Saturday, December 30, 2006

Foreign Policy

For Christmas my son and his wife gave me a copy of the seventh season and final season of West Wing, and so we've been bingeing on that the last few days, watching two or three or sometimes four episodes in a row, dealing with the presidential campaign between Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) and Arnold Vinnick (Alan Alda). Watching this show, I have opportunity to reflect and wonder, not for the first time, how it is that the writers and actors in this Hollywood drama are so much more thoughtful, engaging, and articulate than any of the real-life politicians and pundits who are actually in charge of our nation. You might say, "Well, it's just a television show; it's all scripted." So what if Matt Santos and Jed Bartlett and Arnold Vinnick have their lines written for them? Doesn't George Bush? Doesn't Hillary Clinton?

There are a number of moments in the show which are just unbelievably refreshing in the context of what we are accustomed to. One of my favorite episodes is the one featuring the televised debate between Santos and Vinnick, in which the candidates on their own initiative spontaneously agree to drop the formal constraints of the staged debate and have a real debate where they talk to each other instead of spewing out sound bites tailored to their predetermined time limits. It winds up being a great hour of television, not only because it gives a pretty good capsule survey of the conservative and liberal positions over a range of real-life issues, but because it demonstrates the (at least theoretical) possibility that politicians could, if they had the courage and the character, reconsider their own assumptions and change the entire way that political business is done in this country. Likewise, there is the moment after the election at which Santos, considering candidates for Secretary of State, comes to the conclusion that the best man for the job is Vinnick, and so he offers it to him. It's difficult to imagine that happening in The Real World. My question is, why is that? Are the people running our country less capable thinkers, less flexible thinkers, less informed and less innovative thinkers than the people writing Hollywood scripts?

And if our country's leaders are reluctant to look to Hollywood for ideas—and we are surely in need of them—what about sources closer to home? The December 18 issue of The New Yorker has an article called "Knowing the Enemy" by George Packer which unpacks an idea which is so stunningly obvious, and yet nowhere to be found in rhetoric of the administration, not to mention in the op-ed columns and and television news analyses and radio talk shows: perhaps it would be good if we were to try to understand the thinking of the people we are fighting against in the "war on terror." The article profiles David Kilcullen, an Australian, who is an expert in counterinsurgency techniques. Kilcullen has many things to say which strike me as being much more sensible and much more promising than anything I have heard in the mainstream media. Here are some excerpts from the article that are worth thinking about. (The ones in quotation marks are when Packer is quoting Kilcullen. The ones that are not is when he is paraphrasing him or elaborating on the implications of what Kilcullen has said.)

"What does all the theory mean, at the company level?" he asked. "How do these principles translate into action—at night, with the G.P.S. down, the media criticizing you, the locals complaining in a language you don't understand, and an unseen enemy killing your people by ones and twos? How does counterinsurgency actually happen? There are no universal answers, and insurgents are among the most adaptive opponents you will ever face. Countering them will demand every ounce of your intellect." The first tip is "Know Your Turf": "Know the people, the topography, economy, history, religion, an culture. Know every village, road, field, population group, tribal leader, and ancient grievance. Your task is to become the world expert on your district."

The notion of a "war on terror" has led the U.S. government to focus overwhelmingly on military responses. In a counterinsurgency, according to the classical doctrine, which was first laid out by the British general Sir Gerald Templar during the Malayan Emergency, armed force is only a quarter of the effort; political, economic, and informational operations are also required. A war on terror also suggests an undifferentiated enemy. Kilcullen speaks of the need to "disaggregate" insurgencies: finding ways to address local grievances in Pakistan's tribal areas or along the Thai-Malay border so they aren't mapped onto the ambitions of the global jihad.

American foreign policy traditionally operates on two levels, the global and the national; today, however, the battlefields are also regional and local, where the U.S. government has less knowledge and where it is not institutionally organized to act.

In the information war, America and its allies are barely competing. America's information operations, far from being the primary strategy, simply support military actions, and often badly: a Pentagon spokesman announces a battle victory, but no one in the area of the battlefield hears him (or would believe him anyway.)

Since 2002 America has spent more than six billion dollars on buttressing the Pakistani military, and probably a similar amount on intelligence (the number is kept secret). Yet it has spent less than a billion dollars on aid for education and economic development, in a country where Islamic madrassas and joblessness contribute to the radicalization of young people.

Is a society in which few people spend much time overseas or learn a second language, which is impatient with chronic problems, whose vision of war is of huge air and armor battles ended by the signing of articles of surrender, and which tends to assume that everyone is basically alike cut out for this new "long war"?

Terms like 'totalitarianism" and "Islamofascism," [Karen Hughes] said, which stir the American historical memory, mislead policymakers into greatly increasing the number of our enemies and coming up with wrongheaded strategies against them. "That's not what the insurgents call themselves," she said. "If you can't call something by its name—if you can't say, 'This is what this phenomenon is, it has structure, meaning, agency'—how can you ever fight it?

Since September 11, the government's traditional approach to national security has proved inadequate in one area after another. The intelligence agencies habitually rely on satellites and spies, when most of the information that matters most now, as Kilcullen pointed out, is "open source"—available to anyone with an internet connection. Traditional diplomacy, with it emphasis on treaties and geopolitical debates, is less relevant than the ability to understand and influence foreign populations—not in their councils of state bu in their villages and slums.

There is nothing in these excerpts, nor in the article as a whole, which seems to me to be remotely controversial or even arguable. It's certainly a pleasure to recognize that there are thoughtful and capable people who have a sense of what can and ought to be done. And I admire George Packer for his ability to research and synthesize and communicate the issues and the potential courses of action that are available to us. The entire article is an argument—and a blueprint—for re-thinking the way we are approaching the defining cultural conflicts of our era. The closing paragraph of the article lay out the opportunity, and the obstacles:

Bruce Hoffman said, "We're talking about a profound shift in mind-set and attitude"—not to mention a drastic change in budgetary and bureucratic priorities. "And that may not be achievable until there's a change in Administration." Kilcullen now is in charge of writing a new counterinsurgency manual for the civilian government, and early this month he briefed Condoleeza Rice on his findings in Afgahnistan. But his ideas have yet to penetrate the fortress that is the Bush White House. Hoffman said, "Isn't it ironic that an Australian is spearheading this shift, together with a former covert operator? It shows that it's almost too revolutionary for the places where it should be discussed—the Pentagon, the National Security Council. At a moment when the Bush administration has run out of ideas and lost control, it could turn away from its "war on terror" and follow a different path—one that's right under its nose.

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