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Ann Jones, How to Lose Friends and Influence No One (The State Department Way)

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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Ignorance can be dangerous, as shown in a recent poll asking Americans what to do about the Ukraine crisis. It turned out that the less those polled were capable of identifying where in the world Ukraine is, the more likely they were to want the U.S. to intervene militarily in that country.

If ever there were a demonstration of what ignorance can lead to, that poll would be right at the top of the list of sobering examples. Sometimes, of course, we don't know where ignorance is going to lead, but that hasn't stopped the U.S. government from making it a central policy principle of this era. Just the other day, for instance, National Intelligence Director James Clapper imposed a remarkable, if little discussed, gag on the whole national intelligence "community" (and, by implication, on the media as well). From now on, officials at the 17 agencies that make up that labyrinthine bureaucracy are barred from "speaking to journalists about unclassified intelligence-related topics without permission." Yes, you read that right: they are barred not just from discussing classified information with the media, but unclassified information as well.

Almost nothing from that world is unclassified any more. In the Bush and Obama years, a vast blanket of secrecy has been thrown over just about anything American intelligence outfits do or any of the documents they produce, no matter how anodyne. Still, you never know what small things might have slipped through unclassified due to some oversight. Thanks to the intervention of Clapper, who only months ago promised a new era of "transparency" in intelligence, problem solved. His is a simple way to deal with leaks of even the most innocent information. Now, if you meet with a reporter to discuss anything at all without "permission," you are open to being disciplined, fired, or even conceivably prosecuted.

Think of this as the Obama administration's version of an ignorance rule. In order to keep Americans safe, it turns out, you must keep them blissfully, utterly, totally uninformed about what in the world their government knows or thinks or does in their name, unless that information is carefully vetted and approved by some official or bureaucrat. In other words, we now live in a country in which we have a government of the knowing, by the classifiers, for the uninformed, and if you don't like it, well, there's a door marked "exit" that you can step through right now.

Apply to this situation what might be called the Ukraine rule and you come up with a potential formula (or so the government evidently hopes) that would go something like this: the less the American people know, the more likely they are to believe that our "safety" and "security" lie in whatever Washington wants to do. And by the way, ignorance is on the march in Washington. Today, TomDispatch regular Ann Jones, author of They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America's Wars -- The Untold Story, reports on part of the budget process for 2015 that will help make government-sponsored ignorance not just a national but a global concern. Tom

Washington's Pivot to Ignorance
Will the State Department Torpedo Its Last Great Program?
By Ann Jones

Often it's the little things coming out of Washington, obscured by the big, scary headlines, that matter most in the long run. Items that scarcely make the news, or fail to attract your attention, or once noticed seem trivial, may carry consequences that endure long after the latest front-page crisis has passed. They may, in fact, signal fundamental changes in Washington's priorities and policies that could even face opposition, if only we paid attention.

Take the current case of an unprecedented, unkind, under-the-radar cut in the State Department's budget for the Fulbright Program, the venerable 68-year-old operation that annually arranges for thousands of educators, students, and researchers to be exchanged between the United States and at least 155 other countries. As Washington increasingly comes to rely on the "forward projection" of military force to maintain its global position, the Fulbright Program may be the last vestige of an earlier, more democratic, equitable, and generous America that enjoyed a certain moral and intellectual standing in the world. Yet, long advertised by the U.S. government as "the flagship international educational exchange program" of American cultural diplomacy, it is now in the path of the State Department's torpedoes.

Right now, all over the world, former Fulbright scholars like me (Norway, 2012) are raising the alarm, trying to persuade Congress to stand by one of its best creations, passed by unanimous bipartisan consent of the Senate and signed into law by President Truman in 1946. Alumni of the Fulbright Program number more than 325,000, including more than 123,000 Americans. Among Fulbright alums are 53 from 13 different countries who have won a Nobel Prize, 28 MacArthur Foundation fellows, 80 winners of the Pulitzer Prize, 29 who have served as the head of state or government, and at least one, lunar geologist Harrison Schmitt (Norway, 1957), who walked on the moon -- not to mention the hundreds of thousands who returned to their countries with greater understanding and respect for others and a desire to get along. Check the roster of any institution working for peace around the world and you're almost certain to find Fulbright alums whose career choices were shaped by international exchange. What's not to admire about such a program?

Yet the Fulbright budget, which falls under the State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), seems to be on the chopping block. The proposed cut amounts to chump change in Washington, only $30.5 million. But the unexpected reduction from a $234.7 million budget this year to $204.2 million in 2015 represents 13% of what Fulbright gets. For such a relatively small-budget program, that's a big chunk. No one in the know will say just where the cuts are going to fall, but the most likely target could be "old Europe," and the worldwide result is likely to be a dramatic drop from 8,000 to fewer than 6,000 in the number of applicants who receive the already exceedingly modest grants.

For the U.S., that's not a saving, it's a foolish blunder. Only about 1% of American college students ever study abroad. Fewer than 20% speak more than one language -- a figure that includes immigrants for whom English comes second or third -- but all students benefit from the presence of international "Fulbrighters" on their campuses and the return of their own professors and grad students from study and teaching in other countries. Those Fulbrighters chosen according to standards of academic excellence may seem to be an elite group, but their presence on campuses from North Dakota State to Notre Dame is thoroughly democratic. Their knowledge gained abroad, unlike money in our economy, trickles down and spreads out.

Cutting the Fulbright budget also sends a dangerous message to allies around the world: that the U.S. is not truly committed to its biggest and best international exchange program. That news comes as a kick in the teeth to 50 partner countries that have established Fulbright commissions of their own to fund their share, or more than their share, of the mutual exchange. (Norway, for one, funds 70% of it.) What are good friends to make of "cultural diplomacy" like this?

Developing a Twitter-Worthy Worldview

Given what the program achieves, and what it contributes to American prestige abroad, the budget cut is a terrible idea, but the scheme behind it is worse. It hinges on the difference between thinking long and thinking short. With decades of experience, the Fulbright Program clearly welcomes the positive effects of the regular exchange of scholars and educators of proven excellence on broad issues of cultural diplomacy like peace, the progress of democracy, and economic cooperation over time. But it's not so heedless of history as to think it can determine those outcomes.

The State Department, on the other hand, is headed largely by short-term political appointees, many without specialized experience, most fixated on their own competitive careers. Their thinking leans quite naturally toward the quick fix consistent with an alarmist and historically suspect worldview, quite possibly derived from CNN, inscribed in the justification of the federal budget proposed for 2015: "Global events and trends now start, spread, and shape countries in an instant." For them, history now only happens on the fast track.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews (more...)
 

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