen people-to-people ties to deepen the partnership between communities within Afghanistan and between Afghanistan and the United States.” You can also get multi-million dollar grants to teach English to Afghans, a worthy goal considering the Government Accountability Office cited lack of language skills as one of the problems dogging State’s efforts in Afghanistan.

    Assessment? How about this self-assessment from a Public Diplomacy practioner in Afghanistan, headlined “NATO can win the war in Afghanistan with Pubic Diplomacy” (her typo in the headline, not mine, check the link yourself):

    This is a Facebook post from a young Afghan who just graduated from Kabul University. “Today was a beautiful day. Dancing, happiness, laughter and exchanging jokes, recording sweet memories, forgetting worries, and celebrating graduation from college… Life could some times be so beautiful and wonderful. What a feeling!!!!

    You will NEVER see such sentiments about Afghans in any of the major news networks or read it in the international papers. You will only read or watch the road side bombing and how everything is falling into pieces in Afghanistan. But in reality there is progress in Afghanistan and young Afghans are the future of their country.


    The Twitter Tells All

    And finally, no discussion of Public Diplomacy at State is complete with a word on social media, the newest flavor of Kool Aid at Foggy Bottom. Winning hearts and minds? Maybe not. Here’s some messages from today’s American Embassy Kabul Twitter feed, following Obama’s victory lap into Kabul announcing a new dawn or whatever:





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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    American Public Diplomacy

    May 2, 2012 // 1 Comment »

    (This interview with John Brown originally appeared on the Huffington Post, April 24, 2012)

    What is Pubic Diplomacy?

    Public Diplomacy (PD) is a hard term to define. Some say it’s just a euphemism for propaganda. The Department of State’s definition is “engaging, informing, and influencing key international audiences.” For some traditionally minded diplomats and commentators, the term “public diplomacy” is an oxymoron (true diplomacy, they argue, is practiced behind closed doors, not in public). How would you define PD?

    Any communications strategy, from advertising to propaganda to social media to whatever you want to call it, plays second to reality — actions really do speak louder than words. So as long as deaths in wedding parties from misplaced drone attacks, atrocities by soldiers and videos of Abu Ghraib exist, you are not going to fool anyone regardless of how many tweets you send out. In an age of increasingly prevalent media, the usual bullshit of the Secretary standing up in Geneva proclaiming support for human rights while people in their own countries see the U.S. overtly supporting nasty autocrats will dominate mind space. Here’s a graphic (not my work) that illustrates the point.

    Look at the outcome of the Haditha massacre in Iraq: 24 unarmed Iraqis were slaughtered by an out-of-control group of Marines in 2005, and now, seven years later, the case is finally concluded and no one is going to jail. You can Tweet and Facebook until the end of time, but that story will resonate for even longer within the Arab world.

    The Haditha outcome also illustrates the point of relevancy. While most FSOs and almost all of the American public are probably ignorant about what happened in Haditha, the incident is well known among politically minded Iraqis. On the day when everyone there was talking about the guiltless conclusion, U.S. Embassy Baghdad PD was bleating happily about jazz and some art exhibit. The appearance — to Iraqis — was one of trying to change the topic, change the channel, to distract from the real issue of the day.

    So whatever PD is, it can only be less effective than what the U.S. is actually doing.

    Pigs with Lipstick

    Edward R. Murrow, the famed newsman and Director of the United States Information Agency during the Kennedy administration, is often quoted as saying that public diplomacy, as regards the formulation of policy, should be seriously taken into consideration at the take-off, not at the crash landing. More bluntly, you can’t put lipstick on a pig. What is your view on the relationship between public diplomacy and policy?

    See above. Pigs look ugly with lipstick.

    Is Pubic Diplomacy “Useless”?

    As you know, the above-mentioned United States Information Agency (1953-1999), which handled public diplomacy during the Cold War, was consolidated into the State Department a few years after the collapse of Russian communism, thereby reflecting a historical pattern of the USG abolishing its “propaganda” (anti-propaganda?) agencies (e.g., the Committee on Public Information [1917-1919], the Office of War Information [1942-1945]) when a global conflict is over. Nostalgic USIA veterans tend to regret the dissolution of “their” independent agency, a relatively small organization (by Washington standards) giving its overseas officers considerable flexibility to act, on behalf of U.S. national interests, as they saw fit according general policy guidelines and local conditions (as an ex-USIA senior official told me over lunch not long ago, “we got away with murder”). Not amused by such declarations of independence (often unspoken), strait-laced State Department employees referred to USIA as “Useless,” a play of words on USIA’s overseas designation, USIS (United States Information Service). What’s your take on PD now being, bureaucratically, a State function? Does it make PD more manageable and streamlined?

    You can see the themes of relevancy and credibility running through this interview.

    State Department output, what we say out loud, is characterized by caution above all else, a weird play on the Hippocratic Oath. But the “safest” things to say (we urge all sides to reconsider, Mistakes were made) have little value outside Foggy Bottom. A bit of vitality is needed, and PD lacks that now. In what foreign country do people routinely turn to a PD news source? Anything that flows into the State Department gets filtered out into the equivalent of “male pale and Yale,” usually three days after the story has moved off the front pages. Safe, for sure, but also irrelevant. Often, irrelevant by choice if not by policy.

    For example, to enflame my ulcer, I just flipped over to Twitter. Several Embassies are tweeting “Happy Earth Day” in unison, obviously a central command meme of the day from Washington. So what? Nothing wrong with Earth Day, but so what? Is the U.S. not still the world’s predominant carbon fuels burner? What is the specific goal of sending Happy Earth Day tweets out in English to whomever?

    Alec Ross, State’s alleged social media king, tweets today, “97 years ago today, modern chemical weapons 1st used in war. German troops released chlorine gas on the front lines at Ypres, killing 5,000,” with no link or explanation. I am not even sure what the point of that is, never mind how it might play into any of the national goals of the U.S.. Alec tweets out these odd “fun facts” regularly, to what point I do not know.

    The lack of content, of vitality, also means that State only practices half of the social media equation. I see little evidence of interactivity, though people do try and break through the screen and ask visa questions, usually very specific to a person/case type questions because they cannot get them answered from inundated Consular sections. Posts crow over how many people watched or viewed something, but very rarely entertain true interactivity. I am sure they are afraid of it, afraid of saying anything that hasn’t been cleared by several layers above them. That may be great for career security (the goal) but it does little to really put social media to use. Just the opposite, really.

    The invasion and occupation of Iraq is considered by many a public-diplomacy disaster. Your own book on your one-year Foreign-Service experience (2009-2010) in that country has, as part of its title, “How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People.” For those who have not had the opportunity to read your admirable volume, where/how did U.S. PD go so wrong in Iraq? Is it possible to say that America did, on occasion, do certain things right in its attempts to remake (in its own image) the cradle of civilization?

    My experience with PD in Iraq was all propaganda all the time. PD’s conception of PRT work was simply to over promote any small thing we did that wasn’t a complete failure. If we dug a well, not necessarily a bad thing, the headline was “Bringing Water to Mesopotamia.” Every PRT project had to include an interview with some Hollywood backlot Iraqi praising the United States, because as we know only White People can help the Brown Skinned of the world. PD didn’t even try to balance or nuance a story; they wrote entirely for themselves and their bosses and Washington. People in Iraq certainly knew the truth, living it 24/7 in a world without water, electricity or sewers or schools, so who was PD trying to fool if not themselves? I wrote about this in more detail here and included a PD video piece so your readers can see for themselves what their tax dollars paid for.

    The new social media, some argue, are redefining public diplomacy, with the buzzword “public diplomacy 2.0,” coined during the Bush administration, still quite à la mode inside the beltway. Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Alec Ross, according to a twitterer attending his recent talk at American University, stated that “I don’t think of myself as a public diplomacy official. I think … public diplomacy is more old-school American propaganda.” In your view, how important/effective are the social media as a tool for the State Department to engage (a favorite word of the current administration) “key international audiences”?

    To begin, you must have a goal — sell soap, get people to switch from Coke to Pepsi, turn out to vote, stop joining al Qaeda, something you can use to know if you have succeeded and completed what you started out to do. Social media as practiced by the Department is amateur hour. A bunch of people led by the State Department’s oldest living teenager Alec Ross think they understand media because they are banging away and getting weirdly excited by numbers. Success seems to be measured in how many followers an Ambassador has. Yet no one is interested in looking into the substance of social media. When I comment on interactive Embassy web pages or State Twitter accounts on my own blog at wemeantwell.com, what I see are desperate people trying to get a Visa question answered. They have no outlet to ask such questions because Consular sections are under siege, so they bombard social media. When I do see some questioners try and aim for more substantive topics, the replies from State are canned official language, statements that are “clearable” only because they are content-free or simply ape the party line.

    So what is social media as practiced by State able to accomplish? You’d think given its emphasis and the money spent that someone would be interested in a Return on Investment study, a way to map out what was accomplished. But State does not work that way — it is all about the “doing” and not about the “getting done.” Social media as practiced is just another flim-flam, foisted on State this round by another short-timer political appointee whose connections to the Secretary mean he can do no wrong. Or, perhaps more honestly, no one has the guts to question his pronouncements. Anyone who has been at work in Foggy Bottom for more than a few years can recall similar flim-flams when faxes and email were going to reduce the need for overseas personnel (we can do it all from Washington!), or web home pages or video conferencing. All can be useful tools, but you have got to have a goal and you have got to measure your way toward that goal. Otherwise it is just flavor of the month stuff. Didn’t we have virtual embassies for awhile in some 3-D online world game thing?

    Credibility

    The USG-supported Broadcasting Board of Governors, which (according to its homepage) became “the independent entity responsible for all U.S. Government and government-sponsored, non-military, international broadcasting on October 1, 1999″ (e.g., Voice of America, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Sawa) and whose mission is “to inform, engage, and connect people around the world in support of freedom and democracy,” is under considerable criticism these days for management failures and for intending to cut back on staff and programs. Based on your foreign-service experience of over two decades, what do you think is the reaction of overseas audiences to USG -supported broadcasting such as Voice of America? Are such broadcasts still necessary for U.S. national interests in an age when information is becoming more and more readily available? In a broader sense, can a journalist, in your view, be a true, objective master of her trade (and can her reports be trusted as reliable) if her paycheck comes from Uncle Sam (to cite Kim Andrew Elliott, a fast-media guru, “Journalism and public diplomacy are very different, indeed adversarial, endeavors”).

    Credibility is the key. If you look at the very successful penetrations of American society by foreign “public affairs,” you see sources of news and entertainment that are clearly allied with a foreign entity (China Xinhua News, RT.com, al Jazeera, the BBC) and do not try to hide that fact. Yet, at the same time, they are aggressive in presenting a side of news that is missing in America’s mainstream media, often pointing out the “other side” to a story or not shying away from reporting U.S. Government mistakes and misjudgments. Their credibility comes not from being pro-Russia, but from tapping into a need in the U.S. for alternative news sources.

    People are too sophisticated now, even in the developing world, to be reached via crude propaganda — America=Good, al Qaeda=Bad. That costs those sources their credibility and thus their audiences. Who cares what U.S. broadcasting into the Arab world has to say, or crap like Radio Marti? Most of the time it is just self-referential: Obama made a speech and PD says “Here’s Obama’s Speech” in case you missed it elsewhere or really want to plod through 1500 words on Earth Day. No one independently quotes their opinions, no one considers them vital or important the way al Jazeera became simply by filling a real gap in what people wanted to hear.

    If the U.S. would try and learn a bit more about what people want, they might find a more ready audience. Instead, our “public diplomacy” programming seems designed more to please our bosses in Washington than to really reach people abroad.

    Try it now — go here and imagine yourself a young, politically charged Iraqi. What is on that page that demands your attention? The Cold War ended years ago and we are still talking about jazz.

    Propagandizing Amerika

    The Smith-Mundt Act (1948), the legislation that provides the statutory basis for U.S. public diplomacy, prohibits the State Department from disseminating domestically USG information intended for overseas audiences. Do you think this firewall, in the Internet age, is anachronistic? Or is there something to be said about prohibiting the U.S. government from “propagandizing” the American people? Would you abolish/amend the Smith-Mundt Act (or, since so few Americans know anything about it, simply let it live on, untouched, in its obscurity, letting sleeping dogs lie)?

    I think Smith-Mundt died on the vine already, whether it exists as a law still or not. Given both the ubiquity of the web and the fact that almost all of the U.S. public diplomacy spew is in English, I think we already know who the target audience is. For example, all the phony grief that gets expressed every time a new round of terrible atrocity photos emerge from Afghanistan certainly is not fooling the mothers of the dead Afghans; it is designed to make us feel better here at home. The Afghans know exactly what is happening in their homes and villages, even if the U.S. government can get away with calling each atrocity just another act of some bad apples. By the way, how many bad apples does it take before you have a whole pie full of them?

    Not Measuring = Not Knowing

    In the how-many-angels-can-dance-on-a-pin tradition, there is quite a lot of talk, among the PD community both outside and inside of academe, about how to measure the results of public diplomacy. Do you think that there is a scientific way to gauge the impact of PD, both short-term and long-term? Or is the practice of public diplomacy, in the words of scholar Frank Ninkovich, essentially “an act of faith” that, in its often-flawed attempts to make our small planet a better world through greater international understanding, cannot be reduced, in well-intentioned efforts to evaluate it, to statistics on a chart or an executive summary on yet another think-tank report?

    The old saying, any road will get you there if you don’t know where you’re going, applies here. If I was allowed back into the building and to ask a question of someone important in Public Affairs, I’d ask this: why isn’t your whole “PD” strategy built around sending out messages in bottles dropped into the ocean? Now of course the analogy only goes so far, but just as the message in the bottle strategy can be dismissed with a quick thought experiment (who knows who reads what, and what they do after the read it), can anyone really make a different claim for the State Department’s current efforts?

    Metrics start with a clear goal, an end state to use the military term, and work backwards from there. One of the core problems with the State Department, and the one that most significantly contributes to the Department’s increasing irrelevance in foreign policy, is that State seems just content to “be,” to create conditions of its own continued existence. So, if social media is a new cool thing, and Congress will pay for it, then social media it is. What if instead the organization had more concrete goals? Then we could measure back from them. I’ll not trouble readers with my own list of foreign policy goals, but if the best you can come up with is something so broad as “engage the public” then you are pretty close to having no real goal at all. Best to throw notes into the ocean and hope for the best.

    Bonus: One cheap and easy way for a non-thinker to dismiss these points is to say “Well, sure, it is easy to ask the questions, but where are Van Buren’s answers? If he wants metrics, what does he propose?”

    Of course that is a silly line of reasoning. Change begins with the questions, the point of asking is to stimulate the search for answers and solutions. It would be easier if all the solutions to all of the PD problems could be laid out in a short interview, but life ain’t that way cowboys. Don’t dismiss important questions for lack of easy answers. Instead, realize there are higher goals than obedience and career climbing and at least allow room for the Questions and admit the need to look for Answers.

    As a starting point, perhaps consider this: When you get a machine that is so immense and so bureaucratic and so career promotion oriented, the mission will be lost and truth and honesty are mere bystanders eventually wrecking any positive mission. The whole concept of institutions and how they are managed and sized needs to be examined big time. The solution, if there is any, is breaking it down into small autonomous offices or missions or programs that link together but are managed separately eliminating an immense hierarchy.



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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    Quality of Discourse

    April 29, 2012 // 4 Comments »




    My recent discussion with John Brown about Pubic Diplomacy at the Department of State on HuffPo is, I hope, interesting reading. Like any such discussion, the point is to raise issues, take positions, generate thought on the readers’ part, that sort of thinking stuff. John Brown is one of three courageous Foreign Service Officers who resigned rather than support the Iraq War. He has over 20 years in the Foreign Service. I am whatever it is I am now, but also have over 20 years experience. Both of us are in a position to have opinions about public diplomacy. All of this should be sort of obvious, and it was to most readers.

    But not to a State Department Foreign Service Officer who’ll we’ll call “Dan” (which is his name), who wrote to John Brown:

    I’m personally saddened and disappointed by this. Van Buren can say what he wants, but what makes him qualified for a single-source extensive presentation on public diplomacy? I know you are an expert historian, and would have expected better from you. Speak only as a private individual, but thought you would want honesty. Sincerely, Dan

    Ah, yes, the old attack ad hominen, one the limpest forms of argument: attack the person and ignore the things the person said. I wrote back to “Dan” telling him this, and offering him space on this blog for a factual rebuttal. Dan said:

    If John Brown or anyone else wishes to interview you and put out that interview, that is up to you, him, and whoever else you might wish/need to deal with. If John wanted to present an interview with you as a discussion of diplomacy, or diplomacy’s use of social media, then fine. But for him to prominently present this interview in a way that suggests it is a description of American Public Diplomacy — as practiced in the past or as it is being practiced today – is, in my mind, a disservice to former and current Public Diplomacy officers. John has both the extensive knowledge and connections to ask the same questions of a variety of individuals with experience at different periods and in different parts of the world, which could have resulted in a very interesting discussion of those topics — he chose a very different, and less fruitful, approach by simply publishing the interview with you. I regret this decision, and the opportunity that was lost by it. Sincerely, Dan

    Now we are into primo State Department Public Diplomacy strategy: waive the flag. Still without saying a word about my arguments and points, Dan has now declared that the whole thing is a disservice to the thousands of Pubic Diplomacists beavering away in obscurity at State. If you think you’ve seen this kind of thing before, you have. It’s called the Otter Defense:



    So I tried again, writing to Dan:

    Still haven’t heard a word about what I said. This has been my unfortunate experience with State in recent months, all attacks ad hominen and not a peep about what I have to say. It is a cheap way to argue, and all too typical of State’s failing to connect with the world. Such inward viral reactions are what my interview focused on, so thanks for helping demonstrate my point. State’s social media thrives in a controlled environment; I bite back.

    If you can construct an argument, I’d be happy to put it on my blog as well. Unlike State, I thrive on the give and take and do not fear others’ well-argued ideas. John has the courage to present varied points of view, and the interview clearly was labeled as mine. If you prove me wrong, I learn something. Put up or shut up. If you can get something cleared, of course.


    And finally, because I got bored, I let Dan wrap up the intellectual discourse he started on behalf of his colleagues in Public Diplomacy:

    I can only be bemused (and amused) by your histrionics. Your individual opinions concerning the Department of State, foreign policy, or social media are of little interest to me. But social media do not equal public diplomacy, and John’s decision to present his interview with you as a serious discussion of public diplomacy results in a distortion of what American public diplomacy really is, and thus is a slap in the face to past and present practitioners of public diplomacy.


    So, for those wondering why the US is losing the propaganda war in Afghanistan to a bunch of hillbillies in turbans, or why Congress wants to cut the State Department budget by $5 billion, well, it’s all about the quality of the people, no doubt, in Secretary Clinton’s own words, “our greatest asset.”



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    Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

    21st Century Bypasses Embassy Baghdad

    January 13, 2012 // 2 Comments »

    Crowing about how State is now the cool kids to eat lunch with, spokescoolperson Victoria Nuland held the first Twitter briefing of 2012 as part of “January is 21st Century Statecraft Month” (February will be “IBM Selectric Month.”) Ms. Nuland noted that “more than 100 of our embassies have Facebook or Twitter accounts, or sometimes both,” meaning there are still more accounts in my daughter’s high school lunch room than at State worldwide. Since the tech has been around for a century, maybe the rest of the posts can sign up soon– it’s free to join LOL :) LMAO!

    One mission that just can’t seem to get Tweeting is the World’s Largest Embassy (c), Baghdad, still without a first Tweet. Or maybe that’s a fake account, like all those “Ashton Kutcher” Twitter feeds that just want to sell you Uggs or something, or maybe they have prioritized for a robust MySpace. The Embassy has a nice Facebook page for study in the US (a lot of Iraqis would like to get on that train; almost all of the postings are asking for visas, scholarships or for someone to answer their emailed requests for visas and scholarships) and a YouTube channel, though the latter may run afoul of State’s own master of social media Alec Ross, who said recently “I just don’t think propaganda works on social media, at all.” lulz ;) #SMH

    Anyway, I think we can help the World’s Largest Embassy (c) get started on Twitter. Here are a few Tweets they could send out to the Iraqis to get things going:

    Anyone out there can help us w/ the Twitter? Ours stops after 140 characte

    @IraqiPeeps Pls stop killing each other. #OurInvestment

    @IraqiPeeps Really, stop it.

    @Basra Can we haz the oil now pls? #OurInvestment

    @Blackwater Can you return Amb limo? Also last time trunk had empty beer bottles, so pls clean, thx.

    How many Iraqis to screw in lightbulb? Zero. No power. #PRT #Reconstruction

    @TheRealSeanPenn Rethought it, maybe you can help. #Reconstruction

    @Hashemi Sorry, apts here all full, try Erbil #Sunni #Kurd #Shia

    @USEmbassyBaghdad RT Send lawyers, guns and money #Hashemi

    All yer bases belong to us. Oh, wait, not any more. #SOFA

    @JulianAssange Can’t find Amb memo re: Mosul dated 04/01/2010 anywhere– do u have a copy? #Wikileaks

    @Sadr Bday party at Baghdaddy’s Fri, no rockets after 9pm pls, ‘k? #Democracy

    Travel Warning: Instant cappuccino maker at Sully still broken. #15% #25% #35%

    @Qods It’s not terrorism when we do it, only when you do it #Carbombsunderscientists

    @Malaki Really really apologize for last night. Meant Iran, not Iraq. #Toomuchtodrink #Girlfriendz

    Q: Five-day forecast for Baghdad? A: Two days. #Sunni

    Sorry to all for trouble, Emb cafeteria menu site now no longer auto-redirects to wemeantwell.com




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    Posted in Afghanistan, Embassy/State

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