Last week I deleted an earlier post that I feared might cross a line into unprofessionalism. This decision was partly prompted by comments from two FAO friends. I spoke with them again later, and while they agreed the post was "ballsy", they believed it was professional and urged me to repost it. Also, the issue at hand--severe travel restrictions rooted in force protection concerns--continues to surface. A couple days after I deleted the post, I was forced to cancel a planned Syria trip because the US government denied me permission to enter the country. On the other hand, senior leaders continue telling me how important cultural immersion is. Today I heard that exact line from an American general officer who plays an important role in Israeli-Palestinian issues. I agree with him, of course, but the rules I'm under make that almost impossible. Some days I feel like the only way I will ever be able to get a comprehensive regional education is to get out of the military. In any case, I feel so strongly about the issue that, with the encouragement of my FAO friends, I decided to repost. Here goes.
A lot of people have been talking about Admiral Mullen's recent article Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics
. Mullen essentially argues that what we do is more important than what we say; the essence of good communication is "having the right intent up front and letting our actions speak for themselves." Later he writes, "I would argue that most strategic communication problems are not communication problems at all. They are policy and execution problems. Each time we fail to live up to our values or don't follow up on a promise, we look more and more like the arrogant Americans the enemy claims we are."
Meaningful strategic communication is a dialog that runs both ways and must be rooted in human relationships. "We've come to believe that messages are something we can launch downrange like a rocket, something we can fire for effect. They are not. Good communication runs both ways. It's not about telling our story. We must also be better listeners... We can not capture hearts and minds. We must engage them; we must listen to them." This means we must know the culture, needs and hopes of other people. We must engage them one heart and one mind at a time. Mullen approvingly points to Greg Mortensen, author of Three Cups of Tea
, as someone who understands and is living out this kind of strategic communication. Mortensen--a rock climber who has built dozens of schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan--has become an unlikely hero within the DOD; I see his name crop up every month or two in military journals or on blogs. If I read Admiral Mullen right, he would love to see more Greg Mortensens in the world and even in the military; men and women who take the time to build cross-cultural relationships, enter into authentic conversation, and engage in the kind of actions that win hearts and minds.
I agree with pretty much everything Admiral Mullen wrote, and am happy to see the essay getting so much attention. However, because of its obsessive focus on force protection and its severe restrictions on employee travel, the US government is actively preventing the emergence of new Greg Mortensens. If Greg Mortensen was a promising, bright-eyed Foreign Service Officer or military officer, he would never have been allowed to set foot in Pakistan.
Let's take a purely hypothetical example. Let's say that you're an Air Force C-17 pilot who spends four years flying missions in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq and studying International Relations. You feel sick in your soul watching the United States make enormous strategic blunders, largely because of the failure of senior policymakers to understand the cultural context of these two countries. Because you care deeply about using your life to build peace, you try to become part of the solution. You compete three years in a row to get a prestigious scholarship that will allow you learn Arabic and spend two years of cultural immersion in Jordan. Your goals are to master the language, earn a Master's Degree at a local university, and get to know the region as intimately as possible. People like Greg Mortensen are your heroes. You hope to live among the people and build relationships in every community you can. So far, so good. A lot of senior officers pat you on the back and tell you how important this kind of immersion is for the US military.
When you arrive in Amman, you find that things aren't quite what you expected. Because you're a military officer, you must abide by strict security measures designed to separate you from the local population. You're handed the keys to a palatial apartment in an area the locals compare to Beverly Hills. Most of your neighbors are American or European diplomats or rich Arabs from the gulf who vacation at their Amman villas during the summer. When you make friends, some of them are embarrassed to visit you because in this culture there is an expectation that they will reciprocate the invitation--and they're embarrassed by their poverty compared to your extravagant wealth. If you want to move to a different region, you need permission from the US Ambassador. You study Arabic at a school where most of the students work for humanitarian NGOs. They're all cash-strapped relief and development workers, and they all live in the poor areas--you know, among the local people. When you tell them where you live, they blink in disbelief. After that they're always a little wary, because they think you must have some dark secret government identity. One of your teachers is absolutely convinced you’re a spy for the CIA.
You attend a security brief, where you're told to avoid East Amman (which constitutes the majority of the city) and Zarqa--Jordan's second biggest city, with a largely Palestinian population that detests American foreign policy but is desperately in need of the kind of engagement Admiral Mullen writes about. Nevertheless, you have some friends in East Amman and Zarqa and visit them as often as possible. You learn very little by hanging out with the English-speaking Jordanians at the local Starbucks, but you learn a tremendous amount from the sheik in East Amman who tries to convince you that a new Islamic Caliphate would be good for the West. In Zarqa you make friends with a local politician who talks at length about how USAID projects mostly pass Zarqa over (you haven't confirmed this). He tells you how much it would do for attitudes towards the US in Zarqa if the US government would invest in projects like health care clinics. He wants your help inviting the US ambassador to his home for a Ramadan feast. He promises to bring ten or fifteen community leaders from Zarqa who are willing to cooperate with the US on these kinds of projects. The idea sounds crazy at first, but then you remember Greg Mortensen, and how crazy that guy
is. Maybe you need to be a little crazy to get anything done in this kind of work. You know the Ambassador will never go, but maybe someone from USAID will. You talk to a fellow officer who also knows this Zarqa leader, and it turns out your friend approached USAID with a similar offer a year or two ago. Nobody was interested. Still, you intend to try again.
In the meantime, you decide to travel. You've always loved to travel, so you do what you've always done: you buy a Lonely Planet guide and figure out where you're going. Israel and the West Bank? Piece of cake. You just need a tourist passport and you can get a visa at the border. But wait! Because you're in the military, you have to abide by this document called the Foreign Clearance Guide which has pages of restrictions for each country. To visit Israel you need a country clearance from the US Embassy in Israel and CENTCOM Theater Clearance. The West Bank? Off limits to every single person who wears a US military uniform. Period. That throws a wrench in your research plans, since you want to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while you're here. You have a dozen Jordanian friends who have invited you to visit their families throughout the West Bank, but that is apparently out the window. It's technically possible to visit if you can obtain permission from the US embassy and from a general officer, but word on the street is that this is unlikely to happen--and even if you get permission, you're supposed to travel in an armored car with an Embassy driver. That's not quite the immersion experience you were looking for. You settle for visiting Jerusalem, and spend a weekend with your friend who works for an NGO there. He gives you the same dumbfounded look all your civilian friends in the region give you when you explain the rules. He comes and goes from the West Bank on a regular basis, and it's such a non-event that the military's rules are almost comical. You take what you can get; your friend drives you to a hilltop where he points out various towns and settlements in the West Bank. You're not sure that's what Admiral Mullen means when he talks about winning hearts and minds one at a time, and you're not sure what Greg Mortensen would think. In fact, you think this kind of distant hilltop education might have something to do with why our initial strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq failed.
Across the region, it's the same thing. You plan a week-long trip to Syria. According to Lonely Planet Syria, there's a great daytrip you can take into the Golan Heights. You just need a ticket from a UN office. What if you're in the US military? You need permission from Headquarters Air Force, the office of the Secretary of Defense, and from the State Department--on top of the usual Embassy and theater clearances just to get into the country. (UPDATE: the Golan Heights turns out not to be an issue, because a week before your trip, the US Embassy in Syria denies permission for you to visit the country at all).
What about Lebanon? You know, that country where Abu Muqawama learned Arabic and did graduate research on Hizballah prior to being hired at the Center for New American Security? Off limits. Actually, you're told it might be possible to visit, but only if you never leave the American embassy compound. You think that also might have something to do with why our Iraq strategy failed.
Okay, enough. I could keep going, but you get the point.
I don't want to sound ungrateful. I have a fantastic opportunity with my scholarship, and I'm still learning an extraordinary amount about the language and culture of the region. I also understand that US government agencies--particularly the embassies--have a responsibility to protect their people, and that there are actors here who do intend serious harm to American government employees. All these rules and restrictions are in place for a reason. I get that. I also have tremendous respect for the individual officers who work at our embassies. My colleagues here are fantastic, devoted officers; I'm stunned by the breadth of projects they manage and the stakes for our policy in the region.
With that said, I believe the overall system reflects the same obsessive risk aversion that crippled us early on in Afghanistan and Iraq. Building cross-cultural relationships requires vulnerability, especially if we want to win the hearts and minds of people who don't necessarily like the United States. An obsessive focus on risk aversion makes it impossible to meaningfully engage with another culture. We will never combat anti-Americanism in places like East Amman or Zarqa if we simply tell our people not to visit them. We certainly can't train competent regional experts if we mark entire countries off limits. By blocking access to countries that are remotely dangerous, we are hurting our competency and expertise in the regions that need it most. The first and only time American most soldiers set foot in these countries is when they're participating in operational missions.
What practical recommendations do I have? At the very least, the military should create a more lenient set of rules for officers serving in immersion programs such as Olmsted scholars, Foreign Area Officers, and PME exchange officers. Given that these officers are training to become regional experts, they deserve the amount of freedom that a nineteen year-old American backpacker has. It makes sense for embassies to maintain visibility on which military personnel are visiting their country, but I would like to see immersed officers be their own decision authority on where they travel, especially when on leave. I'd even like to go farther, and relax leave travel restrictions for every military officer. If Americans are free to visit Lebanon or Jordan and a 2nd Lieutenant or NCO wants to plan a trip, let him. Risk could be mitigated with mandatory training or security briefs rather than blanket travel bans. Chances are, the kinds of officers who voluntarily visit Lebanon or Jordan aren't going to be troublemakers looking for a good time; I'll bet nine times out of ten they will be thoughtful officers looking for broader international experience.
We also need to understand why the current system encourages risk aversion. When US embassy officials are held personally responsible for the safety of US government employees who visit their country, they bear all the risks and none of the rewards. The risks are all too obvious. If an officer gets kidnapped or killed in the West Bank or Lebanon, it could destroy careers. The gains of a relaxed travel policy--a more educated and cross-cultural officer force--are spread broadly and will not benefit the immediate decision-makers at all. On the flip side, the damage done by an overly restrictive travel policy--such as hurting our ability to engage with cultures that need it most--is also widely spread and does not directly affect decisionmakers. This dynamic is especially harmful when it takes ten people to say "yes" and only one person to say "no." I see this as analogous to the situation of the US Army early on in Iraq; strategic success required putting troops in harm's way (among the population), but evaluation systems rewarded commanders for simply keeping their troops alive. Fighting this kind of bureaucratic trap requires a clear understanding of the problem and strong leadership from the top. The culture must change so that decisionmakers understand the big picture, and so that decisions serving strategic success are properly rewarded--even if they entail risk.
Do we want to implement Admiral Mullen's vision of officers who live out strategic communication through cross-cultural conversations? Do we want more Greg Mortensens in the world, particularly in the government? Then we need to find a better balance of security and freedom, which gives internationally-minded officers the breathing space necessary to make relationships--especially in the troubled regions that need them most.