Shadow Government

Kony 2012: Lessons for the Obama administration

April 20th. That's the day activists are urged to cover towns and cities with posters exposing the atrocities of African warlord and International Criminal Court fugitive Joseph Kony.

The predominately youth-driven movement, Invisible Children, hit the cyber world on March 5th. It spread like a marketer's dream. In just two days, the Kony 2012 video garnered more than 43 million hits. Traditional mainstream media, including CNN, NBC, and the Washington Post continue covering it. Now at 100 million plus views and counting, it has spread to at least 204 countries and generated about 3.6 million commitments from those pledging to take action in local communities.

Regardless of your opinion on its message or depiction of on-the-ground circumstances, Kony 2012 is a case study in the reach and influence of social media. It has the attributes that evolving digital technologies can employ to connect, inform, organize and motivate. But it also provides valuable insight for President Obama and his administration on ways to advance liberty and support oppressed people around the world.

Social media doesn't create ideas. Nor does it create political opposition in closed societies. But its ability to serve as an equalizer gives those in authoritarian countries one more avenue to hasten the changes they seek. U.S. leadership would go a long way in helping them realize those changes.

It's no secret that fostering democracy and freedom isn't high on the president's agenda. Those ideals were not part of his 2009 inaugural speech. Secretary of State Clinton notably omitted democracy in her confirmation hearings, saying the three "Ds" of U.S. foreign policy were limited to defense, diplomacy, and development.

More recently, the Obama administration was largely absent in rhetoric or action on events ranging from the Arab Spring to the continuing Chinese crackdown on political dissent to widespread irregularities in Russia's March presidential election. As the president has worked to distance himself from anything associated with his predecessor, opportunities have been lost to empower reformers in global hotspots.   

Today's digital technologies can support democratic political movements in ways not seen before. Unlike communication methods and techniques of just a decade ago, social media makes it easy to connect, rally around a common cause, and empower people with what they need to collaborate.

If the Obama administration chooses to elevate liberty as a valued American export, Kony 2012 offers several guiding principles. Here are just a few.

First, the power of moral clarity. In his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky dissects the chasm between free societies and fear societies. In articulating this "moral clarity," Sharansky, a former Soviet political prisoner who champions the universality of human rights, looks at the tendency over time of free peoples to lose sight of what divides freedom from fear, open from closed, and tolerant from oppressive. True to his analysis, many in today's foreign policy apparatus, as well as many opinion leaders, have lost a collective grip on moral clarity.

Kony 2012 visualizes the face of evil on one side and those who suffer its consequences on the other. It's a stark reminder of the fundamental freedoms and human dignity shared by all.

Understanding and embracing moral clarity -- free versus fear -- is a simple step. It's easily regained, by this administration or a future one, in a world that desperately needs it.

Second, the power of a single idea. Kony 2012 isn't burdened by diplomatic-speak, realpolitik, or convoluted posturing. It's articulation of a straight-forward vision of what the future can and should be. Stop the brutality of Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army in Central Africa, in particular the abduction and abuse of children. It's made straight-forward and personal with part of the story told through reaction of the narrator's son, Gavin.

It brings to mind President Reagan's signature call to rid the world of communism, which intellectual elites derided as naïve up until the day of the Soviet Union's collapse and the Berlin Wall's destruction.

The causes of Soviet communism's fall fill lengthy textbooks. But activists and reformers in former authoritarian countries credit Reagan's singular, repeated, and passionate articulation on the right of self-governance as inspiration. Imagine how social media could have accelerated the changes that eventually swept Central and Eastern Europe, just as they could elsewhere in the world today.

And, third, the power of a call to action.

Authoritarians fear social media because they can't control the message. Given the opportunity to communicate and connect, activists and reformers wanting a better future for themselves and their country will call for change and how that change can be achieved, just as they did in 2011 in Tunisia, Syria and Egypt using Twitter, Facebook, and smartphones.

Kony 2012 told viewers exactly what they could do to help in three easy steps. More than 3.5 million signed up.

At a recent Washington conference, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio described the role the internet and social media could play "in empowering the Cuban people to reclaim their country from the Castro tyranny." He's right.

Brian C. Keeter has provided communications assistance to democratic activists and observed elections in Central and Eastern Europe, Latin America and the Middle East. He served at the Department of Transportation in the Bush administration, and is currently director of public affairs at Auburn University.


Shadow Government

Evaluating the war with al Qaeda, part IV: How well are we doing?

In previous posts (here, here, and here), I've looked at three important questions that we must answer if we are to assess how well the U.S. is doing in its war on al Qaeda: defining al Qaeda, naming the group's objectives, and then examining how well it is doing at achieving its goals. I've suggested that the U.S. comes to quite different conclusions than al Qaeda itself on all three of these issues. According to a majority of experts -- both within and outside government -- al Qaeda is primarily the small "core" located somewhere in Afghanistan-Pakistan; the affiliates have an ambiguous relationship with this core and are generally focused on local concerns. The objective of the core is to attack the U.S. and its allies and, because of our excellent counter-terrorism (CT) efforts, we have thwarted all such attempts on the U.S. since 9-11. If this version of the conflict is true, we have nearly won, and only need to kill or capture a few more members of the core before it disintegrates completely.

Al Qaeda's leadership, on the other hand, considers itself to be much more than just a core of terrorists, but rather the "high command" of a global organization. In their view, the affiliates (or branches), as well as many fighters in Afghanistan-Pakistan, are integral members of al Qaeda. They have publicly described expansive objectives that include overthrowing the rulers of every Muslim-majority country (whether part of an earlier Islamic state or not), imposing their version of sharia, and then setting up "amirates," or Islamic states in these countries. Al Qaeda believes that they have achieved many of these goals already and are pressing forward to seize more territory and set up new shadow governments.

So how do we reconcile these very different versions of the war and determine where we are at in this conflict? I believe that the most important question we can ask ourselves is this: Is al Qaeda better off now than it was ten years ago? If we just look at attacks on the U.S., its citizens, and even its allies, we will agree with the current majority view of al Qaeda and answer "no." Unlike before 9-11, when al Qaeda and terrorists trained by the group were able to carry out devastating attacks against the U.S. and its interests in 1993, 1995, 1998, and 2000, the period since 9-11 has been marked by one CT triumph after another. The planned follow-up attacks (the so-called "second wave") were foiled or failed to materialize and other serious plots have been stopped on a regular basis. The only large-scale attacks that succeeded were abroad (Bali (2002), Spain (2004), London (2005) -- no other major attempts since 2005 have made it past the CT nets of the U.S. and our allies.

We will, however, draw quite a different conclusion if we look at how al Qaeda is faring in the rest of the world. On September 11, al Qaeda controlled perhaps a half-dozen camps in one safe-haven (Afghanistan) and had a few tentative alliances with other jihadist groups that had mostly local concerns. Today al Qaeda has multiple safe-havens (in northern Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, the Sahel); controls branches in many countries that share al Qaeda's global aspirations; holds territory through shadow governments that force local Muslims to follow al Qaeda's version of sharia; and is waging open war on numerous battlefields (Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Mali, etc.). Most tellingly, it is involved -- sometimes weakly, at other times in strength -- in every Muslim-majority country in the world.

Based on these facts, any net assessment of al Qaeda would conclude that, despite its failure to carry out a mass-casualty attack on the U.S. since 9-11, the group is in far better condition on a global scale than at any time in its history. And if, as al Qaeda itself has always argued, attacking the U.S. was just one means toward the greater ends of overthrowing Muslim rulers, imposing their version of sharia, and controlling territory, then they have made real progress toward achieving their strategic goals. This judgment is not just an esoteric statement about theory, but also has important policy implications: If al Qaeda is indeed spreading itself across broad swathes of territory, can the U.S. continue to depend solely on regional partners and a counter-terrorism strategy to stop the group?

-/AFP/Getty Images