Everybody Loves Bashar

Why does the world's media see Bashar al-Assad as invulnerable and Vladimir Putin on the wane?

On June 4, Syria's Bashar al-Assad won reelection again, bagging 88.7 percent of the vote, in a war-torn country he seemed on the verge of losing shortly ago. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin is busy grinning for the cameras in France, while Russian irregular forces continue to destabilize Ukraine with impunity. But are these leaders really as secure as they appear? Can big data shed light on how Assad regained momentum in Syria or whether Putin's grip on Crimea might be slipping? In particular, can we use the "tone" of the world's news media coverage of the two leaders as a sort of popularity index that might give us insights into their respective futures, much as it offers insights into the stability of nations?

Computerized "tone mining" essentially assigns a score to each English word based on the emotional response it is most likely to generate; for example, recording that the word "delightful" traditionally has a positive connotation, while "horrific" usually connotes something bad, and saves this into a large dictionary. Tone-mining software then assigns an emotional score from positive to negative to a passage of text by looking up each word in the dictionary and computing the average score of all its words. While highly simplistic, this yields an approximation of the overall tone of a document.

And when you feed in enough documents, patterns start to emerge. The Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT Project) computes the average tone of the millions of news articles it monitors on a daily basis, allowing tone mining to be performed over the world's English-language news each day. In addition, the tone system used by GDELT is designed to consider language regarding military superiority and invulnerability as having a positive connotation towards a leader or nation.

Let's start by looking at the tonal news coverage of Syria's dictator. Now, remember: this doesn't track whether the world thinks he's a nice guy, or loves puppies, or is doing good things for his people; rather, it's closer to an assessment of his strength as a leader. The timeline below plots the average "tone" by day of worldwide news coverage of Bashar al-Assad from April 1, 2013, to roughly the present (higher numbers indicate more positive tone, while negative numbers indicate more negative tone). 

Immediately visible is the sharp negative trajectory of global media tone towards Assad in the lead-up to the August 21, 2013, Ghouta chemical weapons attack, as Assad was rapidly losing global credibility.  In the days immediately following, as the world's headlines were captivated both by the attack itself and the continued clashes over the following days, tone towards Assad continues to become sharply more negative. However, something extraordinary begins to happen on August 28 - the tone of news coverage across the world about Assad begins to turn sharply positive, containing a high density of language regarding invulnerability. 

A review of news coverage from this time period reveals a world anticipating U.S. military action in the first few days after Ghouta, with substantial reference to President Barack Obama's "red line" policy towards chemical weapons. But as the Obama administration wavered, and it became increasingly clear that not even a symbolic missile strike would occur, the discourse around Assad began to change dramatically -- from a vanquished has-been in his last days, to a resurrected and invulnerable leader. Throughout the world, the news media reasoned that if the deaths of hundreds of civilians did not provoke a military reaction, Assad would expand the use of chemical weapons to simply gas the rebels into submission. And Israel wondered aloud whether Iran would interpret the inaction as a dismissal of the red line that had been made against its development of nuclear weapons.

Of course, the world's media wasn't applauding Assad for gassing children to death, but it's clear that, as a group, it contextualized the lack of response to those horrific actions as an indicator of new-found impunity. By November 2013, media tone towards Assad's grip over Syria reflected a general belief that he would not be leaving anytime soon. Not surprisingly, the United Nations around this time issued a gag order on its news agency to halt all negative coverage of the regime, acquiescing to the inevitability of his continued rule. Tone peaked at its most "positive" towards Assad during the week of December 9, 2013, as the Syrian military recaptured the strategic town of Nabak and appeared poised to rapidly crush the remaining rebel-held territories. 

Yet, the Syrian military's swift and brutally violent pacification campaign through the rest of December, including an aerial siege of Aleppo featuring "barrel bombs," once again turned the media's coverage against Assad -- perhaps under the assumption that the massive onslaught would finally bring an international response. But just as the atrocities began to dominate the headlines, by early January 2014 they were displaced by the growing internal war between the various opposition factions, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Over the remainder of 2014, Assad's stature in the global news media has steadily strengthened as rebel infighting and steady military victories appear to all but guarantee his continued near-term leadership. 

Now let's turn to the past seven months of media coverage of Vladimir Putin. In October-November 2013, as Putin effectively prevented President Viktor Yanukovych from signing a trade deal with Europe, media tone grew positive -- a sign of his growing power over Europe. But the unraveling of Ukraine beginning in late November has cut his media popularity by half and tone continues on a nearly 45 degree downward trajectory towards negativity. Putin enjoyed a short-lived burst in popularity as Crimea was effectively annexed into Russia in late February and he appeared to be victorious over the West, but as eastern Ukraine has since increasingly unraveled in a steady march towards civil war, Putin's image in the world's press has taken a beating. But by early May, as the West realized that Crimea was lost and that destabilizing events in Ukraine continued -- with little action beyond symbolic sanctions and verbal rhetoric taken by the West, Putin's media popularity has begun to steadily increase once again.

(Using the new GDELT Analysis Service  it is possible to repeat the timelines above for any world leader of interest, while the GDELT World Leaders Index summarizes changing media tone towards every head of state in a daily report, making it possible to integrate this analysis into routine policymaking.)

Can Putin stay ascendant? Will Assad remain strong? More importantly, perhaps, how's Obama's public image faring? In the case of Syria, American inaction over the Ghouta chemical weapons attack appears to have been the pivotal turning point that restored Assad to power, while in Ukraine, the growing civil war in Putin's newly-annexed Crimea is causing his Iron Man of Russia image to rust.

Perception is an imperfect science, but big data offers a new kind of telescope for peering into the emotional undercurrent of the world's collective media, transforming emotion into enlightenment and offering a whole new way of measuring the impact of American foreign policy as it happens.


Graphics: Emma Carew Grovum/Foreign Policy


Broken Windows and Beating Back al Qaeda

Can President Obama’s counterterrorism partnership plan really work without any attempt at nation building?

As a candidate for president in 2007, Barack Obama vowed to "roll back the tide of helplessness that gives rise to hate" by doubling development assistance to $50 billion a year and by helping build effective and transparent institutions of governance in fragile states. He also proposed a $5 billion Shared Security Program for counterterrorism cooperation with states threatened by terrorism. The ambitious foreign aid program never happened. The counterterrorism partnership fund is what President Obama announced in his West Point speech last week.

One way of describing the steady downward trajectory of the president's ambitions is to measure the gap between the kind of state-building which seeks to establish a foundation for long-term stability and prosperity and the much more narrow counterterrorism effort which helps states suppress and kill the Islamist extremists who threaten the United States and the West. It is the gap between curing a disease and addressing its symptoms. The president has implicitly recognized that, though he has made very little headway in curing the disease, he must do what he can to deal with the consequences.

Afghanistan offers a paradigmatic case. The premise of the counterinsurgency strategy, or COIN, which the president rather reluctantly adopted in 2009 is that, because insurgencies are struggles for the support of the people, the counterinsurgent can win only by providing better governance and more security for ordinary citizens. Tens of billions of dollars of American and international assistance have improved basic social indicators of education and public health, but otherwise have left Afghanistan more corrupt, more dangerous, and only marginally better governed than it was a decade ago. As the United States prepares to withdraw all of its forces at the end of 2016, the centerpiece of the ongoing effort is the training and equipping of Afghan security forces -- counterterrorism, not COIN.

This raises several questions which go to the heart of the president's speech. First, is it futile to train and equip armies in weak states if you cannot address the underlying causes of state weakness? That is, in effect, the progressive critique of counterterrorism, and it is what made COIN so appealing to many people uncomfortable with the use of force. But if institution-building is a "generational" endeavor (to use the current euphemism for "next-to-impossible") then it's a mistake to condition short-term efforts on long-term hopes. What's more, if besieged cities offer any useful analogy to weak states, then the extraordinary success of police forces in New York and other cities in driving down crime without addressing its underlying cause argues that such a tactic can be effective.

The second question is: Can the United States and other actors effectively train militaries in weak states? Afghanistan is not an encouraging example. The United States has spent more than $50 billion on readying the Afghan security forces, yet many military experts worry that those forces are not remotely ready to take on the Taliban by themselves. A recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that the training program has been "rushed forward" to meet an artificially-imposed deadline, and that the Afghans may not be ready to stand on their own before 2018.

Well, maybe Afghanistan is a bad example; nothing works in Afghanistan. I spoke earlier this week to Brig. Gen. Guy Cosentino, who was formerly responsible for military training in Iraq and Afghanistan is now commandant of the National War College, and asked if he could point to cases where the train-and-equip mission had worked. He did not suggest Afghanistan or Iraq. "We've made a big difference in the Philippines with a really low footprint and investment," he said. There, he said, "they have the framework of democracy and the rule of law; we're reinforcing success."

Of course, that can't be said of most states in the Middle East and North Africa. However, General Cosentino also said that military assistance to Lebanon, which has totaled about $800 million over the last decade, has helped fortify the one institution in the country which sees itself, and is seen by the Lebanese people, as representing the nation rather than just one of its sectarian groups (though the army is thought to be heavily infiltrated by Hamas). Yemen, unlike Lebanon, ranks at the very top of the Failed States Index; but the Yemeni military has recently made serious inroads against the al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, thanks in part to hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. equipment and training. Danya Greenfield, a Yemen expert at the Atlantic Council, says that she would like to see U.S. efforts focus less on counterterrorism and especially on drone strikes, and more on citizen security. Nevertheless, she says, many Yemenis have been inspired by the success of their military.

So yes, there is some reason to believe that counterterrorism assistance can work in the absence of governance reform. But the gains are very modest, and very tenuous. The Pentagon has tasked special operations forces with training elite counterterror forces in Mauretania, Mali, Niger Libya, a vast, lawless stretch of desert increasingly ruled by Islamist extremists. These are hapless states, and the effort has been mostly embarrassing. In Libya, militias emptied a warehouse full of American military equipment last summer, bringing the program to an abrupt end. In Mali, army officers trained by the United States deposed a democratically elected president. Robert Perito, head of the Perito Group, which advises on the training of military and police forces, points out that in recent years  nationalist, jihadist, and organized crime groups in the region have begun to blend, producing a transnational threat stoked by "religious zeal, weapons, and money." No one has a good answer to that potent mix.

Obama's proposal last week, like the one he made in 2007, depends on enhancing the capacity of local partners rather than, as in Afghanistan or Yemen, a made-in-America model. That is a bow to financial and political reality, and to the truth that neighbors and even former colonial partners like France are better positioned than Washington to help repair fragile states. In the Central African Republic (CAR), for example, a U.S. airlift helped bring African Union (AU) troops to fight alongside French forces to prevent a genocide. American trainers have worked extensively with the AU both on "stability operations" like the one in CAR and on efforts like the (so far unsuccessful) hunt for Joseph Kony, head of the Lord's Resistance Army.

General Cosentino says that the most effective programs in Africa have been with the militaries of relatively stable nations like Ghana or Liberia, who are "preventing the contagion from coming across their own border and working with the AU to help at-risk countries." He also notes that while U.S. Special Forces, which have done the bulk of the training, are now overstretched, Congress recently authorized conventional forces to engage in training abroad.

Cosentino says that he does not know the answer to the "chicken-and-egg" problem of whether you need security first, or decent governance first, but he still believes in making what gains you can on the security front. New York City has proved over the last 20 years that gains in security can lead to economic development and overall revitalization -- that the relationship can flow in either direction. That's fortuitous, since producing good governance in Afghanistan or Mali seems to be largely beyond the capacity of outsiders.

Americans have learned a great deal over the last decade about unavailing interventions abroad, military and otherwise. We have, in reaction, scaled down our expectations to zero. That is a terrible mistake which I wish Obama would confront much more boldly and eloquently than he has. He has, at least, proposed a modest program to work with others to do what can be done. To which I say, two cheers.

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images