• Insecurity

    September 22, 2011 // Comments Off on Insecurity

    When the Green Bay Packers visited the White House a few weeks ago to celebrate the team’s Super Bowl title, linebacker Desmond Bishop wasn’t with his teammates. He had forgotten his drivers license on the plane and without ID, was not allowsed past White House security.

    Really? Through the action of refusing entry to this semi-celebrity, the president was safer?

    I write this after a bought of air travel. We lined up, took off our shoes, were chastised for not pulling a laptop out of our bag while Kindles, smart phones and all matter of electronic stuff flowed through unmolested. We watched a befuddled older woman get pulled aside for having a 4 ounce tube of lotion (3 ounces is the allowed amount) in her bag. She was searched, told she was a bad person and then allowed to travel with the evil extra ounce as some sort of benevolent gift. Others had to drink their water or have it thrown away. There was a bin full of toothpaste and sunscreen in evil amounts.

    As we pass the 10th “anniversary” of 9/11, and count our soldier deaths in the thousands, and the number of people we have killed in the hundreds of thousands, it is worth a moment’s reflection before the media hyper drive takes off to think about what we have become. It seems to be one thing to be defeated by a bad guy, another altogether to have defeated ourselves. Yeah, bin Laden’s dead, along with the ever-long list of Number 2’s and 3’s and couriers and significant Taliban commanders, but in a way, so is a piece of us. George W. Obama. It’s a mug’s deal.



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    9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11

    September 10, 2011 // Comments Off on 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11 9/11


    I remembered to be frightened and right away I was.
    – James Dickey, Deliverance

    I was planning on a self-induced coma this 9/11 Weekend, hoping to be revived after all the mad coverage. As predictable as the reviews of the Cheney book (torture good, torture bad), a terror alert was issued on Friday, just before 9/11 Weekend, whipping idiots in New York and Washington into a happy, familiar frenzy. Three men may have entered the US; they may be planning a vehicle bomb; it may be in New York, it may be in DC. Be watchful. It was implied– still gotta watch our step– that the three men are “brown,” as they reportedly came from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Security theater was whipped into shape here in our nation’s capital. Even at my dull, suburban Virginia subway station, two local cops wearing body armor, one with a shotgun, stood guard over my commute. Should al Qaeda decide this sleepy stop on the Orange Line is the new Ground Zero, they’ll have a fight on their hands. The point is clear: Keep Fear Alive. Ten Years Means Nothing. We Can Never Be Safe Again.

    My own 9/11 memory is actually something more like a 10/25 memory. I was working at our Embassy in Japan, and charged with administering the Federal fund to the 9/11 victims’ families. To prevent everyone from suing everyone for all eternity and bankrupting the airlines, there was some US Government program whipped together to give money to the families of those who died on 9/11, American and foreign alike. New York City had not then sorted out the whole business of issuing death certificates without bodies and so documentation was lacking. The Japanese families whose husbands were trading bonds in the World Trade Center on the Day had to troop into the Embassy to fill out some forms and apply for their victim’s compensation money. The key item was “What evidence do you have that your loved one was killed in the terror acts of 9/11?”

    I’d have to interview these women about that last question, to guard against fraud I guess. The women were typically in their mid-thirties, and usually brought their one or two infant children in with them. Hubby had gone off to New York to work, and they stayed in Japan. “He called home every day. Then, no calls.” “The man he lived with missed work that day. He mailed me my husband’s neckties.” “My son cries every night because he has no father.” “A co-worker called me to say he last saw my husband on the 77th floor. I don’t feel he lied.” My Japanese is decent enough, but most of the women felt the need to speak slowly and repeat themselves to politely make sure I understood. Some felt the need to assist by using the limited English they knew, so I could not hide behind the niceties of words like “deceased” or “missing” and had to confront words like “dead” in their place. The interviews were brief, and no one seemed happy– relieved perhaps– when I signed the form and gave instructions on how to get the money sent to their bank accounts. Grief was overcome by awkwardness, but only for a moment. It returned like a draft, unwelcome but surely felt. There were strange echoes from the future, when in Iraq I’d hear from widows whose husbands were lost in the American invasion there.

    It will soon enough be Monday, and by then Anderson and Wolf will return us to our regularly scheduled diet of Perry and Obama, now already in progress.



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    Libya: Not Iraq 2.0?

    August 22, 2011 // Comments Off on Libya: Not Iraq 2.0?

    A lot of high-fives in Washington, as the flaccid American Empire got a shot of geopolitical Viagra over the weekend in Libya. This is no Iraq 2.0.

    The lessons learned are already being compiled in a recipe for future campaigns. Target someone without nukes (North Korea, Iran and Pakistan are very safe, at least from us) and who is not a nuclear threshold state (Saudis, breathe easy). Use as many US and NATO resources as possible except for “boots on the ground.” Boots on the ground these days means troops we’ll need to acknowledge, not special forces, spies and sneaky mercs who can and were deployed in great abundance but in great secrecy. Let the public face of the war be someone, anyone, who is not American. Label them generic rebels, and tone down the rhetoric of past misadventures (no “freedom fighters,” no “Mission Accomplished” photo-ops). Encourage the media-fueled “victory” announcements from Libya. Stir, chill overnight and you’ve deposed another of America’s formerly reliable despots in favor of a bunch of nobodies we hope will keep the oil tap wide open. Repeat.

    Now, my hope will be that the media will keep an eye on Libya long enough to allow us to see what happens next. The rebels will need to shift from breaking things to fixing things, the key transition that screwed up the American adventure in Iraq. Will they be able to very quickly take control of picking up trash, keeping the water and sewage plants running, funding electrical grid upgrades, making sure teachers, cops, toll collectors and tax officials all show up to work and all the rest of the day-to-day stuff of governing? Will they get sidetracking into settling scores and reprisal killings? Security, stabilization and development done sequentially take far too long in a bubbling post-conflict environment, but are very, very hard to do simultaneously (again, see Iraq).

    How conflicts like the Libya campaign will fit into the bigger US geopolitical picture will be able to be judged by the results of such mundane civil tasks. Will the US walk away from Libya in large part, the “tyrant” now gone, uncaring about what happens next as long as the oil flows? It is obvious that the US plans nothing on the scale of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) that set out to fix all those problems in Iraq and Afghanistan and failed miserably. But will the US dump “experts” and money into Libya? Doing so may or may not make things work, but will increase ownership of the problems by the US, something America would most dearly like to avoid. Doing close to nothing will likely ease Libya’s transition into a permanent semi-failed state.

    Breaking things is easy, fixing things is hard. The US has mismanaged that problem consistently since 9/11. Let’s see what the play is in Libya to see if anyone in Washington really learned any lessons.



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    Posted in Democracy, Iraq, Other Ideas

    US Losing Grip

    July 19, 2011 // Comments Off on US Losing Grip

    The Pakistan Observer ran an editorial today that was scary in its frankness and simplicity of tone as we approach the anniversary of 9/11 once again:

    Despite using excessive force and resorting to torture and intrigues for a decade, the US couldn’t disable Taliban power. Rather, they have become more powerful and resilient and are enjoying a military edge over the collection of most powerful armies of the world and are unprepared to negotiate with USA on its terms. With the killing of bin Laden, America is left with no excuse to prolong its stay, particularly when it claims that al-Qaida’s back has been broken. In fact it had barged into Afghanistan with the main objective of punishing al-Qaeda for its alleged role in 9/11. Ten years intense oppression and massacre of tens of thousands of Afghans and al-Qaeda operatives and death of most wanted top leader are enough to avenge deaths of about 3000 Americans.

    This amount spent in the name of insane war which has given nothing except pain and ignominy to USA is a big waste which can be profitably utilized for welfare of home public. It is ironic to see the sole super power mired in heavy debt and getting more and more dependent upon its archrival China for its sustenance.


    Read the whole article.



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    Tongue-Tied State Department Failing in its Core Mission (Part I)

    July 11, 2011 // 2 Comments »

    What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual. Three languages? Trilingual. Only one language? An American.

    If you had to reduce diplomacy to a single function, it would be “talking to foreigners.” The Department of State talks to foreigners. We talk with them about nuclear treaties, we talk with them about Americans in jail abroad, we talk with them about who the President will visit with and, in Iraq, we talked with them about reconstruction. We talked about what we thought they needed, we talked with them about whose brother-in-law would get the next contract, we talked with them about not killing us at checkpoints. We talked a lot; it is what we do.

    The problem is that we talked to Iraqis almost exclusively in English, or at least we spoke English, and relied on a rogues gallery of so-called translators and interpreters (the Army called them ‘terps and therefore so did we). The fact that very, very few Americans involved in either destroying Iraq or rebuilding Iraq spoke any Arabic was a huge problem. No one will ever know how much of our failure in reconstructing Iraq was caused simply by bad translation, but it would be a decent percentage.

    This was and is a significant problem, with two nasty sides to it.

    The first side is that even now, ten years after 9/11, very few people in the Department of State speak decent Arabic. Of the approximate 7600 Foreign Service Officers, only 380 speak Arabic at a “general professional level,” a language test score of 3/3 for you Foggy Bottom insiders. This score means that the individual is “Able to speak the language with sufficient structural accuracy and vocabulary to participate effectively in most formal and informal conversations on practical, social, and professional topics. Nevertheless, the individual’s limitations generally restrict the professional contexts of language use to matters of shared knowledge and/or international convention.” So those folks speak Arabic pretty well, but nobody is saying fluent. In fact, in US Embassy Yemen’s example, a senior official complained that a level 3/3 proficiency in Arabic is not enough for mission officers to participate in debates about US foreign policy in Arabic.

    (How does the State Department test languages anyway?)

    However, on average, only 64 percent of FSOs are overseas at any one time, so of those 380 Arabic speakers, only 243 are outside the Beltway today. Because of State’s whacky assignments system, there is no assurance that an Arabic speaker will be assigned to an Arabic speaking country, or a Chinese speaker to China for that matter. All sorts of things can affect assignment, including that many native speakers of a language (say a naturalized Pakistani-born FSO) often are not assigned “home” for security reasons. Whatever portion of those 243 Arabic speakers who are abroad are spread across 23 posts in the Middle East. Lastly, of the subset of officers, statistically over 35 percent have less than five years of service with the Department—so-called entry level officers—and typically are assigned visa work or other junior tasks. That knocks out a few more, leaving us an estimated 130 or so FSOs who can have a semi-professional conversation in Arabic.

    No one knows the numbers, but you will need to also deduct a few for people not medically qualified to serve overseas, those in jobs that limit them to inside the Embassy and a couple who might have gotten the right test score but don’t actually speak Arabic all that well in practice, book learners.

    That latter variable is no joke—the Government Accounting Office (GAO) found substandard skills in 31 percent of the approximately 3600 FSO jobs that require a certain level of language proficiency, up from 29 percent in 2005. In Iraq, 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Overall, forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions. Doh! Doh! again, however you would say it in French.

    So not very many people in the State Department can speak Arabic. In fact, on both of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) Peter led in Iraq, not a single subject matter expert, contractor or FSO spoke a word of Arabic. No one in our parent Army units did either. We all used translators, the ‘terps.

    Most Americans’ don’t speak a foreign language, and have only had their high school French or Spanish as a guide. In reality (Peter speaks Japanese and Mandarin at the general professional level), it is really freaking hard to learn a foreign language as an adult. There is something biological to all this; kids pick up languages well, but adults really sweat it out to get beyond simple greetings and memorized phrases. You can’t just order up more Arabic speakers. It works both ways, for Americans trying to learn Arabic and native speakers of Arabic who are trying to learn English (Quick test. If you think you speak a foreign language well, translate this out loud, respectfully and persuasively: “Unlike as we discussed at the council session, changes to our fiscal plans meant that the dike was be built upstream of your farm, unfortunately flooding your pasture. We are unable to pay compensation for your deceased goats.”). The very few who can really handle languages fluently get big bucks and work for the White House or the UN, not at a remote PRT, even if that’s the tip of the spear in the war on terror.

    The majority of our ‘terps were Iraqi-Americans. They had immigrated to the US and become citizens years ago. Most were from Detroit or Chicago, recruited by subcontractors for their alleged language skills. Most of our Iraqi-American translators were employees of an Alaskan Native-owned business. This business had one employee in the US, an Alaskan Native far away in Alaska, and subcontracted to some other business that recruited Iraqi-Americans in Detroit or Chicago and sent those people to us in Iraq. To help support minority businesses such as those owned by Alaskan Natives, the US government offered them an advantage in the otherwise competitive bidding process, a sort of contracting affirmative action, even as they subbed out 100 percent of the work and lent nothing to the company but their name and ethnicity. It seemed like a get-rich-quick internet scam, but this one apparently worked.

    The Iraqi-Americans made six-figure salaries, got free trips home and the sweet benefits that all contractors hauled in. Many of them had not lived in Iraq for years yet we used them as cultural advisors. Some had lived entirely within Iraqi-American communities in the US and spoke poor English, yet served as translators. Some were Kurdish and/or Christian, which no doubt impressed the Muslim Arabs we primarily interacted with. Trust and personal relationships are critical to doing things in the Middle East (as well as in Iowa, really) and we had the tools to establish neither.

    It gets worse. Most ‘terps used by the Army, and often the PRTs, were hired locally. Typically this meant a young man (most women still stayed home in free Iraq) who had learned some English somewhere who could pass security vetting. Often times the kid was good-hearted but knew relatively little English. His manners were rough and tough, making interactions with older government officials, educated sheiks and those who thought themselves important lame exercises. Between the bad English and the bad manners, very little got done.

    Though Iraqis will shout their opinions at you in the street and wave their hands like a crack-crazed aerobics teacher to make a point, it was hard for us to sort out what they said from what they meant from what was what they thought you wanted to hear. Add in a bad translator who reduced three minutes of spittle-flying speech to “He disagrees but loves all Americans and Obama President” and you often had no idea what was going on.

    Not knowing what was going on became sort of a problem in our efforts to rebuild Iraq. It meant having no way to verify what was being said around you—did your amateur translator make a grammar mistake or did he ask for a bribe? Are the frowns because your offer was too low or because the English slang ended up being mistranslated as something rude in Arabic? We did not know. We had no way to know. We just had to live with it, because there was no other way. Not to beat a dead horse, but while we meant well, we acted foolishly in a way that preordained failure.

    It had to end poorly.




    See Part II of this article…


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    We Win! Bin Laden Dead, War Over!

    May 2, 2011 // Comments Off on We Win! Bin Laden Dead, War Over!

    War is Over! With the death of bin Laden, this means that the war is over, right? The troops can all come home to a new era of peace and prosperity, and we can all leave our shoes on at the airport.

    No?

    Now, again, which ones are the insurgents, which are the rebels and which are the terrorists? Jeez, since all the 9/11 conspirators were in Pakistan just before the attacks, and now that it appears Osama was living in Pakistan literally under the eyes of the Pakistani military, I guess is it still a good idea that we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan. Also that we killed another Gaddafi kid this week (we nailed one of his daughters in 1986) and the other night popped one of bin Laden’s sons, who no doubt was also resisting.

    Bad news: McDonald’s didn’t stop serving burgers when the original Ronald passed away. Damn Hamburgler!



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