Social Media and Negotiations between Enemies

I just ran across a devastating satirical video about Israel’s efforts to get kidnapped IDF soldier Gilad Shalit back from Hamas.

It’s well worth looking at and it adds an interesting perspective to the ongoing debate about whether social media such as Facebook empower the forces of liberalism (note the small “l”) at the expense of the forces of oppression, aggression, and reaction or vice versa.  The debate has largely focused on how social media affect the interaction between opposition groups and governments.  However, this video points out that social media can also affect the interaction between governments and other governments (or government-like entities such as Hamas) by tying the hands of the more liberal party.

Published in: on October 8, 2010 at 7:04 PM  Leave a Comment  
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Education by Role-Playing

I’m recently back from the UK where I defended my dissertation and then took a vacation to drink Scotch and travel about the Highlands.  As I’m almost de-jetlagged and as the airline has finally coughed up my luggage, I’ll soon be returning to proper blogging.

In the meantime, I thought I’d just post a link to a really interesting site from Barnard College about a technique for teaching undergraduates about critical periods in the past, emphasizing the role of historical contingency and (more controversially, but, in my view soundly) about the agency of individuals.  Their technique is a game called “Reacting to the Past.” It involves roleplaying and does have some sort of determination of winners and losers.  (How this determination is made is not clear.  My impression is that entails voting by a panel of judges, but I may be wrong.)

As Israel and Palestine are on everyone’s minds these days, check out the video of the students playing a scenario of “Reacting” dealing with the founding of Israel.  “The game was based around the work of the Palestine Royal Commission (also known as the Peel Commission) which arrived in Jerusalem in 1936 to try and determine the causes of conflict and make recommendations for the future.”  It’s fascinating and really powerful, not least because most of the students were Jews or Muslims and they were purposely cast against type for the purposes of the game.  I applaud all of them for their intellectual integrity and for the research and effort that they clearly put into their preparations.

That scenario clearly has some connection with military history.  Another scenario in development which deals more directly with military history is entitled “The Second Crusade: The War Council of Acre, 1148,” and it deals with the decision to launch the…Second Crusade.  Barnard has in the can already yet another scenario dealing with New York City during the Revolutionary War. Rather amusingly, the description of this scenario includes the amusing line, “Winning requires the ability to master the high political arguments for and against revolution as well as the low political skills of logrolling, bribery, and threatened force. [However] Military force often determines the winner, much to the surprise of the students who concentrated merely on internal game politics.”  Never forget Mao: “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

I wonder if it might not be possible to apply the “Reacting to the Past” methodology to a course that is more specifically related to military and diplomatic history.  Possible scenarios.

  • The run-up to World War I.
  • The decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
  • The run-up to the U.S. Civil War.
  • The Prague Spring of 1968.
  • Perestroika, the USSR and the East Bloc.
  • Japan and the United States: The Road to War.

Of course, if one wanted to be particularly controversial, one could create a REALLY interesting scenario around the Arab mujahidin at the end of the Soviet War in Afghanistan.  Near enemy?  Far enemy?  Azzam or Bin Laden?  I shan’t hold my breath, but that would be really cool.

[Update:  Gah.  Always follow every link.  Grants have been given for two additional games that deal to some degree with military history:  “Kentucky in 1861: A Nation in the Balance” and “Petrograd, 1917.”]

Published in: on June 9, 2010 at 1:50 AM  Comments (2)  
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New Books Pertaining to Intelligence/Security Services and the Middle East

Three books that have caught my eye recently.

Routledge has an interesting sounding book coming out at the end of May under the somewhat awkward title of A History of the Egyptian Intelligence Service: A History of the Mukhabarat, 1910-2009.  It is written by Owen Sirrs, a former official of the Defense Intelligence Agency whose specialty there was Iran, so he doubtless brings a good professional approach to the work.  I’m very curious to see what he’s able to put together, as sources have got to be extremely scarce, at least for the post WWII era.  If this book is even half-way decent, it will be great progress toward filling an enormous gap.  Very very little has been written about modern Arab intelligence services.  Yaacov Caroz, a former senior official of the Mossad did write a book in the 1970s called The Arab Secret Services.  Caroz’s volume is OK for spy stories if you’re into that sort of thing, but it largely lacks an analytic perspective.  It’s also not very well organized.  Accordingly, I have high hopes for this new work.  As is usual the cost of this book is preposterous, $125, but I’m hoping that there will be a cheaper paperback edition as there usually is for Routledge books.

I have recently purchased Good Arabs: The Israeli Security Agencies and the Israeli Arabs, 1948-1967, though I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.  Here is the publisher’s blurb about it:

Based on his reading of top-secret files of the Israeli police and the prime minister’s office, Hillel Cohen exposes the full extent of the crucial, and, until now, willfully hidden history of Palestinian collaboration with Israelis–and of the Arab resistance to it. Cohen’s previous book, the highly acclaimed Army of Shadows, told how this hidden history played out from 1917 to 1948, and now, in Good Arabs he focuses on the system of collaborators established by Israel in each and every Arab community after the 1948 war. Covering a broad spectrum of attitudes and behaviors, Cohen brings together the stories of activists, mukhtars, collaborators, teachers, and sheikhs, telling how Israeli security agencies penetrated Arab communities, how they obtained collaboration, how national activists fought them, and how deeply this activity influenced daily life. When this book was first published in Hebrew, it became a bestseller and has evoked bitter memories and intense discussions among Palestinians in Israel and prompted the reclassification of many of the hundreds of documents Cohen viewed to uncover a story that continues to unfold to this day.

As a result of my work on American intelligence during World War I, I have become quite interested in the use of intelligence and security services to surveil and control potentially hostile populations.  Now, many scholars look at this sort of issue, but they primarily approach it from a civil liberties perspective, often with the assumption that intelligence and security services are intrinsically bad.  (See, e.g. the work of Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones.)  I’m unwilling to call intelligence and security services evil or venal as a going-in assumption.  Rather, I think they tend to have the same moral value as the governments they serve.  I’m also interested in how these services think about domestic threats: are apparently oppressive security services that way because they have plausible concepts of potential threats to national security that require such measures?  Or are they truly motivated by all the class, racial, ethnic, and other sorts of considerations that scholars so often talk about?  I’m hoping that Good Arabs will stimulate my thinking on these topics.

Finally, on a different note, the legendary political scientist Robert Jervis has a book coming out entitled Why Intelligence Fails: Lessons from the Iranian Revolution and the Iraq War.  Here is the publisher’s blurb on this book:

The U.S. government spends enormous resources each year on the gathering and analysis of intelligence, yet the history of American foreign policy is littered with missteps and misunderstandings that have resulted from intelligence failures. In Why Intelligence Fails,Robert Jervis examines the politics and psychology of two of the more spectacular intelligence failures in recent memory: the mistaken belief that the regime of the Shah in Iran was secure and stable in 1978, and the claim that Iraq had active WMD programs in 2002.

The Iran case is based on a recently declassified report Jervis was commissioned to undertake by CIA thirty years ago and includes memoranda written by CIA officials in response to Jervis’s findings. The Iraq case, also grounded in a review of the intelligence community’s performance, is based on close readings of both classified and declassified documents, though Jervis’s conclusions are entirely supported by evidence that has been declassified.

In both cases, Jervis finds not only that intelligence was badly flawed but also that later explanations analysts were bowing to political pressure and telling the White House what it wanted to hear or were willfully blind were also incorrect. Proponents of these explanations claimed that initial errors were compounded by groupthink, lack of coordination within the government, and failure to share information. Policy prescriptions, including the recent establishment of a Director of National Intelligence, were supposed to remedy the situation.

In Jervis’s estimation, neither the explanations nor the prescriptions are adequate. The inferences that intelligence drew were actually quite plausible given the information available. Errors arose, he concludes, from insufficient attention to the ways in which information should be gathered and interpreted, a lack of self-awareness about the factors that led to the judgments, and an organizational culture that failed to probe for weaknesses and explore alternatives. Evaluating the inherent tensions between the methods and aims of intelligence personnel and policymakers from a unique insider’s perspective, Jervis forcefully criticizes recent proposals for improving the performance of the intelligence community and discusses ways in which future analysis can be improved.

A couple years ago someone gave me a sweatshirt with the slogan on it: “So many books, so little time.”  Oh yeah.

Published in: on February 26, 2010 at 2:28 AM  Leave a Comment  
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