State Dept’s Digital Diplomacy – Clip & Show the Next Time You Get Slapped by Control Freaks

Jesse Lichtenstein has written for The New Yorker, Slate, The Economist and n + 1; his first article for the NYT magazine is about Foggy Bottom’s Twitterati, “Jared Cohen [TSB’s fave] , the youngest member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, and Alec Ross, the first senior adviser for innovation to the secretary of state.” Quick excerpts:

About those tele-somethings:

It is fair to say that Ross and Cohen are obsessed with mobile phones; they speak at length about telemedicine, tele-education and something called telejustice (the details of which they haven’t quite worked out yet).

About the fear factor, control freaks and those who no longer understand what’s going on (a lot of that in Foggy Bottom, you think?)

When I asked Cohen whether sites like Wikileaks made the kind of diplomacy he advocates harder, he allowed that they posed a challenge: “All of these tools can be utilized by individuals for everything from Wikileaks to other negative purposes” — at least as the State Department sees it — “but that technology isn’t going anywhere. So we can fear we can’t control it and ignore the space, or we can recognize we can’t control it, but we can influence it.”

Evgeny Morozov, an academic at Georgetown and perhaps the fiercest critic of this brand of diplomacy, published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in February, charging that the State Department has been all too willing to sweep the dangers of Twitter diplomacy under the rug. “Facebook and Twitter empower all groups — not just the pro-Western groups that we like,” he wrote, pointing out that the Iranian government was also active online: “Not only did it thwart Internet communications, the government (or its plentiful loyalists) also flooded Iranian Web sites with videos of dubious authenticity . . . that aimed to provoke and splinter the opposition.” (The Iranian government later used Facebook to track Iranian dissidents around the world.)

When I brought up the op-ed, Cohen dismissed Morozov’s complaint. “The problem with his thinking,” he said, “is it neglects the inevitability that this technology is going to spread — so he advocates a very dangerously cautious approach that says it’s dangerous and we shouldn’t play in that space. What the Evgeny Morozovs of the world don’t understand is that whether anybody likes it or not, the private sector is pumping out innovation like crazy.”

In other words, the U.S. gains nothing from shunning the social media everyone else uses. “The 21st century is a really terrible time to be a control freak,” Cohen said. “Which is a quote Alec and I often use when explaining this.”

Yet control — over the message, who delivers it, who originates it — is still a cherished tenet of foreign policy. Morozov no doubt voiced the concerns of many when he wrote: “Diplomacy is, perhaps, one element of the U.S. government that should not be subject to the demands of ‘open government’; whenever it works, it is usually because it is done behind closed doors. But this may be increasingly hard to achieve in the age of Twittering bureaucrats.”

Clay Shirky, a New York University professor who has engaged in an ongoing debate with Morozov, has given similar advice to members of the State Department. “The loss of control you fear is already in the past,” he told me. “You do not actually control the message, and if you believe you control the message, it merely means you no longer understand what’s going on.”

Here, we finally learn how Cohen survived the post-Condi State Department:

As a Bush-era appointee, Cohen had been walking on eggshells. “There were all these haters trying to get this guy shot in the head,” as Ross puts it. “I read what he’d written, and I’m like, This guy’s actually brilliant; he’s going to be my partner.”

There’s one part of the article that is a window to the tug and pull of 21st century statecraft:

Pandith’s deputy [Farah Pandith is the special representative to Muslim communities] sat mostly quiet through the meeting but then voiced a concern that must reverberate throughout the diplomatic ranks. College kids translating diplomatic messages from the State Department? In languages their supervisors can’t read?

“How do you make sure that what they’re posting is vetted?” she asked.

“In the 21st century, the level of control is going to be decreased,” Ross said, reiterating what Clinton told me earlier. “The young woman from Saudi who translates something to Arabic, what she’s translating is language that’s been vetted, but it’s not being handed over to a State Department translator, who’s handing it over to State Department public affairs, who’s approving it. We’re past that.”

We’re past that? Whoops! I fell off my chair!

Oh, holy mother of goat! I misread the new regs on using social media — that part that requires vetting according to 27 related policies. Dudes, clip this one and show this to your boss the next time you get your tweets slapped down by control freaks. Go read it here — a most entertaining read for some, a horrifying read for others, I’m sure. 

John Brown over at Huffington Post writes:

“But what’s happening is not necessarily what’s important. Much of what twitterers say is as significant as that Viagra ad aired on the corporate evening news. “Now” is not “wisdom.” That’s the great limitation of the new social media as an intellectual or even political tool.”


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Richard Haass in Newsweek on Afghanistan: We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It.

Richard HaassImage via Wikipedia

Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, old State Department hand, and  the author of War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars has written a new piece in Newsweek on Afghanistan that says it all, We’re Not Winning. It’s Not Worth It. Excerpt:

The war being waged by the United States in Afghanistan today is fundamentally different and more ambitious than anything carried out by the Bush administration. Afghanistan is very much Barack Obama’s war of choice, a point that the president underscored recently by picking Gen. David Petraeus to lead an intensified counterinsurgency effort there. After nearly nine years of war, however, continued or increased U.S. involvement in Afghanistan isn’t likely to yield lasting improvements that would be commensurate in any way with the investment of American blood and treasure. It is time to scale down our ambitions there and both reduce and redirect what we do.
[…]
The economic costs to the United States of sticking to the current policy are on the order of $100 billion a year, a hefty price to pay when the pressure to cut federal spending is becoming acute. The military price is also great, not just in lives and matériel but also in distraction at a time when the United States could well face crises with Iran and North Korea. And the domestic political costs would be considerable if the president were seen as going back on the spirit if not the letter of his commitment to begin to bring troops home next year.

[…]

So what should the president decide? The best way to answer this question is to return to what the United States seeks to accomplish in Afghanistan and why. The two main American goals are to prevent Al Qaeda from reestablishing a safe haven and to make sure that Afghanistan does not undermine the stability of Pakistan.

We are closer to accomplishing both goals than most people realize. CIA Director Leon Panetta recently estimated the number of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to be “60 to 100, maybe less.” It makes no sense to maintain 100,000 troops to go after so small an adversary, especially when Al Qaeda operates on this scale in a number of countries. Such situations call for more modest and focused policies of counterterrorism along the lines of those being applied in Yemen and Somalia, rather than a full-fledged counterinsurgency effort.

Read the whole thing here.

Over at TomDispatch, Tom Engelhardt recently asked if success in Afghanistan could be worse than failure?

Let’s imagine that, in July 2011, the U.S. military has tenuous control over key parts of that country, including Kandahar, its second largest city. It still has almost 100,000 troops (and at least a similar number of private contractors) in the country, while a slow drawdown of the 30,000 surge troops the president ordered into Afghanistan in December 2009 is underway. Similarly, the “civilian” surge, which tripled the State Department’s personnel there, remains in place, as does the CIA surge that went with it — and the contractorbase-building surges that went with them. In fact, the CIA drone war in the Pakistani borderlands will undoubtedly have only escalated further by July 2011. Experts expect the counterinsurgency campaign to continue for years, even decades more; the NATO allies are heading for the exits; and, again according to the experts, the Taliban, being thoroughly interwoven with Afghanistan’s Pashtun minority, simply cannot in any normal sense be defeated.

This, then, would be “success” 10 years into America’s Afghan war. Given the logistics nightmare of supporting so many troops, intelligence agents, civilian officials, and private contractors in the country, the approximately $7 billion a month now being spent there will undoubtedly be the price Americans are to pay for a long time to come (and that’s surely a significant undercount, if you consider long-term wear-and-tear to the military as well as the price of future care for those badly wounded in body or mind).

The swollen Afghan army and police will still have to undergo continual training and, in a country with next to no government funds and (unlike Iraq) no oil or other resource revenues on the immediate horizon, they, too, will have to be paid for and supplied by Washington. And keep in mind that the U.S. Air Force will, for the foreseeable future, be the Afghan Air Force. In other words, success means that, however tenuously, Afghanistan is ours for years to come.

Read the whole thing here.


US Embassy Pakistan: quibbling about Public Diplomacy staffing numbers …

Image by Mikey G Ottawa via Flickr

Based on a recent OIG report, we have written previously about US Embassy Pakistan’s understaffed, inexperienced staff handling its $30 million public diplomacy programs. Last week, we received a comment in that post from Dan Sreebny, the Acting Coordinator of the Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs Bureau (IIP). Also, Mr. Sreebny had previously served for five months as Acting Director of the Global Strategic Engagement Center, working within the office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.  Comment reprinted in full below:

Dear Diplopundit,


I am pleased to inform you and your readers that Public Diplomacy in Pakistan is a priority for this Administration and we are staffing our embassy there accordingly.


The information noted in your blog posting was based on inspection interviews from earlier this year. The number of Public Affairs positions in Pakistan has increased with the growth in the Public Diplomacy budget. There are currently 21 Public Affairs positions in Pakistan and many of the officers coming into these positions have served more than fifteen years in Public Affairs overseas and domestically. In addition, the Department of State has also identified and deployed several experienced officers for temporary duty (TDY) assignments to “bridge the experience gap” in Pakistan.


These deployments are evidence of a clear recognition that the Public Diplomacy effort in Pakistan requires experienced personnel. For precisely this reason one of the most senior Public Diplomacy officers in the Department of State was moved to Islamabad to manage the significant growth of Public Diplomacy initiatives in Pakistan.


We recognize the central importance of public diplomacy in Pakistan and have marshaled every necessary resource to meet that challenge.


Sincerely yours,


Dan Sreebny
sreebnyd@state.gov

We appreciate Mr. Sreebny’s comment.

We should note that the OIG inspection was conducted in Washington DC between January 4 and February 2, 2010; in Islamabad, Pakistan, between February 4 and March 6, 2010; in Karachi and Lahore (two subteams) between February 15 and 20, 2010; and in Peshawar on February 13 and February 23, 2010. The inspectionn report was dated June 2010 and was released publicly on July 8, 2010.

Now, let’s try and deconstruct Mr. Sreebny’s comments:

“There are currently 21 Public Affairs positions in Pakistan …”

Actually, Mr. Sreebny’s number, 21 is off by one. The OIG report indicates that the total authorized US direct hire staff for public diplomacy in Pakistan is 22, with an additional locally employed staff of 53 — a total of 75, country-wide (see page 54).  So Mr. Sreebny’s staffing number is not even new.  And here I initially thought this was an improvement in the last five months since the conclusion of the inspection.  Presuming that Lahore, Karachi and Peshawar all have one Public Affairs Officer each, plus the six incumbents in PAS Islamabad — that’s a total of 9 PA officers currently in Pakistan out of the 21/22 authorized positions (Sreebny and OIG numbers). 

Mr. Sreebny’s comments made it seem like the 21 is an improvement. Not so. But we would have liked to know how many of these 21/22 authorized positions are actually filled.   

That – Mr. Sreebny did not say.

Really, what does it matter if US Mission Pakistan has dozens of authorized public affairs positions if only 9 positions are actually filled? Or filled and later voluntary/involuntary curtailed?   

That’s the funny thing with numbers — they can spin a story any way you want them to…

“many of the officers coming into these positions have served more than fifteen years in Public Affairs overseas and domestically …”

In any case, the Foreign Service is right in the middle of the summer transfer season now, so these officers (pick a number) are just coming into these positions —  between now and the stragglers, in late October. Also, that part about “many” of these officers have served “more than fifteen years in PA…” … Seriously, we don’t know how many that means exactly …. seven officers? More than ten? Fourteen? Don’t know, all we’re told is that many of them are experienced … so pick a number (again) ….

Bottom line — Mr. Sreebny helpfully pointed out to us and our readers that State has experienced officers coming to Pakistan — wait — they’re not there yet  And we’re also told, State has “identified and deployed several experienced officers for temporary duty (TDY) assignments to “bridge the experience gap” in Pakistan.” [I wonder if these are the same experienced officers who inadventernently posted photos of Pakistani journalists invited to an embassy reception in Facebook; the journalists then reportedly later run afoul with their employers?] 

Which brings us back to the title of our blog post US Embassy Pakistan’s understaffed, inexperienced staff handles $30 million public diplomacy programs.

Until those many experienced officers actually show up in country, all 22 of them, we think the OIG’s characterization of the PD operation in Pakistan in its report and our blog post, need no Corrections for the Record at this time. 

Related post:
OIG Report No. ISP-I-10-64 – Inspection of Embassy Islamabad and Constituent Posts, Pakistan, June 2010