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Monday, June 29, 2009

Community and Efficiency

As an American who lives abroad, who studies and works in the field of international relations, and who believes in American values like freedom and democracy, I often have to grapple with a baffling question: why are Americans so unhappy? If liberal democracy truly marks "the end of history" as Francis Fukuyama famously wrote, and if the United States is built on values with supposedly universal appeal, why is our society so rife with problems? Why are depression rates soaring, why is drug use and crime off the charts, and why is it becoming a regular occurrence for nihilistic teenagers to shoot up their schools? These trends undermine the appeal of "American values" to much of the world; American-style liberty has not, apparently, brought significant gains in personal happiness. In some ways, a country like Jordan even has the United States beat. Violent crime is virtually nonexistent here, and in general, the culture is much more family-oriented than in the US. For a society with so many political, social, and economic problems, people seem surprisingly happy.

Why is that? I'm not a sociologist, but I have a theory based on my firsthand experience here in Jordan.

In a developing country like Jordan, every aspect of life is rooted in personal relationships. Interdependence and cooperation are necessary for daily survival. Because public institutions aren't always strong, individual personalities and relationships carry tremendous influence. Anyone who has visited a government ministry or tried to negotiate a price knows that. You need to get to know the people you're doing business with. Even the simplest daily chores require cooperation with others. If you need directions in Jordan, you roll down your car window and yell to a pedestrian or another driver. On a couple occasions I've been really lost and had to ask five or six different people along the way, and they are consistently friendly and helpful. These societies are highly communal, but they're also highly inefficient. In Three Cups of Tea, Greg Mortensen relates the frustration of buying local supplies for a school he wanted to build in Pakistan. Every single purchase--lumber, nails, tools--required hours of sipping tea, getting to know local merchants.

The United States, on the other hand, is the master of efficiency. Everything is a transaction, and we are continually searching for ways to cut out the highly inefficient human middle. When's the last time you asked a human being for directions, in the age of Google Maps and GPS devices? And who needs grocery store checkers, when you can check out yourself out using a computer? Business is governed by our highly developed laws and bureaucratic processes that often leave little or no human wiggle room (try canceling your cell phone contract early... but oh, by the way, you'll have to navigate through that highly efficient computerized phone system just to talk to the person whose hands are tied and who can't help you). No more negotiating with that traffic cop, explaining why you don't deserve a ticket for speeding; now we have cameras that can snap a photo of your license plate and send you the ticket in the mail. If you're not inclined to leave your house, you can buy everything you need to survive online. We've even managed to cut the problematic human component out of sex; pornography replaces relationship with a highly efficient sexual transaction.

Don't get me wrong. I love the United States and I enjoy many of the gains we enjoy as citizens from our efficient, free, and innovative society. Amazon.com is a godsend, I like having dependable (mostly) public institutions, and I can't wait for the day Jordan gets good GPS maps. But it seems to me that all this innovation does come at a high cost: the replacement of community with a severe and dangerous degree of individualism. As messy and problematic as human relationships often are, we are made for community. Is it possible that much of our culture's unhappiness stems from our growing alienation from one another?

I spent some time living in Seattle, a city full of young transients there to work or study. It's the kind of city where twenty people in the same apartment building can be depressed and on medication because they're lonely, but never meet each other--except maybe by coincidence in an online chat room. C.S. Lewis extrapolates this to its natural conclusion in The Great Divorce; his vision of hell is a sprawling bleak city where people get so annoyed with one another that they steadily move farther and farther apart. Eventually they are so spread out that they never see another person. Technology and liberty give us the tools to make such a society almost possible; in fact, Isaac Asimov envisions a very similar future in his Caves of Steel trilogy.

I prefer living in a liberal democracy to any of its alternatives, but I believe it matters tremendously how individuals choose to live within such a society. In a society that doesn't force community upon its members, they must learn to embrace community on their own volition. In a society where divorce is commonplace and socially acceptable, they must find their own intrinsic motivation to make their marriages succeed. When birth control and abortion gives people unprecedented control over their family planning and children are often viewed as obstacles to personal fulfillment, couples must cultivate a mindset that cherishes children. I suspect that much of the unhappiness in the United States stems from our failure to thoughtfully reflect on these subjects. We should learn to use our freedom wisely, thoughtfully, and deliberately. Among other things, that entails recognizing how much American individualism has eroded community, and seeking to build strong communities in our personal lives.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day

Reach 364: The Early Years



Today I would like to publicly thank the man who has done more than anyone to shape my life and help me fulfill my dreams: my dad.

The amount of support and encouragement I've received from my dad is truly extraordinary. Growing up, I assumed that was normal. I realize more and more all the time how truly remarkable my relationship with my dad actually is. In today's world it is a blessing to have a dad who cares so deeply about his family. Especially now that I'm a parent, I'm also amazed at the amount of faith my dad put in me at a young age. I was an introverted child who spent a lot of time engaging in solitary activities that many parents would have tried to "cure" me of. My dad did the opposite; he let me spread my wings. When I started writing stories at six years old, he was my biggest fan. In fifth grade he helped me apply for my first contest and sell copies of my first "novel" around my elementary school. His encouragement never stopped. His faith in my writing paved the way for later successes: winning a national short story contest, coauthoring a book for Christian teenagers, and writing two novels.

By sharing his love of airplanes and technology, my dad found creative ways for us to spend time together and gave me an enormous head start on skills that have served me my entire life. He is a private pilot and loved to take me flying. Some of my first memories are of sitting in the right seat of his Globe Swift, craning my neck to see over the instrument panel, feeling the throb of the engine in my seat. I got the flying bug early and it never went away. When I wanted to begin flying lessons at 14 he was quietly supportive; he helped pay for my first lessons and worked to convince my worried mother that flying lessons were an acceptable way for her son to spend his weekends. My dad also encouraged my early interest in technology. When I started fiddling around with the BASIC programming language, he bought me the latest version of Microsoft C++ for Christmas. It is a highly technical language used by professionals and shipped with a box of manuals two feet long. I was twelve years old. A year or two later, he bought two robot kits for Christmas. We spent many long hours in the garage, soldering circuit boards and learning how to write software for microprocessors. Every Tuesday night during these years we ate fast food together, then he drove me across the city to a special institute for teenagers to study science and engineering. My dad cultivated rare skills that have helped tremendously in my professional life, and we had a lot of fun doing it. These are some of our fondest memories together.

Most importantly, my dad taught me character. He has always taken great care of my mom and demonstrated through his life how to be a good husband. He never missed a chance to tell me or my sisters that he loved us. He taught me how to work hard, face up to life's challenges, and respect others. He has always had tremendous enthusiasm for life and energizes everyone he meets. He lives out his motto well: "Growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional." He is generous with his time and money and never misses a chance to serve a good cause. I've watched him write a massive database to manage a school auction, give free airplane rides to kids, serve and teach in his church, give technology presentations in schools, and play the peacemaker and problem solver in some physically and emotionally exhausting situations with family and friends. He never complains and never shirks from duties. Even when he's tired from his many responsibilities, he brings joy and enthusiasm to everyone he meets.

Thanks, dad. Happy Father's Day. I love you.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

CNAS Program for Next Generation National Security Leaders

I saw this posted on Abu Muqawama today. It looks like a fantastic opportunity for bright and shiny young leaders with an interest in national security. I would love to apply, but the commute from Jordan would be a killer.

Next Generation National Security Leaders

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

"The Help" Gets Personal

I wrote a post recently about the grave problems "The Help" face in the Middle East. These women--most of them from the Philippines and Sri Lanka--frequently face exploitation, abuse, and even slavery. Because their employers have absolute authority over fate, many women get trapped in these situations and can't get out.

The issue has become personal for me over the past two weeks. As I mentioned in my previous post, my wife and I hired a Filipino woman to babysit a few hours each day while we go to class or study. A few months ago she ran away from an exploitative situation. Her employer frequently worked her from 4:00 am until 11:00 pm. She was hired as a home maid, but her employer also forced her to clean/maintain two dormitories and sometimes made her work in his factory. In Jordan it is the employer's responsibility to purchase a plane ticket home for his domestic worker at the end of her service, but this man started withholding her wages (around $300/month) to pay for the ticket. After two months with no wages, she ran away. A friend introduced her to some Americans, and they introduced her to us.

My wife and I were only looking for a part-time babysitter, but now that our lives have intersected, we're the only ones who can break her out of a situation that amounts to slavery. Her previous employer is furious that she ran away and wants her to come back; she is terrified and is hiding from him. Her residency expired last month, so she is accruing daily fines that she can't afford to pay (I mentioned in my previous post that an estimated 14,000 women are trapped in Jordan because of this problem). Only a domestic worker's employer can renew her residency, so her future is in the hands of the man who exploited her. The only way out is if he agrees to write a "letter of release" and transfers her sponsorship to me.

I spent two days this week learning about the byzantine world of government ministries. I started my quest at Amman's Ministry of Labor, where I hoped I could explain the situation and transfer the sponsorship without a letter of release from the previous employer. After a confusing conversation in broken Arabic I learned that I needed to go to the other Ministry of Labor across town. An employee there directed me to the section manager, who reviewed my babysitter's documents and informed me they were from Irbid--a city two hours to the north. She couldn't do anything for me; I needed to go the Ministry of Labor in Irbid. My wife and I were planning to visit Irbid anyway, so on Sunday we made a daytrip out of it and brought along a good Arab friend. I hung back while my friend darted in and out of at least five offices, pushing his way through the crowds huddled around each desk to get his turn. He argued at length, but every answer was the same: there is nothing they can do unless the employer releases her.

I finally had to do something I'd been dreading: call the previous employer. He was cordial enough to me but he was obviously angry at her and said he has no intention of signing a release letter. So that's where things stand. I'm planning to call him again and try one more time. Right now I'm gathering more information, figuring out where I have leverage and planning how to negotiate with him. It's no fun at all. My wife reminds me that I am studying International Conflict Resolution; resolving this situation is probably a good beginner's exercise.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Blogging and Professionalism

Lately I've been thinking about the relationship between military professionalism and blogging. I started this blog because I like writing and because I firmly believe that the collective intelligence of the US military will rise as more and more members become engaged in the kind of robust, thoughtful conversation about war and peace that the Internet makes possible. I've learned a tremendous amount from other blogs, mailing lists, and online discussions; maybe I can give something back. I don't consider myself an expert on much of anything, but maybe I can get readers thinking about subjects and ideas that are important to me, and allow others to critique my own thinking. That's how the blogosphere works.

But a lot of officers don't agree and worry that this bottom-up empowerment is eroding standards of military professionalism. The idea a mid-level captain would publicly share his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, challenge the Air Force's Internet usage policies, and critique Air Force PME would probably horrify the generation of officers who believed they shouldn't even vote. I've read heated critiques of junior officers who stray too far outside their lane or are convinced of their own indispensability to the world. Others wonder if the military really ought to be conducting its internal debates in plain view; Bacevich touches on this issue in his famous The Petraeus Doctrine article. I've also thought a lot about what blogging can lead to years down the road. What happens when a generation of bloggers and Facebook users become general officers and civilian political leaders? What will happen when journalists troll through 20 years of the uninhibited, unedited online writing that is so common in my generation? These are serious questions.

I am sensitive to these dangers and have tried hard to maintain my professionalism as an officer, even while pursuing a high degree of openness. I am very selective about what I write online. I try to avoid discussing specific leaders and personalities, and don't usually weigh in on controversial political issues where I believe officership demands neutrality. With that said, I still believe the military will be a stronger, more creative, and more adaptive organization if it encourages a controlled level of openness and even dissent among its officer corps. Blogging is one means to accomplish that. This is a difficult tension, and I'm not sure anyone has really found the answer yet.

I also believe there is no going back. Technology and social forces have changed things forever. Corporations, universities, churches, nonprofits, and even the government have all had to reorganize to a culture that has become more networked than ever before. Organizations that adapt are succeeding; those that don't are failing. The military has learned (far too slowly) that it can't stop forces like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter. It is now wrestling with hard questions about how to work with them. Openness, interconnectedness, and bottom-up empowerment are simply characteristics of the new world we live in.

This raises a question I don't know how to answer: has the definition of "military professionalism" actually changed? Does it need to change?

Quiet Around Here

It's been quiet around here lately. I've had time on my hands, but I've been investing it in projects other than this blog. First, learning Arabic well demands hours of study each day. I had hoped I would learn quickly and naturally while in Jordan, but I'm finding it actually takes more deliberate effort than when I was at DLI. Second, I have never been satisfied with the flashcard software DLI uses, so I've been writing my own vocabulary management program that I think is far superior (see my previous geek project here). I'm designing it to benefit my fellow language students and make the language learning process easier, particularly for Arabic. I also want to showcase to the Department of Defense the value of grassroots, open-source development: that talented and creative individuals can sometimes match the capabilities of multimillion dollar government contractors, if the DOD can only find a way to harness them. I've been hard at work programming in my spare time and am hoping to release a working beta in the next couple months. Lastly, I'm a few chapters away from the finishing the novel I've been writing since the dawn of my time. My wife insists it's time I finally finish it. If it turns out to be any good, maybe I'll have some career options when the day comes that we all beat our swords into plowshares.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Losing the World One Student at a Time

HOW TO WIN A FRIEND

Zarqa is one of the largest and poorest cities in Jordan. Located about 12 miles northeast of Amman, the predominantly Palestinian city tops the US embassy's list of places for Americans to avoid and is most famous in the West as the home of the notorious terrorist leader Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. This New York Times article about Jordan's Islamist politicians paints the city in an unflattering light: "Shoddily built neighborhoods here blur into Palestinian refugee camps, with narrow, poorly maintained streets. The smell of backed-up sewage clouds the city because the government will not improve the inadequate drainage system." Poverty, lack of social services, and hostility to American foreign policy have led to strong support for Islamist militants and political parties. The NYT article states, "This crammed slum of four-story concrete housing blocs has given Jordan some of its biggest headaches..."

Zarqa is also the hometown of my best friend in Jordan, and it's a fascinating place to explore the ways that the US can or should influence perception in strongly anti-American places of the world.

My friend's father is among the most important and well-respected leaders in Zarqa. He has enormous wasta--the currency of respect and influence in Jordan. He is active in business and politics, and in a culture where interpersonal relationships mean everything, he is the kind of guy neighbors and colleagues go to when they are in trouble and need help. He's exactly the kind of guy, in other words, that the US would love to have on its side. Until a few years ago, he and his entire family were vehemently anti-American. Then something happened: their son, my friend, met an American student at the University of Jordan, where they both studied. They struck up a friendship, then their families became friends. Over months of sharing dinners, exchanging cultures, and discussing politics and ideas, the family totally reconsidered the way they view Americans. Although they loathe many American policies, they have tremendous respect for Americans now and see the possibilities for Americans and Jordanians working together in the future.

It gets better. The American student helped my friend apply for a work visa to the US. He visited the United States twice, both times for summer work programs. He fell in love with the country and the people. He had wonderful experiences, was treated as an honored guest by most people he met, and returned to Jordan both times with his English significantly improved. His Facebook page is a testament to his American experience, packed with photos of places he visited and friends he made. He is the most pro-American Palestinian I've ever met, is devoted to peace, and hopes to get a job in the Foreign Ministry someday so he can help work towards that peace. I don't know how you measure such intangibles, but I suspect my friend's experience--and the ripple effect among his family--has done more for perception of Americans in Zarqa than all the money the US government pumps into broadcasting "its message" across the airwaves here.

This is how America wins friends. Now, here's how it loses them.

HOW TO LOSE A FRIEND

Ever since he returned from his last US visit, my friend has talked about going back. He wants to work for a summer and look at universities, because he's interested in earning a doctorate in the States. He has friends he wants to visit again, and a diverse list of places he wants to go so he can return to Jordan as an "expert" on America. He applied for his third visa in early April. The consular officer told him everything looked good and that he could expect the visa soon. My friend--an optimist to a fault--borrowed money to pay for a $1400 non-refundable plane ticket, an amount that he could easily pay back after working in the US but that is a small fortune in the economy here.

A few weeks ago, he got an inexplicable note from the US embassy which read something to the effect of "Your visa requires additional processing. Don't call us, we'll call you." As the departure date approached and my friend began to sweat, I did some research. I learned that something had flagged his visa application and triggered a security investigation. When I asked where the paperwork was--hoping I could expedite it along--a shadow fell over the consular officer's face when she checked her computer. "DHS has it," she said in a tone of voice loaded with dread and disdain. Here's the fallout in a nutshell: my friend's visa paperwork is being held by Homeland Security for an investigation that could take 6 months or more. Nobody has any idea why, and we can't find out. There is nobody to call, nobody to check for updates with. My friend cannot get a refund on his plane ticket, and he also sank hundreds of dollars in application fees for his visa and his work-abroad program. Because he will not be working in the US, repaying the debt will be an enormous burden on him and his family. Orwellian bureaucracy has swallowed my friend's dreams whole.

THE VISA PROBLEM

I don't know a thing about the visa process, and I understand how difficult it must be to balance homeland security with some level of openness to foreigners. There comes a point, though, when our efforts to board up the gates become counterproductive and actually undermine our long-term national security. Openness builds relationships, interdependence, and trust; isolation breeds misunderstanding and fear. Everywhere I've traveled, the difficulty of obtaining a visa to America--especially since September 11th--is a common theme. I've been in Jordan less than two months and I've already met a half-dozen people who dream of visiting the US but told me they have no hope of obtaining a visa. Those who try quickly get burned out. Visa applications are expensive: the processing fee listed on the State Department's website is $131. My wife has a friend in Kazakhstan who dreamed of studying in America and traveled 40 hours by train to the capitol for an interview with the consular office. Her visa was denied. After investing so much time and treasure in a process that is at turns bewildering, frustrating, and frightening, students aren't likely to repeat the process.

John P. Naden and Peter W. Singer addressed this issue in a 2003 Foreign Affairs article titled America Slams the Door (On Its Foot): Washington's Destructive New Visa Policies. At the time hard numbers about visa rejections were not available, but the authors wrote, "Surveys of college administrators support the widespread belief that the number of students being denied permission to enter the country has radically increased over the last two years." The problem is not just rejections, but plan-altering delays--like my friend encountered. The difficulty of obtaining a visa to the US is driving more and more students to look to Europe or Australia as alternatives, and is causing serious consequences with US universities.

The damaging effects of the new system have already begun to be felt across the U.S. educational system and beyond. According to the Association of American Universities, the unintended consequences of the new visa screening requirements have included a massive decrease in the number of foreign students from Muslim states, scores of foreign faculty being unavailable to teach courses, scientific research projects becoming delayed or derailed, and businesses moving trade elsewhere. Meanwhile, the selective registration program for Muslim males inside the United States has had little success in finding actual terrorists, even while causing great distress and offense to Muslim visitors.


Naden and Singer believe the difficulty of obtaining visas is a serious national security issue. They write, "The new measures have had such damaging implications for the conduct of foreign affairs that they should no longer be viewed in isolation." That was in 2003. Have things improved since then? I don't have hard numbers or any inside perspective, but the people in Jordan would tell you no. You can ask my friend.

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