Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Facebookification Of Public Diplomacy In Pakistan

The WaPo has a story today about the eclipse of the old human-contact institution of U.S. Information Service Libraries in Pakistan by the new socially-networked world of public diplomacy. It's odd, but I can't decide whether the author regrets the passing of the Libraries, or is being snarky about them. Anyway, at least she is clear that they were closed for security reasons.

Amid threats, U.S. woos Pakistan from behind walls:

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — In a city where kind words about anything American are hard to come by, one notable exception is a sand-colored, palm-fringed building formerly known as the American Center.

For two decades, Pakistanis still fondly reminisce, international newspapers were stacked high there, poetry and art were showcased and friendly American diplomats fostered a come-one-and-all vibe. But in 2005, amid rising anti-Americanism and Islamist militancy, the U.S. Embassy-run center in Islamabad became the last in a nationwide network to shut and the diplomats retreated to walled compounds.

The building, which now houses private media outfits, has since become a symbol of the gaping gulf between the United States and Pakistan — and a prime example, critics say, of how security measures at U.S. foreign missions since Sept. 11, 2001, have alienated American diplomats from the populations they most need to court.

Yet U.S. officials say the closures also ushered in a less tactile but more aggressive — and expensive — era in what they call “public diplomacy,” one facilitated by growth in electronic media and a surge in young Pakistanis using it. Largely from behind barbed wire, embassy staffers now wield a multimillion-dollar budget to stimulate debates on Facebook, fund English courses and provide research services to Pakistani students and officials. Most prominently, they are pumping money into programs that send Pakistanis to the United States, in hopes they will return as unofficial American ambassadors.

-- snip --

Pakistan’s freewheeling media regularly spew what one U.S. diplomat called “terrible toxicity” about the United States. Though the U.S. Embassy staff has multiplied in recent years, diplomats rarely roam beyond major cities, or even much within them.

-- snip --

Some U.S. officials echo the concern. “A secure, open-access facility where people can meet and engage is still important,” one official said, adding that the closure of the American centers “hurt human interactions” between Americans and Pakistanis.

Last year, the embassy considered reopening the centers. But U.S. officials said they decided that the security situation in Pakistan, where a muscular Islamist insurgency has struck U.S. targets, meant that any potential structure would be more forbidding — and dangerous — than welcoming.

These days, the U.S. Consulate in Lahore features fuzzy photos of erstwhile American centers on its Facebook page [TSB note: see those fuzzy photos - and memories - on Lahore's Old is Gold contest page]. And U.S. diplomats argue that that page — along with other embassy Facebook pages, which together have 82,000 “fans” and play host to online debates — is one example of how technology fosters a broader American reach than a brick-and-mortar structure could. Through video conferencing, they say, visiting U.S. experts’ lectures have also been beamed to dozens of Pakistani universities.

-- snip --

Sania Zahra, an international relations student researching Saudi Arabia and Iran, said she admired Americans’ democratic values, as well as the organizational skills that, she said, make the Lincoln Corner a tidy refuge. But she said she felt part of a minority.

“The people of Pakistan say the Americans are fighting, they are doing drone attacks,” said Zahra, 25. “And where they are living, they are building high walls.

There are indeed high walls at all of our diplomatic facilities in Pakistan. As retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann said of Pakistan, "if you're going to have people live in a car bomb-prone place, you are driven to not have a light footprint."

The American Center in Islamabad had been the target of terrorism and political violence several times during those Golden Oldie years of person-to-person public diplomacy. Particularly severe attacks occurred in 1999, when anti-personnel rockets were fired at the building, and again in 1989 when as many as ten thousand demonstrators protesting the publication of the novel Satanic Verses turned violent, broke through the front doors, and set fire to the building while public diplomacy officers were inside. In the latter incident, Pakistani police opened fire to stop the attack, killing six demonstrators literally on the doorstep of the American Center. It was the worst anti-American violence in Pakistan since 1979, when both the chancery in Islamabad and the USIS Library in Lahore were burned by mobs.

1979, 1989, and 1999. What is up with that ten-year cycle?

In 2002, it was decided that the American Center should close for security reasons, first temporarily and then, by 2005, permanently. I contributed in a small way to that decision back then. Although I regretted the necessity, it was apparent to me that there was no feasible way to operate the building with a reasonable level of security for either the staff or the visitors.

The threat environment in Pakistan has only gotten worse since then, and I don't think anyone now sees any prospect of the American Center coming back to Islamabad. However, new types of public diplomacy outreach centers that allow more limited human interaction with the PD audience might very well take its place. I hope they will, even though I'm a troglodyte security guy, because I think that a vital element was lost when public diplomacy retreated into Facebook.

That's right - we're human, too. Hath not a security guy eyes, etc? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?


Anonymous said...

Great Post TSB!

Anonymous said...

TSB: Studying Whitie Bulger and LH Oswald. When Marina met LHO she thought he was Russian because his Russian was so good. Apparently State Dept. had a "defector program" then which could have trained him in Russian (I think his last station was Pt.Magu) Would there be any archives about this program? Thanks! gwb

TSB said...

I've never heard of a program for defectors. If that would be for U.S. citizens who wanted to defect to the USSR, I don't see why we would facilitate their plans. We wouldn't have wanted Oswald to defect (or pretend-defect) anyway, because his work as a Marine radar operator in Japan might have given him some slight indirect knowledge about U2 flights through his radar coverage area, and the U2 was an enormous secret in those days.

LHO went from the US to the USSR and then back, having renounced his citizenship at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and later gotten permission to return and bring his wife with him. So there might be some releasable record of his interactions with the embassy.

BTW, I don't think he spoke Russian at all well. At least, I recall from one of the many, many, books on the JFK assassination that when he called the Soviet Embassy in Mexico City the Russkie on the other end asked him to speak English because he couldn't understand Oswald's Russian.

Anonymous said...

Yes,him speaking great Russian would be a mind boggler. Good point! It looks like they almost took out the Kandahar governor on his way to the funeral. Sounds like no Americans invited. gwb