October 2, 2014

Libya, Ghadafi, and the Concept of Policy

Much ado has been made lately about the U.S. “policy” toward Libya. But policy is an overarching concept, and it is intended to be applied categorically across the board. The notion of a foreign policy towards one particular country is a bit like saying we have a national tax policy for one individual American.

Policy should not be idiosyncratic. If the United States has a policy of intervening to stop genocide, then it should intervene to stop every genocide, or have a good explanation why it is not stopping a particular genocide if it is its policy to do so. Likewise, a U.S. policy of preventing foreign governments from murdering its citizens should result in U.S. action anywhere a government acts to commit murder against its own citizens.

This is ostensibly the policy basis of U.S. actions against Libya. The Libyan government was bombing and otherwise murdering its own citizens in an attempt to halt a rebellion and insurgency, and President Obama and NATO elected to intervene to stop it based on an alleged policy. If this is truly U.S. policy, however, then we should see similar interventions elsewhere. Surely Libya is not the only government to threaten or bomb its own citizens.

No one would deny that North Korea, for example, has one of the most brutal regimes it he world. The North Korean government is known to murder its citizens who try to escape into China, hoard donated food supplies while its people starve, and even operate concentration camps within the country for political prisoners and their families.

Murder of civilians, starving citizens, concentration camps… aren’t these all policy reasons we have used to justify foreign interventions before? Indeed. So why have we not put a no-fly zone over North Korea? Or Sudan? The Sudanese government is widely known to have supported genocide against its own citizens in Darfur by arming regional militias. So why were U.S. or NATO or any coalition’s fighter jets not taking out strategic targets in Sudan?

I don’t necessarily have definitive answers to these questions, and I actually do support military intervention against Libya (and would have against Sudan). Rather, my role here has been to try to bring some clarity to an often misappropriated term – policy. It can really serve to delegitimize U.S. actions and intentions if we misuse that concept, as we do so frequently. Claiming that we are intervening in Libya because we have a “policy” of military intervention when a government is murdering its citizens leads many to question why we are not intervening in other areas when other governments murder their citizens. And those questions are legitimate ones.

Instead, we should be honest with the world, and with ourselves. We are intervening in Libya because Ghadafi is a nuisance and we believe the world – and Libya – would be better off without him in power.

Military Sexual Assault Not an “After School Special” Issue

Servicemember-on-servicemember sexual assault is becoming an increasingly public problem for the Department of Defense, and as more light is shed onto this once-taboo topic, the inadequacies of military leaders’ responses to this visceral problem are coming into sharper focus.

Every year I try to make it to the Army Soldier Show. Surprisingly, many people who have served in the Army have not even heard of this great touring event, and there really is not a comparable institution in the other service branches. But for those who know the Soldier Show, you know it’s a great experience with some of the Army’s finest talent singing chart-topping hits from the past year – often better than the original artists.

The production value of the Soldier Show seems to improve every year, and in 2010 it even included the broadcast of high-quality, mid-show commercials from the show’s inter-Army sponsor on gigantic screens on either side the stage. But in contrast to the show, the commercials left much to be desired. The production value and creative talent on display in these commercials were impressive, but like so many public relations campaigns these commercials left me shaking my head and wondering who on Earth thought this campaign would be a good fit for the audience being targeted.

Back then, I simply thought, “Pick your battles, right?” Now, however, I’m compelled to speak up. Why the change? The courtesy reinforcement of a bad idea indicates a more fundamental problem!

This afternoon, Susan Carbon, Director of the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice, delivered prepared remarks to the Army’s annual Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Prevention (SHARP) Summit. Though the remarks contained platitudes that we’ve all heard and would expect, one thing stuck out for me.

About halfway through her speech, Carbon said, “I was so pleased to learn about the Army’s I. A.M STRONG campaign (Intervene.Act.Motivate) – this effort can go a long way to educate soldiers on the crime of sexual assault and how to intervene responsibly to help prevent sexual assaults from occurring.”

Then a little jingle popped into my head, prompted by her words -  “Intervene, Act, Moooootivate… Intervene, Act, Moooootivate.” The jingle was the same one from that commercial I had seen the previous year several times during the Army Soldiers Show.

But just as few would agree that all publicity is good publicity, my vivid memories of this commercial are by no means a credit to its creators or those who approved its use. Despite the seriousness of the topic, and my unquestionable sensitivity to this issue, the commercial elicited automatic mental mocking and eye-rolls due to its absurdity.

As I said earlier, the issue is not with the production value, which was high, or with the artist involved, as he was certainly talented. The real problem was that an entire team somewhere high up in the Army’s hierarchy must have signed off on this “campaign,” but the campaign looked and felt more like a clip from an After School Special than a serious message for the men and women of America’s armed forces.

This sort of campaign – a catchy pop-rap song with edgy graphics – would be perfect for a modern middle school audience, or perhaps even high school freshmen and sophomores, but it’s wholly inappropriate and ineffective for adults, many of whom have seen and experienced the carnage of war. The campaign concept is simply a joke for the intended target audience, and this type of mistake tends to do more harm than good because it elicits widespread mocking of the message.

Sometimes those involved in the creative process get invested in an idea or get stuck on a certain track, and they fail to see that the track is headed in the wrong direction. That’s not a reflection of the quality of the final product or of how hard those involved have worked. But working hard and having a fantastic final product simply aren’t good enough. You have to work smart too, and the final product has to be the right product for the target audience.

This is a message and an issue that needs all the help it can get right now. The problem is growing worse and many are still in denial about the true extent of the problem. The men and women of the armed forces don’t need out-of-touch bureaucrats (both civilian and active duty) creating and reinforcing not only unhelpful campaigns, but ones that actually worsen the problem by unintentionally making a mockery of it.