When anti-government forces can control the public narrative about drone strikes in Yemen

While social media was praised in helping the Arab Spring movement, the new availability of Twitter in Yemen has changed who gets to control the public narrative about violence:

The result: AQAP and the Yemeni public have left the government far behind in an information war made possible by the spread of the Internet in the Arab world’s poorest nation. Authorities can no longer shape the narrative of counterinsurgency, particularly when it comes to controversial drone strikes…But the number of Internet users in the country increased nearly tenfold between 2010 and 2012, according to government figures, although even with that rapid expansion, less than a quarter of Yemenis have regular internet access.

Most drone strikes, which are believed to be US operations, target the most impoverished and isolated parts of Yemen where AQAP operates. The region’s remoteness plays into the group’s hands; it also makes it easy for the government to suppress any negative information, including civilian casualties from drone strikes and other aerial attacks.

But now Yemenis can easily, quickly share on-the-ground information. Last December, an airstrike targeted a wedding convoy, killing roughly a dozen civilians. The government initially identified the casualties as militants, but locals soon began posting photos of the dead on Facebook and tweeting the names of victims, directly challenging the government’s obfuscation.

Sounds like quite a change in a short amount of time. The availability of the Internet and social media threaten all sorts of traditional institutions that have relied on controlling information. All of the sudden, alternative viewpoints are available and regular citizens can pick and choose which to follow, believe, and propagate.

What does this do for American foreign policy? We generally disapprove of regimes that crack down on Internet availability (think China) but this is usually because we want to get our messages through. What happens when the same technologies are used to counter American narratives?

Argument: boost America’s foreign policy by promoting walkable communities at home

Patrick Doherty argues that promoting and developing walkable urbanism at home can boost American foreign policy abroad:

This is the lesson, Doherty says, we should take from that era: “The real key to American strategic success in the 20th century – both during World War II and the Cold War – was not the military stuff. The key was that we understood how to let our economic engine do the heavy lifting.”

It’s clear today, though, that suburbia can no longer do this for us. The children of baby boomers are less interested in living their parents’ lifestyle. And baby boomers themselves are increasingly rejecting it, wary of a choice between isolated houses and nursing homes. If anything, the development model of suburbia now seems to be weakening our economy instead of propping it up. Without eternal new development, the infrastructure costs of existing subdivisions are becoming clearer. And as demand shifts back toward urban centers, we’re left with a dramatic oversupply of another era’s housing (which we continued to build long after the Cold War ended).

So what replaces suburbia as the engine of our economy?

“There’s no good growth story,” Doherty says. Or, at least, that’s how many investors and CFOs feel. But he believes an answer does exist among findings we’ve covered before from real estate theorist Christopher Leinberger: it’s in the rising demand for walkable urbanism.

The connection between foreign policy and suburban development is a fascinating one: economic strength, driven in the past by suburban growth and possibly in the future by walkable development, leads to a stronger foreign policy posture. But, this summary doesn’t connect the dots enough for me. Is there enough demand to make a big switch from suburbs to walkable urbanism? Where will the money come from – as the article notes, the suburbs were subsidized with federal dollars so will walkable urbanism receive similar funding? Given the demand and the money, would all of this be enough to drive the American economy in a new direction? It sounds like Doherty would argue walkable urbanism provides some bonuses compared to other kinds of development (can reduce dependence on oil, it is greener, etc.) but wouldn’t any big trend in development help the American economy and foreign policy?

I’m thinking this could also be an updated critique of the American suburbs: not only are they bad for residents but they hurt American foreign policy. Going further, if we continue with suburban development, America will decline relative to other countries.

Will the future be ruled by cities or suburbs?

Two commentators disagree in a special issue of Foreign Policy on global cities: one says cities are the places of the future while another says suburbs are key.

1. In Foreign Policy, Parang Khanna discusses global cities, a concept developed by sociologist Saskia Sassen. Khanna suggests such cities are growing to a point where they exceed the ability for nations or the United Nations to control them. The conclusion is that cities are quite important:

What happens in our cities, simply put, matters more than what happens anywhere else. Cities are the world’s experimental laboratories and thus a metaphor for an uncertain age. They are both the cancer and the foundation of our networked world, both virus and antibody. From climate change to poverty and inequality, cities are the problem — and the solution.

2. Joel Kotkin responds and claims a more dispersed population, in suburbs, can lead to better outcomes in areas like generating wealth, less inequality, and a cleaner environment. He suggests this is particular an issue if we encourage large cities in the developing world:

The goal of urban planners should not be to fulfill their own grandiose visions of megacities on a hill, but to meet the needs of the people living in them, particularly those people suffering from overcrowding, environmental misery, and social inequality. When it comes to exporting our notions to the rest of the globe, we must be aware of our own susceptibility to fashionable theories in urban design — because while the West may be able to live with its mistakes, the developing world doesn’t enjoy that luxury.

An interesting debate – both places have their own issues.  One could ask what residents would prefer to live in (both in the developed and developing world): the wealthy and glamorous megacity or the comfortable and affluent suburbs? Or perhaps different nations could have different planning and policy goals? Or perhaps we need some of both cities and suburbs…