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What has changed since September 11?
Lest we perpetuate ignorance with the term “Muslim world,” I should concede that it doesn’t exist. Then I can stop using quotation marks. Muslims live throughout the world, not the Arab world or the Muslim world, but to the best of my knowledge, in every state in the United States and in every country on Earth. Neither is the Muslim world synonymous with the Arab world. Not all Arabs are Muslims, and not all Muslims are Arabs. It is really hard to stereotype either group, although there are plenty of Americans who do so in order to justify their prejudice against them. Similarly, those who contend that the Quran condemns, rages against, or vows jihad against Christians or Jews is either ignorant or a flat-out liar. The opposite is true. Both are honored in the Quran; in fact, it is quite possible to lift Quranic passages out of context and pass them off as Biblical, sometimes almost word-for-word. But lest we upset too many apple carts of those who are blissfully anti-Muslim, let’s move on.
There are blond blue-eyed Muslims and dishdash-wearing Christians and Jews. Muslims are no more uniform in appearance or demeanor than Christians, Jews or Buddhists (or any religion, denomination, sect, cult or aberrant social group who might feel slighted by omission). Similarly, Arabs do not necessarily have brown eyes and black hair. So, generally brushing aside generalizations about generalizations, let me add that for the sake of convenience and my own laziness, here I use the term “Arab World” to mean the Maghreb region of North Africa, through the Arabian Peninsula and Levant, and into South Asia. Quibble if you like, and welcome to “Clive’s World.” The specific countries include Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Israel, Iraq, Lebanon, The Palestinian Authority, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, some of which the casual observer might recognize from the news.
Not only do many of them pose a threat to neighboring countries, but also their increasing volatility and internal political struggles pose a threat to governments and civil society alike. Last, but of no small concern—to me at least-- the region also is the source of threats to the security of the United States and our armed forces, through the offices of Al Qaeda and other terrorist grounds, formal and informal, large and small.
With that brief clarification, then, I submit that the Arab World has been the source of some concern. I did not include Syria and Iran, not because they have remained tranquil, but because they do not fit my second qualifier: with those two exceptions, all of the countries included above also fall into the region served by the NESA Center. The Department of defense will not fund programs with those countries, which are considered terrorist states.
By now, you probably wonder why I keep referring to a tiny organization—fewer than 70 full-time employees—in the context of this troubled region. To that I say, just as a small handful of terrorists changed the world on September 11, 2001, so this small band of dedicated men and women are working assiduously to mend fences, improve relations, and listen to the people in the Arab world.
Despite the efforts of career diplomats, special envoys and the globetrotting Secretary of State, what we hear about American engagement in the region is almost always in terms of military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The presence of diplomats is ironically acknowledged in the apparent contradiction when the native population of the region protest the presence of U.S. military in the same conversation in which they complain that the “United States should do something” about regional issues.
The NESA Center, based in Washington, D.C., combines the expertise of faculty and staff with what Gen. Petraeus, who worked closely with the Center, has described as “a thousand years” of experience in the NESA region. The faculty comprises career academics, retired diplomats and a slew of retired colonels with a lifetime of experience in the region.
The unique blend of academics, State and Defense Department influences provides extensive expertise, a wide variety of perspectives and a broad view of the problems that afflict the region.
The NESA Center offers foundation programs in which military and civilian decision-makers from the region attend two- or three weeks seminars that educate participants about how the U.S. government works and how U.S. policy is formed, with panels that include not only NESA faculty, but also prominent journalists, academics and subject matter experts, including recently retired government officials. The recently retired aspect is critical to frank and open discussions without being obliged to espouse the party-line or official policy. The seminars also focus on discussing regional issues and, typically, end with a practical exercise or “war game” in which small groups work together to find national, regional and global solutions to an international crisis in the region, whether a natural disaster, pandemic, or other emergency.
The frankness that the panelists bring to the seminars encourages similar frankness from the regional officials. The rigidly enforced non-attribution policy promotes the readiness to speak honestly.
So, Indians and Pakistanis, Israelis and Lebanese, Algerians and Moroccans talk to each other here, if nowhere else. As one participant asked frankly, “Where else can I talk with my enemy?” They still won’t be photographed together.
The ambassador from a participating country told me that his favorite NESA story is about two colonels in a NESA Afghanistan-Pakistan Confidence Building Seminar, one from each country, who discovered that they commanded troops directly opposite each other at the border between their two countries. They exchanged cell-phone numbers and whenever tensions escalated at the border, they were able to all each other and relieve the stress.
Another small example: A general officer from a government that is notoriously at odds with a neighboring one described what he considered the most valuable part of his two weeks at NESA: “Without a doubt, it is the relationship I have developed with the two [neighboring country’s] diplomats. We have been going to dinner together and already have arranged to have lunch in [his capital city] when we return.”
In addition to the general seminars, NESA offers programs devoted to combating terrorism and strategic communications, an orientation course for new embassy officers, and other specific topics.
Those seminars alone would make the Center valuable, but NESA also offers monthly Washington Seminars to which diplomats and military attaches assigned to Washington enjoy lunch with NESA faculty and staff and fellow diplomats before hearing from one or more journalists, academics or U.S. government officials discussing a current topic, followed by a question-and-answer period.
Most of the Center’s work happens quietly in the region. For example, the Center recently extended a three-year agreement to support the Lebanese Armed Forces in restructuring their professional military education program, and the Center has worked extensively with a broad spectrum of Yemeni officials, both in the United states and in Yemen, in developing a national security plan. The Yemeni program continues via televideoconferences between Sana’a and NESA faculty in Washington and at Central Command in Tampa.
Other countries request bilateral seminars with NESA, and faculty travel through the region, addressing issues of concern to the requesting country.
The Center also works with their sister regional centers to address specific issues, such as a recent regional Horn of Africa Conference in Istanbul, in coordination with the Africa Center; or earlier his year, with a Northwest Africa Transnational Threats Seminar in Morocco, in conjunction with the Africa Center and the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (Latin America).
Also this year, the Marshall Center (Europe) and Asia-Pacific Center supported a Central Asian seminar at NESA Center headquarters in Washington.
In the meantime, the Center’s director, a retired ambassador, travels throughout the region carrying out his own brand of personal and unofficial diplomacy with high level officials. NESA also maintains close ties with its more than 3,000 very loyal alumni—more than a third of whom have reached the rank of flag or general officer, or the civilian equivalent—through email, Facebook, Twitter, and personal meetings.
The Center makes a difference, developing strong relationships, dispelling myths about the United States, and bringing together high-level officials from some of the most challenging and volatile countries in the world, to discuss differences and seek solutions, without the need to posture for the press or to rattle sabers to save face with their countrymen or neighbors.
As a handful of men with malicious intent changed the world on September 11, 2001, so a handful of men and women with the intent of enhancing security in the region—are slowly changing the world, with good faith, a strategic plan, and a very modest budget.