Thursday, June 11, 2009

CNAS, Petraeus and my first encounter with Under Secretary for PD McHale

Today my colleagues invited me to the Center for a New American Security’s third annual conference, “Striking a Balance: A New American Security”. The conference was at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, which- as I learned- was where "Lobbyists" got their name by lingering in the lobby of the Willard Hotel during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. The conference offered recommendations on how to strike a balance between immediate and long-term national security challenges facing the United States, including topics such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The agenda consisted many interesting speakers, including General Petraeus, whose remarks can be read here. The panel entitled "Triage: The Next 12 Months in Afghanistan and Pakistan" was very insightful. It talked of the need for a population centric approach to our actions there needed to be instated. Also, according to the recommendations presented at the panel, it must be remembered that Afghanistan is not Iraq. The report also stressed the importance of measuring progress not in terms of enemies killed but rather in #s of civilians shielded. One of the panelists, Andrew J. Bacevich, a Professor of International Relations and History at Boston University, said a minimalist approach should be taken in Afghanistan. He proposed that the US should build schools, build security measures, and fight corruption and crime in Mexico but added that anyone who suggest this is laughed at, while anyone who suggests such in Afghanistan is held as a savior. He concluded that as long as the US maintains moderate defenses, Al Qeada "in their caves, only pose a moderate threat." This was obviously a heretical statement, but the audience audience of Generals, military, research analysts, and scholars applauded his ideas. Another speaker, a General in the Army, stated that Afghans are more frustrated with US incompetence than their presence in their country.

An interesting anecdote;
A TV producer bought the rights to broadcast the American TV show "24" in Afghanistan. An army solider explained that in the show all the villains were Muslim. The Muslim producer said that he polled Afghans and apparently no one cared as long as they weren't Afghans.

The highlight of the conference for me was the keynote speaker, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale. She talked of how governments normally inclined to support US policies back away if their publics don't trust the US. She stressed how public diplomacy can help in these situations. She also talked about how PD cannot be seen as only wearing combat boots. There also needs to be a civilian force. She noted that sufficient financial resources are not available from the State Department and stressed her full commitment to reaching out to other departments for resources. She spoke of how enhanced PD is a key part of Presidential strategy in the Middle East, including providing a platform for moderate Muslims in the region. Her full transcript can be found here.

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