Podcast • May 12, 2011

Steven Heydemann on the “Family Business” in Syria

Steven Heydemann is picking apart my metaphor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as Michael Corleone – the Godfather’s gentler son from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mob film, who took a sudden turn towards violence and thuggery ...

Steven Heydemann at the “Engaging Afghanistan” conference at Brown

Steven Heydemann is picking apart my metaphor of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as Michael Corleone – the Godfather’s gentler son from Francis Ford Coppola’s classic mob film, who took a sudden turn towards violence and thuggery when confronted with the pressures of a kingdom under siege. In Michael’s line from the movie: “If anything in this life is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that you can kill anyone.” Bashar al-Assad is an eye doctor by training – in London, no less – who came home to pick up the reins when his father passed away in 2000. Ten years later, his security forces are cracking down Gotti-style on a small but spirited group of pro-democracy protestors, and no one on our side seems to want to do much about it. I’m asking: will the democratic wave that seems to be sweeping the region finally run aground in Syria?

Now a vice president at the U.S. Institute of Peace, Steven Heydemann is the original Syria expert. He started studying the country in the eighties, he says, when all his colleagues were preoccupied with Egypt and Lebanon. His book, Authoritarianism in Syria, Institutions and Social Conflict, 1946 – 1960, is a classic guide to the ways of non-democratic governments, not just the family rule but the state- and service-building too, the ways in which despots build constituencies. In Syria it’s a story, in short of how the Assad family built a ruthless state, and made a lot of people like it.

The last few weeks in Syria has been a story of how conditions endemic to the Arab world – youth unemployment, corruption, distrust – mingle with the freedom aspirations blowing in from Egypt and a whole lot of malaise about what comes after Assad if the regime should fall. We should hope for the best, Steven Heydemann says – democracy, secularism, maybe even peace with Israel – but not rule out the worst.

Let’s also be aware that what happens when we think about politics in Syria through the lens of this Mafia metaphor is that we imagine that what we’re dealing with is not an authoritarian system of rule, with institutions and processes and procedures, and a ruling party, and an infrastructure that extends across the entire country, and the capacity to manage problems of governance in ways that are bureaucratic, not simply patronage-based; it’s not simply as if he sits in his office and gives orders to his Consigliere and they get carried out. There’s an enormously simplifying effect that happens when we think about Syria in terms of the Corleones that I think does a disservice. Why? Because it suggests on one hand that if we got rid of this family we could solve Syria’s problems. We ran into that in Iraq. Getting rid of the guy at the top did not solve Iraq’s problems. When we dismantled one of the critical institutions in Iraq, the Baath party and the military, we found ourselves facing a power vacuum and had to reconstruct a system of governance that was, as it turns out, both sectarian and extraordinarily violent in its own right.

Steven Heydemann with Chris Lydon at the Watson Institute, May 7, 2011.

Podcast • August 24, 2010

Real India: Shashi Tharoor, the ‘NRI’ who came home

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first run for office, and has been paying the price ever since.

Bounced in April from P. M. Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet but still a honeyed voice in the Indian Parliament, Shahshi Tharoor is the politician people talk about in India, the one that 800,000 follow on Twitter.

Married for the third time this past weekend, at age 54, his life appears to unfold as in a 19th Century novel by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope. Bollywood-handsome and a moon-light novelist himself, Shashi Tharoor could be living a version of the triumphs and trials of Phineas Finn, The Irish Member in Trollope’s Parliamentary series of Palliser novels.

The best of Shashi Tharoor’s story is that though several long plot lines are clear, the outcomes are not.

Born in London, he is a child of privilege who marked himself, with a certain theatrical flair, for public service — first at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and then at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he was the youngest ever (22) to take a doctoral degree.

After a meaty 20-year career at the United Nations in peacekeeping and refugee crises, he became Kofi Annan’s Under-Secretary-General and spokesman. When Kofi Annan stepped down, Tharoor made a creditable run in 2006 for the Secretary General’s job. When that failed (on the nod of the Bush White House) he made an unconventional choice in middle age: to develop his own political base in India.

But can a Non-Resident Indian go home again? Can a smooth-as-silk diplomat from the East Side of Manhattan put down roots in Trivandrum, the capital of famously leftist Kerala? With strong support from President Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party, the popular vote last year was overwhelmingly: Yes.

But could Shashi Tharoor, a voluminous commentator on Indian history and politics, and a biographer of Jawarhalal Nehru, learn the hard way how the inside game gets played?

Could a master of public-speak and digital media cope with newspaper headline writers who seemed suddenly out nail him — for referring on Twitter, for example, to economy air-line seats (in the land of the sacred cow) as “cattle class”?

And then, crucially, in the gold-rush of professional made-for-TV cricket, did Shashi Tharoor blur public and private interests when he advocated for a Kerala franchise in which his fiancee had a sweat-equity interest of nearly 5 percent? This was the question — about judgment and appearances, not wrong-doing or financial gain — that cost Shashi Tharoor his plum seat in the Cabinet as Minister of State for External Affairs.

Will he be invited back, after a decent interval, into the government? And will he yet emerge as a talking embodiment of a New India still more seen and admired than it is heard?

ST: I think India stands for an astonishingly important experiment in the world, of trying to pursue development and overcome huge problems of poverty and internal social divisions, violence and so on, through democracy. And that is its most important contribution to the world of today. Secondly, it’s been an astonishing advertisement for the management of pluralism of a diversity that rarely can be found anywhere in the world and that yet is being managed without tyranny, and indeed with a startling insight that people are free to be themselves, including fully covered Muslim women and Turbaned Sikh men and people in a wide variety of clothes and so on, because the whole logic is that you can be divided by caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, custom and costume, and even conviction, but still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the sort of Indian idea that it doesn’t really matter whether you agree all the time or not, as long as you agree on how to disagree. We’ve managed to sustain that effectively, and it’s a very different example from that of China, which is rightly being admired around the world for what it’s been able to accomplish, but which functions as a society and as a player on the world stage very differently from India. And I think that the world should have room for both styles and both ways of doing things. Both are ancient civilizations with their own cultural underpinnings that give us the contemporary reality of today.

CL: There is something in this moment, I sense, that is calling for India. It has something to do with India’s post-imperial recovery and its growth, its emotional groove, and a connection with so many other parts of the world that are struggling with these same transitions. Africa first, but Latin America too; the South, the poor, the post-colonial. Would you draw a little bit on your own dealings in Africa, with Rwanda for example, and elsewhere where you sense some sort of potency in the Indian idea?

ST: It’s been very, very striking. First of all, Africa represents a continent of enormous need and enormous potential. But there is a global perception of this kind of scramble for Africa in which China is beating all comers. I would just say with all respect that we are not China. I mean, we’re not there to scavenge for resources. We are certainly not doing anything as India to either directly influence African governments or to tell them what to do. Our approach is very much, “Tell us what your needs are, and let’s see if we can help you” sort of thing. And it’s been working very well. We don’t have the kinds of resources that others do to give large grants, but we do do a lot of very soft loans, practically with no interest, which are being snapped up. We do have one intriguing advantage that I’ve discovered from talking to a very large number of African leaders, which is that when Africans look at the Western model or the Chinese, they are very impressed. They look with awe and admiration. But they don’t actually see any affinity there, whereas when they look at India, they see a country which seems to be facing many of the kinds of problems they face, and seems nonetheless, through all the chaos and difficulties, to have overcome some of them. And they feel, “Hey, if India can do that, maybe we can learn from them, maybe we can overcome some of our problems too, because they’re so much like us.” That affinity is a huge advantage to us, and it helps that India has been on the side of African freedom from the colonial era onwards, and there are lots of longstanding relationships between India and Africa.

CL: But then what? What does India do with it?

ST: What India does with it is we offer them our expertise, we encourage our private sector to go in again. And another way that India is different from China is that most of India’s current engagement in Africa is through facilitating the work of our private sector. It’s Indian companies going in and building the presidential palace in Ghana or building a railway line in Ethiopia or constructing factories like many, many countries in the world. An Indian entrepreneur has bought large chunks of land in Ethiopia to grow flowers to export to Europe. Now that’s the sort of thing that would never occur to an Indian government organization, but it’s part of the sort of newly liberalized economic thrust of today’s India that we’re seeing. And I must say that it’s a way in which India can contribute to Africa without being part of … allegations of either government corruption or statism, or any of the problems that have bedeviled previous international economic engagement on that continent.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • September 4, 2008

What’s So Great About Us

Which words and ideas in the definition of exceptional America do you underline? It is bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those ...

Which words and ideas in the definition of exceptional America do you underline?

It is bit odd for any nation to be deeply divided, witlessly vulgar, religiously orthodox, militarily aggressive, economically savage, and ungenerous to those in need, while maintaining a political stability, a standard of living, and a love of country that are the envy of the world — all at the same time. To do all these things at once, America must indeed be unusual. Or even, as Alexis de Tocqueville said a century and a half ago, exceptional.

Peter H. Schuck and James Q. Wilson, in their Preface to Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation.

Understanding America: The Anatomy of an Exceptional Nation is the book that the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson said all the presidential candidates had to read. “What is unique about America?” Patterson asked in the New York Times Book Review this summer. “What drives its vitality in economic, cultural and social affairs? Why is it so envied and reviled in the rest of the world? Why are its politics so peculiar? Why is it so culturally fraught?”

There are giant gaps in this big book, it turns out, starting with the Iraq War as an expression of how Americans think and act outside the neighborhood. Editors James Q. Wilson and Peter H. Schuck decided to duck foreign policy altogether. It’s an odd omission especially because the unilateralism inside George Bush’s “coalition of the willing” is so clearly an extension of an “exceptionalist” premise — that old alliances, United Nations rules, even Geneva Conventions do not restrain the United States of America.

The mood of the book tends toward the celebratory. Most of the score of contributing scholars seem to agree we’re more unlike the rest of the world than like it, and better off for the difference. But counter-indications are also spelled out — on the matter of inequality and upward mobility, for example — and some gravely worrisome trends. A rising tide lifts all yachts in our economy today. “The evidence for increased inequality since the 1970s is overwhelming,” write Gary Burtless and Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution. “The top of the distribution is pulling away from average and below-average earners, and until the early 1990s there was evidence that the bottom was falling further behind the middle of the distribution.” The gift of upward mobility in the U.S. is bestowed mainly on immigrants, the day they get here. “People born in the U.S. do not enjoy exceptional opportunities for upward mobility compared with people born in other rich countries.”

In our conversation, panjandrum James Q. Wilson voices the dismay of his generation at the corruption and commercialization of American culture for export — which in another day meant gems like Walt Whitman, Jerome Kern and Gene Kelly. In our own era it’s a long way from Louis Armstrong to the knock-offs, far and wide, of “American Idol.” This is a subject we take up next with the insatiably curious and critical Martha Bayles, a contributor to Understanding America.

Podcast • December 14, 2007

Juan Cole: from Bonaparte to Bush

Behind a facade of lawmaking and reasonableness visible in Bonaparte’s correspondence crouched the grim realities of corruption, power, and terror. When Bonaparte ordered General Menou to the key port city of Rosetta near Alexandria to ...

Behind a facade of lawmaking and reasonableness visible in Bonaparte’s correspondence crouched the grim realities of corruption, power, and terror. When Bonaparte ordered General Menou to the key port city of Rosetta near Alexandria to organize that province, he wrote with unusual candor, “The Turks can only be led by the greatest severity. Every day I cut off five or six heads in the streets of Cairo. We had to manage them up to the present in such a way as to erase that reputation for terror that preceded us. Today, on the contrary, it is necessary to take a tone that will cause them to obey, and to obey, for them, is to fear.” He meant by “Turks” all Muslims, of course.

Juan Cole, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , pages 104-5.

The resonances and repetitions in history never come as much of a surprise. The shocking part is just that we so studiously ignore the pattern in what we’re doing, and the warnings.

The indispensable blogger-scholar on Iraq, Juan Cole of Michigan, had the idea of rethinking Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in the mid-nineties when it seemed a nicely academic project. On completion today after five years of the war in Iraq, Cole’s historical reconstruction, Napoleon’s Egypt: Invading the Middle East , reads like the map of folly we never consulted, an ugly walk through history we were determined not to know.

Whimsical arrogance in a war of choice is the start of the links. When General Bonaparte (then 28!) gathered his expeditionary force at Toulon in May, 1798, not even his war minister knew where Napoleon was headed — for a round-about attack on England, perhaps, or eastward somehow to disrupt England’s commerce with India. Napoleon’s version of “Bring ’em on!” was the promise to his troops about the slave soldiers of the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, the mamluk. “A few days after we arrive,” Napoleon vowed, “they will no longer exist.”

How do you say “fubar” in French? Napoleon had provided heavy woolen uniforms, and no water canteens, for troops who were prostrated by heat and thirst, and killed themselves in substantial numbers. They were also confronted and killed by an “insurgency” that kept building toward the Cairo revolt in late October, 1798 — a broad uprising with a “nativist dimension,” of merchants and guildsmen, Bedouin and peasants from the Cairo hinterlands. The French response was a draconian spectacle of mass executions, in the spirit of Napoleon’s order: “Burn that village. Make a terrifying example of it.”

By then, however, Britain’s Admiral Nelson, in alliance with the Ottomans, had destroyed Napoleon’s fleet in the Battle of the Nile. French forces in Egypt were cut off (eventually to be ferried home on English ships) and the mission was effectively doomed. Not that the cheering ever stopped, or the pretense of a mission civilisatrice, a project of liberty and modernity constructing a “French Republic of Egypt,” was ever abandoned by those who believed it in the first place. Cole’s history quotes a familiar-sounding Captain Say in Napoleon’s engineering corps: “The people of Egypt were most wretched,” Say wrote. “How will they not cherish the liberty that we are bringing them?”

Napoleon in Egypt and George Bush in Iraq were book-end fiascos, Juan Cole argues in our conversation — for neatly opposite reasons. Napoleon was too early in Egypt — before the Ottoman sick-man was ripe for dismemberment, before European arms could overwhelm native resistance; but in fact he set the course of French imperial expansion in North Africa and also Southeast Asia. George Bush hit Iraq too late, Cole says, long after bullying colonialism’s day was done.

That’s the historian’s Two Centuries in Review. Juan Cole, the impassioned real-time observer of Iraq, also gives us a Five Years in Review, on the war, and a Surge in Review, on 2007.

November 2, 2006

A Micro-Targeted Democracy

We’ve seen a lot of talk recently about the GOP’s “Voter Vault” system, a huge database of, apparently, every registered voter in the U.S. It’s been collated with consumer records, public information, and basically any ...

BullseyeWe’ve seen a lot of talk recently about the GOP’s “Voter Vault” system, a huge database of, apparently, every registered voter in the U.S. It’s been collated with consumer records, public information, and basically any shred of personal data that can be mined, bought, borrowed, rented, or tracked. (The Dems, playing catch-up and perhaps wanting to shed their soft image, christened their response — or, rather, one of their competing responsesDemzilla.)

Gone are the days when party, ethnic, and religious affiliations were all that mattered. Do you drink bourbon or gin, drive a Mercury Sable or a Toyota Prius? Do you live in a condo or an apartment? How big was the recent addition to your house? Do you have call waiting? Did you sign a petition to keep Terry Schiavo alive? Do you send your kids to a parochial school? Do you own a snowmobile? Have a hunting license? What magazines do you subscribe to? Did you send in the warranty card for your new washing machine? Kenmore or Whirlpool? What was your response to the call you received from the DNC last year? Last month? To the door knocker yesterday? It’s all there.

At a certain point, the theory of “micro-targeting” goes, with enough data points and a big enough computer to crunch them, political operatives can assign a likelihood — an actual percentage — that you’ll want to vote for a particular candidate. And they can identify the tailored message — like a bespoke suit, made to your measurements! — that will get you to the polls on election day. So, for example, even though we’re neighbors, you might get calls and visitors extolling the virtues of Candidate X’s record on abortion and gay marriage; I’m getting a barrage of literature about her green conservationist stance. We’d both hear, theoretically, just what what we “wanted” to hear.

We’re wondering: Is micro-targeting is a worrisome (if inevitable) embrace by the parties and K street of one of the shinier arrows in Madison Avenue’s quiver? Or a positive step towards more “personalized” campaigning? Will this encourage — and eventually engage — more voters or simply divide an already (and at least) bifurcated nation? Is there a difference between politics and marketing? Should there be a difference? In short, is this a good development in American democracy — in any democracy — or the back swing of its death knell?

Update, 11/2/06 12:40pm

Paul Voice, a philosophy professor at Bennington College, chimes in that this is closer to death knell:

Treating the political arena as a market, with voters understood as consumers and political platforms as products, debases democracy and the idea of democratic citizenship for a number of reasons. Firstly, the legitimacy of the government rests on the free consent of citizens in a democracy. There is a real question of whether the political marketers are seeking the consent of citizens or simply attempting to manipulate them. Secondly, the more segmented the marketing, the narrower the range of views and ideas voters will be exposed to. This divides the public sphere and assumes that voters’ preferences are set in advance of political discussion. Thirdly, the ideal of democratic citizenship is a concern with the general good and what is right for the political body as a whole – we (ideally) leave our particular interests aside when we enter the political sphere – the parliament and the market are different places. If voters are treated as consumers then the distinction collapses and we act on our narrow personal interests rather than as citizens.

Paul Voice, in an e-mail to Open Source

Philip Howard

Professor of Communication, University of Washington

Author, New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen

Alexander Gage

Founder and President, TargetPoint Consulting

Bruce Gronbeck

Professor of Public Address, University of Iowa

Author, The Repersonalization of Presidential Campaigning in 2004 in American Behavioral Scientist (Reg. required)

Paul Voice

Professor of Philosophy, Bennington College

Author, Morality and Agreement

Extra Credit Reading
Don’t Mention the War, To: Maelstrom, Free Republic, November 4, 2006: “It’s only 12:30 here and I’ve already gotten three phone calls reminding me that it’s the last day of early voting (one from the GOP and two from candidates’ campaigns offering rides), and two in-person visits. There’s not going to be a single registered Republican in the entire United States that is going to make it to Tuesday evening without being contacted at least once or twice. The Voter Vault is a Godsend.”

Thomas B. Edsall, Democrats’ Data Mining Stirs an Interparty Battle, The Washington Post, March 8, 2006: “A group of well-connected Democrats led by a former top aide to Bill Clinton is raising millions of dollars to start a private firm that plans to compile huge amounts of data on Americans to identify Democratic voters and blunt what has been a clear Republican lead in using technology for political advantage.”

Tom Hamburger and Peter Wallsten, GOP Mines Data for Every Tiny Bloc, Los Angeles Times, September 24, 2006: “In Michigan, for example, the GOP contacted snowmobilers by mail, telephone or other personal communication suggesting that Democrats’ environmental views stood in the way of greater opportunities for snowmobiling.”

clintonfan42, 2006 Will Be A Test For GOP GOTV Machine, TPMCafe, June 28, 2006: “Whether or not there is such a GOP GOTV machine may well be discovered after the 2006 elections — which could be the its biggest test yet.”

Dave Weissman, You’re Being Microtargeted, TomPaine, October 30, 2006: “I may find it a little creepy that Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman know what magazines I subscribe to, what kind of car I drive and how many TVs I own, but does that make it bad for democracy? I don’t think so.”

Ron Fournier, Applebee’s America, Simon & Schuster, September 2006.

Hat tip to emmetoconnell for suggesting Applebee’s America.