New Doctrines

With much discussion about social media, analysis from experienced commentators might be helpful. Dr. Henry Kissinger’s recent OpEd in the Wash. Post offers an interesting perspective. Here’s the URL:

Kissinger focuses on recent discussions of events loosely attributed to “Arab Spring” and analysis of the impact of social media in the context of the various country-related environments. His perspective, garnered from years of experience in the Middle East should give us pause to re-evaluate our recent discussions.

One of my personal interests is to try to connect the impact of social comment, through social media on the immediacy of events: what are the immediate vs. the long-term implications or consequences. I have often tried to consider the legitimacy of the state and the “collective” views of social commentators no matter the venue — i.e., electronic, print, etc. Notwithstanding, the size and enormity of the events, how many opinions add up to a grant of legitimacy or illegitimacy? When do thousands of protesters have a “right” or “duty” to engage in regime change by force of words or arms?

In the mix, is the notion of time and impact. As some of us can remember, Vietnam was the first conflict that had a major public effect brought about by visual/news media. Despite, our impact assessment, it was not as immediate as the current social media conveys. Moreover, we must consider whether the underlying process is “democratic” or something else.

Kissinger observes: “The confluence of many disparate grievances avowing general slogans is not yet a democratic outcome.”

The nature of the delivery begs the question of well considered outcomes and well intentioned participants. This is certainly the case in Syria. Kissinger’s reaction is interesting:

“We must take care lest, in an era of shortened attention spans, revolutions turn, for the outside world, into a transitory Internet experience — watched intently for a few key moments, then tuned out once the main event is deemed over. The revolution will have to be judged by its destination, not its origin; its outcome, not its proclamations.”

Each of you has your own perspective on whether we have a duty in the arena of domestic — i.e., “occupy” — or world events — i.e., “occupy” elsewhere. We also should consider whether the intentions of the prime actors are genuine or not. Even before Vietnam we had  supported the “wrong” element(s). Indeed, we had been influenced by own own opinions rather than the facts — assuming that the “facts” are knowable. Underlying these very public debates in the social media is the notion of outcomes which are usually unpredictable.

Kissinger observes, “The pattern now emerging, if it fails to establish an appropriate relationship to its proclaimed goals, risks being inherently unstable from inception, which could submerge the values it proclaimed.”

Although Kissinger is focusing on the current Middle Eastern environment, the advice is certainly insightful and useful for any similar situation/conflict.

The underlying principle of “democracy” is a familiar thread that runs through all of these discussions, including Kissinger’s observations.

“Within the framework of these general limits, U.S. policy has significant scope for creativity in promoting humanitarian and democratic values.”

Yet some readers may wince at his next comment, that, “The United States should be prepared to deal with democratically elected Islamist governments, ” given the uncertain implications or outcomes since the US is hardly in a “power” position in the region.

Underlying his observation is a theme of uncertain outcomes and the various motivations surrounding events. In our class, we have examined other, unrelated events — i.e., “occupy” — that attempt to leverage public opinion using the same social media channels that have also been employed during Arab Spring. What Kissinger does not directly examine is our ability to know whether these efforts are “genuine” and/or democratically motivated — i.e., arising out of general consensus — i.e., democratically derived. As you know, I have been involved in several areas where the parties have attempted to “artificially” manipulate the media and artificially create an alternate reality or illusion.

In another current class at Harvard, “Arab Spring”, we have heard many comments from the press and social movement leaders that there is some presumption or worry about insider subversion of the message by Islamic fundamentalist quarters. This has a similar ring to past events when the US was engaged in Haiti (1915). Recalled by Niall Ferguson in his book “Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire” is the conversation between the US Commander of Expeditionary (Invasion) forces and the then British Ambassador (UK):

UK: What if Haitians don’t want Democracy?
US: We’ll just have to kill a few until they accept democracy!

In my last meeting with Khaled Shewaish (KS), then Ambassador from Iraq on the eve of “Desert Storm”, we had a similar exchange:

dp: “Khaled, you’ll need to be prepared in case the US cuts electricity to the embassy here, as Saddam did in Kuwait.”

KS: (angrily, shouting, and pounding his desk) — “There is no Kuwait!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

dp: Khaled, Computers don’t work without electricity. By the way, I think that the press has shown us all that there are about 300,000 men in green uniforms with bombs and guns on Iraq’s southern border that have a different opinion. You need to be prepared!”

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About dpales

MIT Graduate Fellow. Research interest in cognitive studies, focused on mapping group and linguistic relationships in a causal environment -- i.e., does lingustic expression (i.e., language processing) permit a causal inference in real time.

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