Thursday, October 11, 2012

Some thoughts on yesterday’s 9/11 Benghazi hearing

As I watched the hearing committee go back and forth over the circumstances surrounding the 9/11 Benghazi attack it became painfully evident that there were two issues being discussed, almost entirely independently from each other.

The first of these was the security failure. Key personnel asked for more security and Deputy Assistant Secretary Lamb rejected the request. In retrospect this was a supremely bad move on her part. Ms. Lamb obviously has a lot on her plate, and the security demands of Benghazi were evidently just one among dozens of locations demanding attention and resources.

This is the sort of unpleasant, boring, and banal allocation work that is the hallmark of mid-level management - the drudgery of budgetary concerns combined with the sort of administrative decision-making that inspires resentment in your subordinates and contempt in your superiors. The type of work that exists in the middle strata of corporations, schools, government agencies, militaries, and any other top-down mass human endeavor where someone is needed to nitpick over financial minutia.

DAS Lam was most likely doing her job the way she's always done it – attending to the letter of the law, with less of an eye towards its spirit. A different string of decisions on her part probably wouldn’t have enabled the security staff to repel the attacks, but some of those who died that night might still be alive today.

This is certainly an awful state of affairs, and Ms. Lamb should've had the decency to tender her resignation sometime over the past month, but it’s hardly a cause for a Congressional hearing. Deadly attacks on embassies and consulates are far less common now than they were during the Regan years, but they still happen on a regular basis. Note the following:

·         June 14, 2002, U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan - Suicide bomber kills 12 and injures 51. 
·         February 20, 2003, international diplomatic compound in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia - Truck bomb kills 17.
·         February 28, 2003, U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan - Gunmen on motorcycles killed two consulate guards. 
·         July 30, 2004, U.S. embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan - Suicide bomber kills two.   
·         December 6, 2004,U.S. consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - Militants stormed and occupied perimeter wall. Five killed, 10 wounded.   
·         March 2, 2006, U.S. consulate in Karachi, Pakistan - Suicide car bomber killed four, including a U.S. diplomat directly targeted by the assailants. 
·         September 12, 2006, U.S. embassy in Damascus, Syria - Gunmen attacked embassy with grenades, automatic weapons, and a car bomb (though second truck bomb failed to detonate). One killed and 13 wounded.
·         July 9, 2008, U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey - Armed men attacked consulate with pistols and shotguns. Three policemen killed.   
·         September 17, 2008, U.S. embassy in Sana'a, Yemen - Militants dressed as policemen attacked the embassy with RPGs, rifles, grenades and car bombs. Six Yemeni soldiers and seven civilians were killed. Sixteen more were injured. 

The second issue at play in the hearing was a very different one: the shifting statements regarding the attack that were issued by the State Department and the White House. This is where pundits grow shrill, and certain committee members start to yell. This is also where ignorance and idiocy vigorously rears its head.

Why did the State Department, and in particular ambassador Rice, make such an obviously incorrect statement regarding the nature of the attacks on the Embassy? And why did they maintained that line for almost a week when everyone knew that any connection between the notorious anti-Islamist video and this specific attack was minimal at best?

The answer to this is simple, and for those who were watching the testimony of Ambassador Kennedy it should have been painfully obvious. The official statements by Susan Rice and the others during the first week after the attacks were strictly limited to what they were given permission to say by the CIA.

It wasn’t based on the “intelligence we had at the time”. It was very strictly controlled messaging under orders from the CIA. In spite of the clear inconsistencies between Rice’s statement and the obvious facts on the ground, the script that the White House and the State Department had to stick to was the one they had been given by the CIA. Until the D/CIA gave them a new script, it's all they could say.

The building that was attacked in Benghazi was a base of operations for the CIA, and a consulate in name only. This attack was a major intelligence failure on the part of the CIA, and they are in the middle of a very serious investigation into the particulars (which is why yesterday’s committee didn’t get access to the security videos, among other things). As such, any information about their intelligence capacity before, during or after the event is going to be heavily scripted, controlled, and often times deliberately misleading.

You can be assured that the White House and the State Department know far more about the incident than they can publicly admit, and they’re not going to formally acknowledge any of it until the CIA says they can.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Protests and Provocations

If it wasn’t obvious before, in light of last night’s assault on the US embassy in Yemen, it should be painfully evident that the 9/11&12 Middle East protests against the anti-Islam movie “The Innocence of Muslims” aren’t really protests, and they don’t really have a whole lot to do with the movie either (which may not even exist).

When the 9/11 protest in Cairo began, multiple witnesses reported that much of the crowd didn’t even know why they were there, and the first part of the protest largely involved people milling about as the reasons for the gathering was explained to them. They were told to show up, and they did – who told them to show up? (Some other important questions about the Cairo incident here)

I’ll get to that shortly.

The protesters were there was for one reason and one reason alone: to provoke a violent reaction by the guards protecting the embassy in order to generate backlash. If the protests at the embassy had turned into a sort of Kent State in Cairo, as I suspect they were supposed to, the attack on the Consulate in Benghazi would have seemed far more believable as a genuine protest gone wrong, and we would be facing the possibility of real grassroots protests across the Middle East.

The heroes of the day in Cairo were the on-site US Embassy guards, and their superiors who refused to fall victim to the provocation, and chose not to use force in an ambiguous and possibly threatening situation.
In Libya, however, the situation was substantially different. The incident at the Consulate in Libya was a preplanned assault on a predetermined target. Four pickup trucks full of armed men used grenades and RPGs to attack the Consulate compound in the middle of a rather small and unremarkable protest.

The debate, at this point, is whether there was coordination between the organizers of the protests in Cairo, and the attack in Benghazi. With the assault on the Yemeni embassy, the plot thickens.
Frankly, I’d be shocked if more than a few of the people at the embassy in Yemeni had any idea about the film. Like the protesters in Egypt, the film was really irrelevant – they were there at someone’s behest to provoke a reaction.

I suspect that what we’re seeing is a new approach to operations by Al Qaeda franchisees and affiliates.
In the absence of a central command, and with the loss of most of their senior planning staff, Al Qaeda can’t really pull off the large-scale operations that they used to be known for.  Instead, they are now engaged in the work of trying to rebuild some measure of unity and support in the Muslim world. Their goal here is to provoke some sort of high-profile disproportionate response by the US.

These events, coming on the heels of the release of the Weinstein video and the Zawahiri video, point to a much looser approach to AQ operations that are vaguely synchronized, but not really coordinated. (See also the attack in Somalia) This approach may be marginally successful in the short run, but it needs to produce major results ASAP, because it involves lots of groups committing to public action in a way that makes them easy targets for some very skilled and dangerous people.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Some surprises in Iran today.

Interesting events today, largely drowned out in the US press thanks to the hue and cry over the Republican national convention.

Egyptian President Morsi was in Tehran for a meeting of the Non-aligned Movement. This is the first time that an Egyptian president has visited Iran since the expulsion of the Shah in 1979. This, in and of itself, is certainly worth more than a passing mention, but what really makes it interesting are Morsi’s comments towards the NAM, and not so subtly towards Iran. He made a plea to the non-aligned nations of the world to support the Syrian revolution.

This is no small thing.

The fact that the Egyptian government would make such an unambiguous statement, and do so from within Iran makes it clear that the times they are changing. Egypt, let us remember, is the most populous nation in the Middle East, and just a few decades ago they were the country that the rest of the Arab world looked to for leadership and inspiration. (great piece on Nasser and the NAM over here)  

Power dynamics in the Middle East have continuously shifted since the high water mark of Nasserism - first towards Iraq and Iran, followed by more subtle recent shifts towards Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Today Egypt flexed.

That itself would have been notable enough, but it came on the heels of another underreported item that also took place at the NAM meetings in Iran today: Ban Ki Moon, Secretary-General of the the UN, told supreme leader that Iran needs to seriously revise how it talks about Israel and how it handles human rights.

Iran’s hosting of the NAM was supposed to be a bit of a feather in their cap, but it looks to have badly backfired. (Amusing bit of mustaschadenfreude - note how badly Tom Friedman misread this whole situation)

Ayatollah Kameni has been letting Mahmoud Ahmadinejad play the “bad cop” role for several years now, serving as a useful foil against the bombast and bellicosity of America's previous president, but that old game hasn't been earning Iran a whole lot of points in the Muslim world anymore, and the only reason they haven't shifted sooner is (I believe) that the Ayatollah himself is not an overly creative leader. He develops a plan and he sticks with it, but he doesn't innovate.

Ultimately, the Ayatollah always plays it safe. If cutting Bashar Assad loose seems like the best long-term solution, you can be sure that it will happen. Maybe today's events will move that outcome little closer.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Reflections on Kony 2012

Lots of buzz these past few days over the Kony 2012 video.

Given the amount of attention I’ve given to the use of social media and online communication in the Arab spring (and the fact that a good part of my day job is spent trying to measure advocacy impact) I was struck by the speed with which the video exploded on the Internet.

Obviously, the campaign has been in the works for some time, and a lot of work has gone into its preparation and delivery, but a good social media/PR team doesn’t guarantee success.

The video can be found here and the situation it describes is no longer a fully accurate picture of the situation. Kony is no longer in Uganda, the Lord's resistance Army is not the same sort of threat that it was five years ago, the “Night Commuters” are no longer trapped in their horrible circular migration. Nonetheless, the video has been a huge success.

Predictably, there has been a major pushback in response, and a whole host of criticisms have been leveled against the Kony 2012 video and Invisible Children, the organization that created it and the surrounding social media campaign.

The video has been attacked on a variety of fronts (here's a good place to start or here), but most of the criticism addresses some key points:
  1. The video oversimplifies a complex situation
  2. The video does not reflect the current state of affairs
  3. The video advocates the use of force to resolve a situation that would be better resolved without violence
  4. The video perpetuate the stereotypes of Africa as nothing more than a place of violence and death
  5. The video embodies the worst examples of white European paternalistic urge to "save Africans"
  6. The organization does not make good use of the money they raise
These are, of course, all good criticisms. The organization has done a reasonable job of responding to some of them (see here) but I think they're all missing the point.

Teju Cole @tejucole, a gifted Nigerian American writer, posted some particularly biting responses on his twitter feed  two days ago:

Here’s the thing. I think Cole is way off base here. Now, don't get me wrong, as someone who occupies a world that is both American and African, I think Cole has worthwhile insights, but I also know several people who've given many years of their life in service to communities across the African continent. To paint these people and their work with the brush of the "white savior industrial complex" does them a gross disservice. Commitment to a life in the relief and development sector is commitment to a career full of small victories in the face of enormous setbacks. It's a field where you start out naive and idealistic and then you grow beyond that or you leave the field. I certainly think the Kony2012 campaign is a deeply flawed one, but it's also a pretty remarkable one that shows great potential for other endeavors.

The world is full of young people who want to help each other, and to dismiss that as desiring a "big emotional experience that validates privilege" is like telling a child that his crayon drawing is poorly executed and unrealistic. The people whose eyes are being opened by this are not adults. They are children and teenagers who were still in diapers when the “American war of choice” began in Iraq.
To speak with so much contempt and condescension is to plant seeds of cynicism in the hearts of the young.
(As I write this, I'm reminded of the Rumi story about Moses and the shepherd)

But here's the thing...Mark Toner, deputy spokesman for the US state dept. was made aware of the video by his 13 year old daughter (link).

Imagine that conversation.

And then imagine if Christine Shelley, State Department spokeswoman during the Rwandan genocide, had been asked by her daughter each evening, “What are we doing to help the children of Rwanda?”

Two days ago a friend of mine made a passing comment on Facebook in defense of the Coney 2012 video and an older family member responded by saying, "Atrocities happen all the time, I've never heard of this guy until you mentioned him just now, what makes the situation any different than any of the others?"


There you have it.

For a quarter of a century people have successfully ignored this horrific unfolding atrocity that is STILL GOING ON.


We are reaching the point now where, thanks to YouTube and Facebook and Twitter and Flickr and Skype, the wider world can only be ignored through an act of willful self-imposed blindness. And it is becoming harder to maintain that blindness.

Ultimately, the most incisive and relevantcritiques of Invisible Children as an organization are the same critiques that have been directed at just about every other major organization in International Aid and International Development, and they largely boil down to this:

The programs that generate the most donor funding are rarely the programs that do the most good for their target populations.

If you want to motivate people to dip into their wallets, the best thing in the world is a photograph of a starving little African baby with a swollen belly and flies crawling on his face. It just works.
But they want you to spend that money on food for the starving baby, not on projects that address the structural causes of food insecurity in the undeveloped world. Alex De Waal’s Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa addresses this issue far better and far more extensively than I could really hope to.

For me, however, I don't see this campaign as part of a long string of bloated miserable Band-Aids that some guilty first world culture has perpetuated to assuage some innate guilt of being privileged. Instead, I see it as reflecting a new scale of human interaction. If you really wanted to, you could find and become Facebook friends with a former "night commuter" from Uganda within 5 minutes (you could probably find a twitter feed from one in even less time).

The Indonesian tsunami of 2004 (which, by the way, was the first time where individual giving to a major disaster outstripped government aid) and the Iranian post-election fallout in 2009 were harbingers of this.
It is so important to remember that the real uptake on this video is taking place among people who have not even finished high school yet, and ultimately, the true impact of this video will not be seen in the money that it generates for Invisible Children and their work.

The important thing about the video is not the video itself, but rather its success – we're only discussing it because the video is an internet sensation. So is this a fluke, a random moment of emotion that (as Cole puts it) "validates privilege" or is this in fact something new?

I think this is something new. Don’t try to kill it before it can grow.