Thursday, March 26, 2015

With AQAP at home in an increasingly unstable Yemen, U.S. is likely to feel pressure to act

 There are probably very few people in America today who are eager to see the US military become more involved in Yemen; The perception among the general public is likely that this is yet another conflict in the Middle East where US interests are not entirely clear. Between  a rocky path to disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan, to the carnage of the Syrian civil war to the chaotic aftermath of the operation to oust Qaddafi in Libya to the rise of  of ISIS, there are many reasons to be wary of yet another foreign campaign - after all, these are just a few of the most prominent regional issues filling headlines around the world.

And now comes Yemen.

While the sense of fatigue with military involvement in the region is understandable,  I would suggest that the situation in Yemen is neither entirely new, nor divorced from important US strategic interests. Yemen has long been a difficult nation to govern and in recent years has become home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (commonly referred to as AQAP). Using Yemen as their base of operations AQAP has made at least two serious attempts to attack the United States directly:  once through the use of a suicide bomber (which was foiled by reportedly excellent cooperation between the intelligence agencies of the United States and Saudi Arabia and another time by concealing explosives in computer printer toner cartridges, with the intention of 
blowing up cargo aircraft over US soil.

Effectively combating extremism and terrorism requires a multifaceted approach and  in their analysis, some experts emphasize the role of   law enforcement and intelligence agencies as the most important element in this effort, while others would prefer to rely more heavily on the military, and still others believe that until root causes of social inequality and injustice are addressed we will never make meaningful headway. The reality is that countering violent extremism requires cooperation between actors and agencies at all levels (and in all areas) of society, but there is also a vital need to maintain as much direct pressure on the leadership of these groups as possible, and to deny them access to safe havens. As one radio commentator I heard on NPR put it, it's much easier for terrorist groups to plan and operate when they're not worried about local security forces or the military disrupting their plans or directly attacking them.

For this reason I think leaders in the American national security establishment will soon feel pressed to become more involved in Yemen, since theidea that a group which has a clear goal of attacking the U.S. can carry on its business with a sense of relative impunity is ultimately intolerable. The various conflicts I mentioned at the top of this piece still deserve our attention and are likely to evolve in unpredictable ways, but I wouldn't be surprised if continued instability and violence and Yemen begins to play a more prominent role in  overall US strategy in the region, especially as America and its allies look to blunt the ideological influence and operational capacity of AQAP.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Public radio and the public square intersect at WGBH in Boston

On the evening of Thursday, March 19 podcast experts, enthusiasts and producers gathered at the WGBH studios in Boston to discuss the rise and influence of this form of media. Image copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Of my many childhood memories, one that really stands out and has had a major influence on the person I am today is listening to National Public Radio in the car with my parents. I can recall vividly many chilly New England mornings when my father or mother would drive us somewhere and Car Talk or some other show would fill the air inside the car. It's a habit I picked up myself once I got my license and it continues to this day, although I suppose my listening habits have changed over time. Along the way I've added many new shows to my list of favorites, including The Moth Radio Hour, Fresh Air, On the Media and Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me! For anyone with a range of interests and eclectic tastes, NPR is one-stop shopping for humor and intellectual stimulation.

During my own sojourn through the thrilling (if somewhat financially perilous) world of freelance journalism many years ago I even did a short internship at WBUR in Boston for Here and Now, standing out on the street and recording brief comments from passersby to air at the start of the show. I strongly believe that virtually all of the shows on public radio play a vital and unique role in the health and well-being of civil society at every level, from the hyper-local discussions around this winter's MBTA troubles on WGBH's Boston Public Radio and WBUR's Radio Boston, to issues of national importance on the Diane Rehm Show and All Things Considered.

All forms of journalism are important for civil society, but at a time when newspaper readership is declining and the news that people consume is increasingly customized, homogenized and sanitized via narrowly selected social media channels, radio bucks that trend, something I was reminded of this last night when I attended an event called Boston Talks at the WGBH studios in Boston. The theme for the evening was "The Rise of the Podcast" and featured a number of engaging speakers from the world of podcasting.

There were a few things that drew me to this program, including the fact that I've been thinking about adding a podcast component to this blog. Also, two of the main speakers were the guys from the Fish Nerds podcast, brave souls who have caught and eaten every type of freshwater fish in the Granite State. I'd heard a piece they did on WGBH, and being an avid fisherman myself was intrigued by their epic (if at times slightly nauseating) quest to consume the range of finned denizens inhabiting New Hampshire lakes and rivers, from the undoubtedly tasty salmon to the culinarilly questionable Slimy Sculpin.

These were the two things that peaked my interest in the program, but it was the program itself and the other attendees that kept me there once I arrived - consciously or not, I think the organizers created a format which in some ways mirrored the pace and tone of a well-produced radio show. To wit, in between speakers there were breaks to mingle and meet fellow radio enthusiasts, producers and podcasters creating a fun, congenial atmosphere. This format also allowed for conversations to take place which a more frontal, one-way presentation, would not have allowed - for example I got to meet one of the Fish Nerds and trade recipes for pickled Pickerel, put a face to the voice of Edward B. Herwick III, talk New Hampshire politics with Peter Kadzis and learn a little about the evolution of the highly popular podcast Serial from producer Kerri Hoffman.

As I drove home from the event I kept thinking about some of the things I learned from Sree Srinivasan during a social media seminar at the Harvard Kennedy School last month, not only about the keys to effective tweeting and online engagement, but about the importance of using social media to connect to people and ideas in the real world. It's something I've given a lot of thought to recently and tried to integrate into my own work - both in my day job in the nonprofit sector and with this blog. For me, the Boston Talks event brought together the best elements of all of these things:  I made a couple of new contacts, got a better idea of what goes into a good podcast and stood in a space where radio, social media and "real life" interaction came together in a fun and interesting way.

Such forums are important for civil society because they encourage dialogue and interaction in creative ways, forcing individuals out of their personal media silos and into a kind of "town square" where they can encounter different opinions and perspectives. As someone who has planned (and attended) too many events of every shape and size to count, I think the organizers of Boston Talks have hit on a great formula for which they deserve praise, and I'm looking forward to attending future programs at WGBH.

Oh, and the whoopee pies were pretty good too.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

EdX course has me thinking about Snowden, Wikileaks and online education

One of my side projects this winter has been to try out an interesting course offered through EdX, a join initiative of Harvard University and MIT, which in many ways represents a significant step forward in online and distance learning. Over the next few weeks I'll be posting occasional pieces based on the work I've been doing for this class and reflecting on the overall experience of using this relatively new educational platform. The particular course I'm enrolled in, "Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy and the Press," is offered through the Belfer Center For Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government being taught by Professors Graham Allison Derek S. Reveron and David Sanger, along with a dedicated group of teaching assistants who review the assignments and lead weekly discussion groups via google hangout  for the limited enrollment version of the course that I am taking.

When the course comes to a close I plan to post some final thoughts on the role of projects like EdX in higher education and civil society more generally, but for today I'd like to offer a few observations on the latest topic that we've been asked to tackle in this class, which is the role that leaks have played in foreign policy discourse, from Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers to Edward Snowden and Wikileaks. One thing I've been thinking about a lot is the fact that everything that Daniel Ellsberg leaked in the Pentagon Papers case was essentially historical - granted it was recent history at the time, but nonetheless the documents he brought to public attention did not, from what I can tell, compromise any on-going military or intelligence operations. By the time this information came to light it probably surprised no one that the American effort in Vietnam had essentially failed, having dragged down the Johnson presidency and taken the lives of tens of thousands of American soldiers and by some estimates close to half a million Vietnamese civilians. A strong argument could be made that by sharing the details of the war, as the US government saw them, with the American people, Ellsberg played a role in the long process of national healing which continues to this day in some ways.

In contrast, it's harder to tell what the motivation is behind the dissemination of information shared by Wikileaks, which seems, at first glance, to be less about transparency or adding to the historical record, and more about embarrassing governments and the people who lead them. Substantively, from what I have read, there aren't too many things that have come out which are all that surprising - anyone who pays close attention to the Middle East, for example, is not going to be shocked that Sunni Arab powers in the region are not thrilled with the idea of an Iranian nuclear weapon and would like the US to do something to prevent it.

The case of Edward Snowden is more complicated than Wikileaks, and perhaps falls somewhere in between the Pentagon Papers and Wikileaks, both in terms of the value to civil society as well as the threat his actions likely pose to national security. On the one hand, Snowden exposed serious overreaching by US intelligence agencies which appears to have led to data collection on a massive, unprecedented scale on the activities of American citizens. Whether or not such actions were technically legal, they seem to fall into an ethical and perhaps constitutional, gray area and Snowden's decision to bring these transgressions into the public eye are not without merit. On the other hand, his exposure of other programs which are likely very important in protecting vital US interests, along with his decision to flee the United States, passing through other countries where the data he is carrying has almost certainly been copied by foreign intelligence services, is deeply troubling. 

With Ellsberg we have the advantage of hindsight and some 40 odd years of history to back up the justification for his actions, but with Wikileaks and Edward Snowden that history is still being written. Forty years from now we will likely still be discussing the role of leaks in public policy, civil society and government - whether Wikileaks or Snowden are seen as positive or negative influences remains to be seen.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.