How to lose the propaganda war with ISIS

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The New York Times reports: The Obama administration on Friday announced an overhaul of its efforts to respond to online propaganda from the Islamic State after months of acknowledgments that it had largely failed in its attempts to counter extremist recruitment and exhortations to violence on social media.

The administration has emphasized that it needs the assistance of some of the nation’s biggest technology companies, and a group of top White House and national security officials flew to California on Friday to plead their case with executives.

“Given the way the technology works these days, there surely are ways that we can disrupt paths to radicalization, to identify recruitment patterns and to provide metrics that allow us to measure the success of our counter-radicalization efforts,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said before the meeting began in California.

A task force will be created in the Department of Homeland Security and the Justice Department to coordinate the government’s new effort. The State Department announced the creation of a center to respond to disinformation from extremist groups by highlighting their misdeeds and creating positive images of the West. [Continue reading…]

If one was to picture America as a complex filtration system with Washington DC at its core, the way this operates guarantees that by the time someone passes through the system’s many layers and reaches a position as an influential decision-maker, their psyche has been stripped of every last trace of imagination.

Picture the many meetings that must have taken place over recent months in which policymakers repeatedly said: in order to stop ISIS we need to improve the image of the West.

This proposition should have been met with howls of scorn and yet instead, multiple teams of straight-faced bureaucrats from multiple agencies nodded their heads in agreement.

At the same time, I greatly doubt anyone believes this kind of PR exercise will have any value whatsoever and yet the consensus of support derives from one fact: no one has come up with a better idea.

Better to do something worthless than to do nothing at all — so the thinking goes.

The term radicalization has been pathologized, thereby divorcing it from its psychological meaning. It’s viewed as a disease, with the implication that if the right steps are taken, the contagion can be controlled.

But to be radicalized is to rebel and anyone who has taken up such a position of defiance has, in the case of ISIS, already reached a conclusion about the West. Indeed, they have most likely reflected more deeply on the West than the majority of their generational counterparts who, being less likely to engage in cultural critiques of any kind, don’t have a particularly coherent view of the West — good or bad.

The problem here is not one if inadequate availability of positive images of the West.

Although it’s often said that this is an ideological struggle, ideology is I suspect of less significance than a core value: the willingness to die in the name of ones cause.

This isn’t a value that governments anywhere want to challenge because every state wants to be able to recruit citizens who are willing to die in defense of their country.

Most states don’t overtly recruit would-be martyrs and yet all states promote the idea that anyone who dies for their country has died in the name of a noble cause.

At the same time, this has become an increasingly ambiguous value as professionalized military forces promote their ability to minimize their own loses. They want their soldiers to remain willing to die and yet decreasingly fearful that they might face such a risk.

The religious zealot who is willing to die for what he believes in, will inevitably have a sense of superiority over the non-religious soldier who has submitted to the commands of the state rather than the command of God.

If Washington thinks it can steer ISIS recruits in a different direction, it’s because it sees this as a contest between the might of the United States and the wrong-headed ambitions of a cadre of hapless youth. But the contest inside the minds of these young people is between divine authority and human design. They inevitably side with God.

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Strike that killed Syrian rebel chief complicates peace talks push, says U.S.

Reuters reports: Russian air strikes like the one that killed a top Syrian rebel leader last week send the wrong message to groups engaged in a political dialogue to end the conflict and complicate efforts to begin negotiations, the U.S. State Department said on Monday.

Syrian rebel chief Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al Islam who commanded thousands of fighters in the Damascus suburbs, was killed on Friday in an air strike that rebel sources said was carried out by Russian warplanes.

Jaysh al Islam was a participant in the Riyadh conference where Syrian opposition groups agreed on common aims for proposed political negotiations to end the country’s civil war and chose a former Syrian prime minister to represent them in the dialogue.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the United States did not provide support to Alloush’s group and had concerns about its “behavior on the battlefield,” but noted that Jaysh al Islam had fought Islamic State rebels and was participating in the political dialogue to end Syria’s civil war. [Continue reading…]

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Out of touch: U.S. diplomacy shackled by security concerns

Peter Schwartzstein writes: The U.S. embassy in Cairo is a forbidding-looking fortress. Its imposing concrete blast walls are visible for miles, and cast an ugly shadow over a cluster of surrounding villas. Flanked on all sides by edgy soldiers in body armor and camouflage uniforms, the atmosphere can scarcely be called welcoming.

For diplomatic personnel posted across the Middle East, the security protocols are often no less daunting. Many are shuttled from their offices to their homes in armored vans with tinted windows. When the U.S. ambassador to Cairo’s car emerges onto one of the capital’s main drags, city police block lanes and back up traffic as they hustle to facilitate the convoy’s passage.

Given recent events, the U.S. instinct to wrap its foreign representatives in cotton wool is somewhat understandable. The mission in Cairo — considered relatively safe by regional standards — was attacked by a mob and the site of the stabbing of a U.S. citizen in the last four years alone. The list of assaults on State Department posts around the world runs long and lethal.

But to those who puzzle over Washington’s erratic foreign policy in these parts, this safety-centric tack has much to answer for. [Continue reading…]

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State Dept ‘pivotal foreign policy moments of 2015’: Bringing peace to Syria?

The Christmas Eve post on the U.S. State Department’s official blog, DipNote, includes this improbable accomplishment: “Bringing Peace, Security to Syria.”

Is this supposed to be an expression of the Christmas spirit — peace on Earth and all that?

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Obama’s dispassion and Kerry’s wishful thinking on Syria

Frederic C. Hof writes: President Obama recently told reporters in Manila that he cannot “foresee a situation in which we can end the civil war in Syria while Assad remains in power.” But according to the president, “it may take some months for the Russians and the Iranians and frankly some members of the Syrian government and ruling elites within the regime to recognize the truths that I just articulated.” Syrian President Bashar al- Assad himself told Italian state television that the diplomatic process supposedly launched in Vienna to transition away from him is nonsense. According to Syria’s barrel-bomber in chief, “nothing can start before defeating the terrorists who occupy parts of Syria.” “Terrorist,” according to Assad, is anyone opposing him.

So much of Washington’s Syria policy has rested on wishing and hoping that others would recognize objective truths and act accordingly. The list goes back to 2011: Assad should choose to be part of the solution rather than the problem; Assad should step aside for the good of Syria; Assad should not use chemical weapons on his own people lest he cross a bright red line; Assad should read the words of the 2012 Geneva Final Communique and prepare to pack; Moscow should realize its military intervention in Syria will alienate it from the Sunni Muslim world; Iran should grasp the chance to become a normal state and a force for regional stability; everyone should recognize the incompatibility of uniting Syrians against the Islamic State with a continuing political role for Assad.

No doubt Syrians, Russians and Iranians would be much better off, and the world a safer place, if the president’s “truths” were taken to heart by their political leaders. Alas, these truths are not regarded by his adversaries — and, yes, they are his adversaries — as true. And even if they are objectively true, they are not self-actualizing. Yet this administration sometimes sees the alpha and omega of foreign policy as delivering the lecture and hoping the students get it. [Continue reading…]

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U.S. State Dept: EU product labeling is not a boycott of Israel

The Jerusalem Post reports: The European Union’s guidelines on consumer labels for Israeli products produced over the pre-1967 lines is not tantamount to a boycott of Israel, Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman, told The Jerusalem Post.

“We do not believe that labeling the origin of products is equivalent to a boycott. And as you know, we do not consider settlements to be part of Israel. We do not view labeling the origin of products being from the settlements as a boycott of Israel,” Vasquez said.

The EU has also insisted that the measure is not a boycott of Israel and that their concern is the consumer’s right to know as well as compliance with EU legislation. [Continue reading…]

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White House hopes to de-escalate the conflict while Assad remains in power

Josh Rogin & Eli Lake write: “The White House somehow thinks we can de-escalate the conflict while keeping Assad in power,” one senior administration official told us.

That view, being pushed by top White House National Security staffers, including senior coordinator for the Middle East Rob Malley, is not new. But it has received fresh emphasis given Russian intervention.

If Assad is staying and there’s no political process in sight, this argument goes, the U.S. might as well focus on alleviating the suffering of the Syrian people and mitigate the growing refugee crisis.

Local ceasefires have been struck sporadically throughout the war, mostly in areas under siege by the Assad regime. The United Nations special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has been pushing this idea for over a year.

“The current policy of the United States and its partners, to increase pressure on Assad so that he ‘comes to the table’ and negotiates his own departure, must be rethought,” Malley’s predecessor at the National Security Council, Philip Gordon, wrote at Politico as Russia was amassing its forces in Syria.

The NSC view is opposed by top officials in other parts of the government, especially Secretary of State John Kerry and U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. They are trying to persuade Obama that the only way to solve Syria is to increase the pressure on Assad in the hopes he will enter negotiations.

Yet Kerry and Power now find themselves without any hope that Putin might bring the Syrian regime to the table. Kerry, though always skeptical of Russia, has been the point man on engaging the Russian government through several conversations with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. But it’s now clear the Russians were leading the Obama administration down the primrose path.

“In Syria, much as it did in Ukraine, Russia has hidden its true intentions, using the ruse of joining the fight against ISIL to provide cover for Russia’s military intervention to prop up the Assad regime,” Senate Armed Services Committee ranking Democrat Jack Reed said Thursday. “Russia’s actions, however, increasingly expose their true objectives.”

The de-escalation and delay-Assad’s-departure approach pushed by Malley and Gordon “has always been on the table. It is fully operative now,” former State Department official Frederic Hof wrote in response to Gordon’s Politico article. The problem, he said, is that it won’t work because “neither the regime, nor Tehran, nor Moscow have demonstrated any interest in it.” [Continue reading…]

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The inside story of the Obama administration’s Iran diplomacy

Indira A.R. Lakshmanan writes: Covering the path to that deal was the main focus of my beat at Bloomberg News for the past seven years. I traveled more than 140,000 miles and spent months at hotels in Europe, New York, the Middle East and Central Asia, reporting on talks by Kerry and U.S. nuclear negotiators. Now that the deal is done, 12 current and former Obama administration officials intimately involved in the negotiations spoke to me last week, revealing new details for the first time. This story of the behind-the-scenes calculations along a seven-year road to a deal is based upon those accounts, as well as on hundreds of hours of reporting on the talks I did as they unfolded in recent years in capitals across three continents. [Continue reading…]

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Russian troops said to join combat in Syria

Reuters reports: Russian forces have begun participating in military operations in Syria in support of government troops, three Lebanese sources familiar with the political and military situation there said on Wednesday.

The sources, speaking to Reuters on condition they not be identified, gave the most forthright account yet from the region of what the United States fears is a deepening Russian military role in Syria’s civil war, though one of the Lebanese sources said the number of Russians involved so far was small.

U.S. officials said Russia sent two tank landing ships and additional cargo aircraft to Syria in the past day or so and deployed a small number of naval infantry forces.

The U.S. officials, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said the intent of Russia’s military moves in Syria was unclear. One suggested the focus may be on preparing an airfield near the port city of Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. [Continue reading…]

Josh Rogin writes: The State Department had already begun pushing back against the Russian moves, for example by asking Bulgaria and Greece to deny overflight permissions to Syria-bound Russian transport planes. But the president didn’t know about these moves in advance, two officials said, and when he found out, he was upset with the department for not having a more complete and vetted process to respond to the crisis. A senior administration official said Tuesday evening that the White House, the State Department and other departments had coordinated to oppose actions that would add to Assad’s leverage.

For some in the White House, the priority is to enlist more countries to fight against the Islamic State, and they fear making the relationship with Russia any more heated. They are seriously considering accepting the Russian buildup as a fait accompli, and then working with Moscow to coordinate U.S. and Russian strikes in Northern Syria, where the U.S.-led coalition operates every day.

For many in the Obama administration, especially those who work on Syria, the idea of acquiescing to Russian participation in the fighting is akin to admitting that the drive to oust Assad has failed. Plus, they fear Russia will attack Syrian opposition groups that are fighting against Assad, using the war against the Islamic State as a cover.

“The Russians’ intentions are to keep Assad in power, not to fight ISIL,” one administration official said. “They’ve shown their cards now.” [Continue reading…]

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American paranoia and govt. red tape creates multiple barriers for Syrian refugees

Olivia Goldhill writes: [O]nce the US agrees, in theory, to resettle a refugee, authorities then begin a laborious vetting process that can take up to two years, a State Department spokesman told Voice of America.

The refugees, who have already been vetted by the UN, must then be screened by US authorities — involving the National Counterterrorism Center, the Terrorist Screening Center, the Department of Defense, the FBI, and Homeland Security officers, former State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in February.

Syrians who have been approved for resettlement are often survivors of torture, female-led families without protection, and unaccompanied minors. They can be in danger throughout the vetting process, and delays are common, Daryl Grisgraber, senior advocate for the Middle East and North Africa at Refugees International, tells Quartz.

“Once the person is cleared medically, that medical clearance may even expire while the security check is happening,” she says from Washington. “There’s a whole cycle that makes the process quite slow.”

Syrian refugees face particularly long delays because of anxieties about terrorism in the Middle East. But excessive fears can make the resettlement process redundant. The US does not accept refugees who have given “material support” to armed groups, but this has previously been used to block people for the slightest excuse — a Burundi refugee was detained for 20 months because armed rebels robbed him of $4 and his lunch. The immigration judge decided this counted as “material support.” [Continue reading…]

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As Hollywood lobbied State Department, it built free home theaters for U.S. embassies

By Robert Faturechi, ProPublica, July 2, 2015

This story was co-published with The Daily Beast.

Hollywood’s efforts to win political clout have always stretched across the country, from glitzy campaign fundraisers in Beverly Hills to cocktail parties with power brokers in Washington.

Last year, the film industry staked out another zone of influence: U.S. embassies. Its lobbying arm paid to renovate screening rooms in at least four overseas outposts, hoping the new theaters would help ambassadors and their foreign guests “keep U.S. cultural interests top of mind,” according to an internal email.

That was the same year that the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents the six biggest studios, reported it was lobbying the State Department on issues including piracy and online content distribution. Hollywood’s interests 2013 including its push for tougher copyright rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact 2013 often put the industry at odds with Silicon Valley.

[Read more…]

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As Blackwater threatened to kill a State Dept investigator in Iraq, U.S. officials defended Blackwater

The New York Times reports: Just weeks before Blackwater guards fatally shot 17 civilians at Baghdad’s Nisour Square in 2007, the State Department began investigating the security contractor’s operations in Iraq. But the inquiry was abandoned after Blackwater’s top manager there issued a threat: “that he could kill” the government’s chief investigator and “no one could or would do anything about it as we were in Iraq,” according to department reports.

American Embassy officials in Baghdad sided with Blackwater rather than the State Department investigators as a dispute over the probe escalated in August 2007, the previously undisclosed documents show. The officials told the investigators that they had disrupted the embassy’s relationship with the security contractor and ordered them to leave the country, according to the reports.

After returning to Washington, the chief investigator wrote a scathing report to State Department officials documenting misconduct by Blackwater employees and warning that lax oversight of the company, which had a contract worth more than $1 billion to protect American diplomats, had created “an environment full of liability and negligence.” [Continue reading…]

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Families of American hostages held captive in Syria felt U.S. officials had abandoned them

Lawrence Wright writes: Five American families, each harboring a grave secret, took their seats around a vast dining table at the home of David Bradley, a Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who owns the media company that publishes The Atlantic. It was May 13, 2014, and in the garden beyond the French doors, where magnolias and dogwoods were in bloom, a tent had been erected for an event that Bradley’s wife, Katherine, was hosting the following evening. The Bradleys’ gracious Georgian town house, on Embassy Row, is one of the city’s salons: reporters and politicians cross paths at off-the-record dinners with Supreme Court Justices, software billionaires, and heads of state.

The families weren’t accustomed to great wealth or influence. Indeed, most of them had never been to Washington before. Until recently, they had not known of one another, or of the unexpected benefactor who had brought them together. They were the parents of five Americans who had been kidnapped in Syria. The Federal Bureau of Investigation had warned the families not to talk publicly about their missing children — and the captors had threatened to kill their hostages if word leaked out — so each family had been going to work and to church month after month and reassuring colleagues and neighbors and relatives that nothing was wrong, only to come home and face new threats and ransom demands. After hiding the truth for so long, the families were heartened to learn that others were going through the same ordeal, and they hoped that by working together they might bring their children home. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS is winning the social media war, U.S. concludes

The New York Times reports: An internal State Department assessment paints a dismal picture of the efforts by the Obama administration and its foreign allies to combat the Islamic State’s message machine, portraying a fractured coalition that cannot get its own message straight.

The assessment comes months after the State Department signaled that it was planning to energize its social media campaign against the militant group. It concludes, however, that the Islamic State’s violent narrative — promulgated through thousands of messages each day — has effectively “trumped” the efforts of some of the world’s richest and most technologically advanced nations.

It also casts an unflattering light on internal discussions between American officials and some of their closest allies in the military campaign against the militants. A “messaging working group” of officials from the United States, Britain and the United Arab Emirates, the memo says, “has not really come together.” [Continue reading…]

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The diplomatic repercussions of John Kerry’s broken leg

The official response to news that Secretary of State John Kerry broke his leg in France on Sunday is: business as usual.

“The secretary continues to be in great spirits and active,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said. “He has done a range of phone calls including with the president.”

Buried at the end of an AP report comes this:

The prospect of a lengthy rehabilitation could hamper the nuclear talks [with Iran] and other diplomatic endeavors. Even if Kerry does not need surgery, it was not immediately known when he could fly again after returning to the United States.

Kerry has been the lead negotiator in several marathon sessions with Iran going back to 2013.

And Kerry’s injury comes just days after this news:

President Obama’s chief negotiator with Iran, Wendy R. Sherman, said on Wednesday that she planned to leave the administration shortly after the June 30 deadline for a final deal on limiting the country’s nuclear program.

“It’s been two long years,” Ms. Sherman, the under secretary of state for policy, said in her office on Wednesday. With her departure, all the top officials who have negotiated with Iran over those two years will have left the administration, leaving questions about who will coordinate the complex process of carrying out a deal if one is struck by the deadline.

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