Take 2 Ambien and Call Me When It's Over

I’d rather spoon my own eye out than sit through this year’s Think-Tank-a-palooza.

Nobody seems to be happy with U.S. foreign policy these days. It's not hard to see why. Relations with Russia are frosty and could get worse. China is throwing sharp elbows and looking for opportunities to shift the status quo in Asia. The NSA is out of control. Afghanistan and Iraq were failures. Libya is a mess, Syria is worse, and Secretary of State John Kerry's quixotic effort at Middle East peacemaking was a farce. Al Qaeda keeps spreading and morphing no matter how many leaders our drones and Special Forces kill. With criticism mounting, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his basic approach at West Point and hardly anyone came away feeling any better. And now we are having a pointless squabble over repatriated POW Bowe Bergdahl.

With nearly everyone -- from Afghanistan War veterans to former envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to former Ambassador Robert Ford to MoveOn.org -- upset about how things are going, it's time for our premier foreign-policy institutions to step up with some outside-the-box thinking on how the United States could do better. Surely well-informed experts can offer fresh thinking on how the United States can deal with a world that seems to spin more out of control each month.

By a lucky coincidence, three prominent foreign policy think tanks have either recently held or are about to convene annual conferences on the state of the world and America's role within it. On June 12-13 the venerable Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) will hold its annual member's conference in New York. In Washington, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) will be hosting its own conference on June 11, one day before the CFR event. And back on May 16, the once-iconoclastic New America Foundation convened its own annual meeting, under the heading "Big Ideas for a New America."

I've been looking over the programs for these three gatherings, and my first impulse is to yawn. Instead of a diverse array of speakers offering fresh ideas, or a clash of divergent world-views and policy prescriptions, the programs for all these events are heavily populated by the usual suspects: prominent foreign-policy practitioners, policy wonks, and public figures whose views are already familiar to anyone who's been paying attention to the travails of U.S. foreign policy.

Check out the bold-faced names on the CFR program. In addition to sessions run by the Council's own fellows, attendees will hear from former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick, former Federal Reserve Vice Chair Alan Blinder, and former Under Secretary of State (and my Harvard colleague) Nicholas Burns. For the dinner entertainment, PBS's Charlie Rose will interview Senator John McCain. With the possible exception of Hampshire College's Michael Klare (who is scheduled to appear on a panel on resource scarcity), there's no one on the program with a surprising, controversial, or edgy take on the world or the role the United States should play in it.

What about CNAS? Their one-day conference will kick off with some well-known foreign experts: Wolfgang Ischinger of the Munich Security Conference, Amos Yadlin of the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, and Zhu Feng of Peking University, all of them familiar insiders. Then you get Congressman Paul Ryan, retired admiral and former NATO Chief James Stavridis, and veteran Defense Department official William Lynn III. Other speakers include former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, veteran Middle East hand Dennis Ross, and Nick Burns again. Attendees will also hear a keynote speech from -- drum roll -- current National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Were things any different last month at New America's conference last month, which addressed both foreign and domestic policy issues? The organization's founders intended it to challenge conventional wisdom inside the Beltway, but the agenda at that conference was still dominated by a roster of familiar faces. The opening keynote was by -- there he is again, John McCain -- and other speakers included financier and Obama-insider Steven Rattner, Sharon Burke from the Defense Department, media power couple Susan Glasser of Politico Magazine and Peter Baker of the New York Times, Eric Schmidt of Google, Inc., and FP's Tom Ricks and Rosa Brooks. The closing keynote was by Hillary Clinton; presumably you've heard of her too.

Don't get me wrong: the people participating at these events are all smart and knowledgeable, and attendees will undoubtedly glean nuggets of wisdom from them. I always enjoy listening to Nick Burns, for example, and CNAS Senior Fellow Colin Kahl (who is moderating a panel next week) is very sensible about U.S. Mideast policy. Michael Lind of New America remains a delightfully independent voice on many issues, including our dysfunctional foreign policy. So I'm not trying to diss any of the people who spoke at NAF last month or who will speak at CNAS or CFR this week.

Moreover, it's easy to understand why conference organizers stick with familiar faces: putting a bunch of established foreign policy VIPs on the program helps guarantee a big turn-out and highlights the organization's "convening power." And in our celebrity-mad world, many people would happy to catch a glimpse of somebody like McCain or Clinton, even if neither says anything new or thought-provoking. Sticking to establishment figures also avoids controversy: you don't have to worry about donors getting upset about the program or government officials refusing to appear on the same dais with someone they regard as radioactive.

But given the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of U.S. foreign policy, is this really the best we can do? Wouldn't it be more interesting, and more importantly, more useful for these organizations to cast the net more widely, and include people whose ideas on foreign policy were serious, well-informed, yet outside the current consensus? I'm not suggesting that CFR or CNAS invite a Taliban spokesman to participate (though lord knows that could be very revealing), but here are a few proposals for how these organizations might improve their otherwise staid proceedings.

Instead of asking the audience to listen to John McCain (whose views on foreign policy are no mystery at this point), why not have Charlie Rose interview Rand Paul?  Or better still: put Paul and McCain together and let Charlie interrogate them both.

How about inviting a serious critic of American over-commitment to speak at one of these internationalist gatherings? What about Andrew Bacevich from Boston University or Barry Posen from MIT? Both have impeccable credentials and Posen has a new book out on U.S. grand strategy that deserves wide exposure. If you wanted to generate some interest and edify the audience, put Posen on a panel with Robert Kagan, who recently defended the neoconservatives' failed approach to U.S. grand strategy in The New Republic and let them debate the issue of U.S. military engagement at length. Ohio State Professor John Mueller has written some terrific books and articles challenging the alarmist tendencies in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and he's an entertaining speaker as well. If you're looking for a different perspective on terrorism, for example, send him an invitation.

Similarly, it's hard to think of anyone who has had more impact on debates about U.S. national security policy in the past year than Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, or Laura Poitras. Even if you disagree completely with their views, all three have shown themselves to be knowledgeable and thoughtful critics of our overly energetic surveillance regime. So where's the panel discussion on secrecy and national security policy, pitting Greenwald against a representative from the intelligence community like Michael Hayden, Mike Morell, or Paul Pillar?

Let's get even more creative, and put technology to work. Get Edward Snowden on Skype from Moscow and let attendees at the conference ask him questions. If they wished, participants could grill him to their heart's content. I have no idea if Snowden would agree to participate in such an event, but a session like that would be the antithesis of dull and people might even get their minds stretched a bit.

And then there's the media. I've got no problem with establishment figures like Charlie Rose, Tom Ricks, Carla Robbins, or Susan Glasser appearing at events like these; indeed, I think it's a good thing. But why not spice up the mix with uber-blogger Andrew Sullivan or some of the academics who are now writing for The Monkey Cage? Where is Oscar-nominee Jeremy Scahill, or the tag team of Dana Priest and William Arkin, who wrote the book (literally) on Top Secret America. Where's Jane Mayer from the New Yorker, or even a real contrarian like Gareth Porter?  

Instead of playing it safe, I wish organizations like these had the imagination and courage to be bold. By all means keep some of the current insiders, but bring in Rashid Khalidi and Chas Freeman on the Middle East, Flynt and Hillary Leverett on U.S. policy toward Iran and Syria, Stephen Cohen on Ukraine, and Robert Kaplan and Australian Hugh White on Sino-American relations. I'm not saying that these people are necessarily right; my point is that an audience interested in being challenged and educated should hear a wider range of views than they typically get at these meetings. Pair them up with other people who are inclined to challenge the conventional wisdom and let a hundred flowers bloom; the resulting exchanges would edify the audience and the speakers might even learn something from each other.

If American foreign policy were going swimmingly, it would be easy to shrug off my proposal and say "if it ain't broke don't fix it." But that's hardly the case: we've had twenty-plus years of foreign policy fiascoes, yet we continue to turn to the architects and supporters of these failures for advice on what to do next. This makes no sense; we need to rethink how we do business.

One of the strengths of U.S. democracy is supposed to be its openness to fresh ideas, and to arguments that challenge deeply embedded beliefs. America was founded on a set of ideas that were radical in their time, and continued ferment and debate ultimately discredited both slavery and Jim Crow, brought women the franchise (belatedly), and transformed public attitudes toward smoking, gay marriage, and a host of other shibboleths. Intense foreign policy debates also overcame isolationist sentiment after World War II. Since the end of the Cold War, however, establishment thinking about foreign policy has been defined by an alliance of liberal hawks and even more hawkish neoconservatives, with disappointing results for sure. There's no time like the present for a more wide-open discussion.

If you'd like U.S. foreign policy to be more effective, competent, humane, and above all, successful -- and who wouldn't? -- letting some fresh air into the usual conference proceedings would be a step in the right direction. It's too late to change the programs for this year's meetings. But as Red Sox and Cubs fans learned a long time ago: there's always next year.



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