The WikiLeaks Document Flood – What Do You Think?

Professor John Gershman writes:

The recent WikiLeaks document dump and the associated reporting by several prominent newspapers has made many researchers enthusiastic and has fanned the flames of hyperbole both on the part of WikiLeaks and its detractors. Both sides exaggerate the significance of the leaks, and the hyperbole obscures more significant issues.

The documents cover a period from 1966 to February 2010 from a range of embassies and personnel. The ones involving Iran and the Middle East garner the greatest attention, although most are unsurprising to anyone who follows the region. One less widely reported view is that of former National Security Council staffer Gary Sick, who argues that the documents indicate that the Obama administration has yet to seriously try an engagement strategy with Iran and that Washington has largely resisted the drumbeat for attacking Iran from its allies in the region.

Long-Term Effects

The broader question is whether these kind of leaks lead to longer-term difficulties for the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy. To the extent those policies include the routine use of diplomats as spies, it will be a good thing if the leaks reduce those efforts.

But some ask: Will foreign leaders will be less willing to be forthright in their views and opinions if they think they will appear soon on the internet?

Short answer: probably not. CNN tweets that while calling another government to talk about the leaks, Secretary Clinton was told, “Don’t worry about it, you should see what we say about you.”

Others have asked: Will U.S. diplomatic personnel be less forthright about their own opinions or expressing the views of others in diplomatic cables.

Again: probably not. Perhaps the language will be less colorful.

Will the now ramped-up security measures for these and presumably other types of documents inhibit the kind of information sharing that was pointed to as missing prior to the 9/11 attacks. Short Answer: Possibly — but getting the balance right takes time.

Finally, will the leaks will make some countries whose cooperation with the U.S. is unpopular at home retreat from their collaboration. Short Answer: Possibly in the short-term.

Don’t Buy the Hype

But those may not be the most important dimensions of WikiLeaks’ impact.
“Cablegate” – as the document dump has been dubbed — is in some ways a form of celebrity shock journalism, the equivalent of a s speech by Bono on African poverty monopolizing press attention while the people who have been working in the trenches on these issues for decades get overlooked. Outfits like the National Security Archive, Open the Government, and freedominfo – among many others — slog away on a daily basis, working to hold officials accountable and do the nitty-gritty work required to make the Freedom of Information Act meaningful and governments around the world more open and accountable.

Cablegate has, in fact, sparked a valuable debate on the benefits and limits that transparency can and should play in foreign policy. This kind of debate will only strengthen our democratic institutions as we publicly debate and identify the benefits and risks associated with secrecy. For example, even Daniel Ellsberg of Pentagon Papers fame suggested that some things should remain secret, at least for a period of time. Recent experiences suggest that such a debate is an important and valuable one — and that this is potentially a benefit that far outweighs the short-term risks to the conduct of foreign policy.

What’s your opinion? Comment below.

I.M. Pei Scuttles Plans for NYU Tower – What do you think?

This story originally appeared in New York Magazine.

New York University has withdrawn its application to build a 400-foot-tall hotel and residential complex alongside the I.M Pei-designed Silver Towers after the architect
came out against the new building.

The news was a stunning defeat for NYU and a major setback in its bid to build 3 million square feet of new developments in Greenwich Village over the next twenty years. 

As reported by New York this week, NYU has conducted its development strategy with the discipline of a political campaign, trying to overcome opposition from those in the community who felt the university had steamrolled complaints in years past.

The contentious political atmosphere gave Pei, the world-famous architect who built the towers in the sixties, considerable sway as the Landmarks Commission weighed the university’s proposal. In February 2008, NYU’s architects sought a meeting with Pei to present their plans. The hope then was that he would support the bid, or at a minimum, stay quiet and not inject himself in the process. The plan would be “shattered” if Pei spoke out, said David Rubin, one of NYU’s outside architects.

For a while, Pei remained quiet. But in a letter to Robert Tierney, chairman of the Landmarks Preservation Commission, written on November 10 and released on Thursday by NYU, Pei’s longtime business partner Henry Cobb described the fourth tower as “highly destructive” to Pei’s original vision. Cobb serves as the public representative of the 93-year-old architect.

“We felt we had an obligation,” Cobb said in an interview on Thursday. “We thought about it very seriously, and we didn’t react immediately, but we didn’t want to respond before the whole matter got close to some kind of public hearing.”

Now that NYU has killed plans for a fourth tower, the university is pressing ahead with a rezoning proposal so it can build on the site currently housing the Morton Williams supermarket.

Lynne Brown, NYU’s senior VP for university relations and public affairs, said in a statement: “Mr. Pei has now had a change of heart. The clarity Mr. Pei has now provided — that the Morton Williams site is ‘preferable’ — is helpful to us in understanding how to proceed.”

Andrew Berman, the executive director of the Greenwich Village Society for Historic Preservation, was delighted by NYU’s reversal but said he has no plans to let up in the fight against its plans for expansion. “This is one down, and there’s many, many more to go,” he said.

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Conversations in Public Service with Carol Thompson Cole, president and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners

Monday, November 8, NYU Wagner hosted a breakfast with Carol Thompson Cole,
president and CEO of Venture Philanthropy Partners
(VPP). The event was part of the Conversations in Public Service series,
which, as Dean Ellen Schall explained, aims to give Wagner students a smaller,
more direct way to engage with leaders in the public sector.

breakfast was attended by about a dozen students, as well as Dean Schall and
Rogan Kersh, associate dean for academic affairs. Ms. Thompson Cole talked
about the work that VPP does in promoting effective leadership of nonprofits. Unlike
many other philanthropic organizations, VPP does not give money to improve
nonprofits’ programs; rather, they choose organizations that have achieved a
certain level of success and work to build up their capacity and
efficiency. Ms. Thompson Cole also discussed some of the challenges VPP faces in
taking this approach, including resistance from founding executives and a lack
of understanding of political environments among organizational leaders.

equally interesting to the students in attendance was hearing about Ms.
Thompson Cole’s remarkable career, which has included national policy making, city
management in Washington, D.C., private sector work with RJR Nabisco and, now,
philanthropic investment. She discussed some of the challenges that she has
faced in establishing herself in new positions and also gave insights into
marketing the work done in one environment in order to shift to another. Dean
Schall described some of the situations in Ms. Thompson Cole’s career as
excellent examples of “managing up.”

the question period of the breakfast, many students were interested in learning
more about the work that VPP does. Ms. Thompson Cole talked about some of their
upcoming projects and the issues that they face, including a $5.5 million
investment in the Knowledge
is Power Program
(KIPP) in Washington,
D.C. and VPP’s involvement with
the national Social
Innovation Fund

Click here for more information about the Conversations in Public Service breakfast series.

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Fizzle New York City’s Proposed Food-Stamp Ban for Soda?

Mayor Michael Bloomberg has long made it a paramount goal to
rid New York City of unhealthful foods, and he recently asked the Federal
government for permission to prohibit Food Stamp recipients from using stamps
to buy soda and other sugared beverage in the city. Supporters are cheering Bloomberg’s stance, saying he’s
striking a blow for better dietary habits and ultimately lower public health
costs and consequences such as obesity. But critics question the move, seeing
it as an example of big government, even patronizing toward the poor.

Research can be a valuable guidepost for public officials.
In 2009, after Mayor Bloomberg required restaurant franchises to put calories
counts on their menus, NYU Wagner professors Rogan Kersh and Brian
 sought to measure the impact of the calorie labeling
initiative on consumer habits at fast-food restaurants in low-income
neighborhoods. Their survey of 1,156 adult found little direct evidence to
support the Mayor’s view that the posting of calorie counts causes fast-food
patrons to buy items containing fewer calories. Elbel’s and Kersh’s widely
discussed study, published in the journal Health Affairs,
underscored that follow-up studies are needed to determine the  value and
effectiveness of menu labeling as well as other obesity-related policies.

Professor Elbel describes the Mayor’s current proposal to
bar food stamps for the purchase of soda and sugary drinks “an extremely
innovative policy approach to tackle the complicated and multifaceted problem
of obesity. “It deserves a rigorous assessment, to evaluate its overall impact
on healthy food choice and obesity,” adds Professor Elbel, assistant professor
of medicine and health policy. “The rest of the nation can then learn from the New York City experience
as these and other policies to fight obesity are considered across the

What’s your opinion of the Mayor’s food stamp initiative? Is
it good public policy? Post your comment today.

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Former Mayor Ed Koch pays tribute to public service

Dean Ellen Schall opened the event with a tribute to public service,
saying, “City government is the most amazing opportunity. You can get a lot of
responsibility and make a huge amount of difference.” Dean Schall had worked as
the deputy of Juvenile Justice in Ed Koch‘s administration and will always
refer to him as “Mr. Mayor.”

Rob Polner, director of Public Affairs for NYU Wagner, moderated the
discussion and gave a context of New
York City
in the late 1970s, when Ed Koch was first
elected as mayor. Polner described NYC as being in “permafrost of gloom” and
was anticipated to go the route of other industrial cities like Detroit. Crime was
rising, people were dying of HIV/AIDS, and homelessness was a huge problem.
“Koch,” he commented, “led NYC through a true renaissance” by securing business
investment and public works that would revitalize the city.

Jonathan Soffer then read an excerpt from his new book, Ed Koch and
the Rebuilding of New York City
. He pointed out that Koch’s successes were not
things people expected; his own campaign manager had said he had 20-0 odds of
winning the election! Koch added that in the first poll, only four percent of
people in the city knew his name. But he did win the election of 1977, and
again in 1981 and 1985.

During his tenure, he took on issues such as housing projects,
homelessness, crime, the city’s debt and corruption in the judicial
system.  Koch was asked, “What are you
most proud of?” He responded that he gave NYC and its people back their morale.
“We were in the depths of despair; people needed to be energized.” Soffer
reminded the audience that Koch balanced the city’s debt within three years, a
feat nobody thought possible. But Koch was quick to respond that it wasn’t him
alone that did this. Rather it was the people of New York, people like Ellen Schall, who
accomplished these things. “There’s nothing comparable to public service when
it’s done honorably and done well. It’s like an aphrodisiac.”

Koch reminisced about his policy to address homelessness and the
Billie Boggs incident. In 1987, Koch introduced a new program that would pick
up homeless people, take them to Bellevue
Hospital, and treat
them with medical and psychiatric care. Koch defended his policy that year to
the American Psychological Association, saying, “I am the number one social
worker in this town, with sanity.” However, the New York Civil Liberties Union
did not agree with the policy and defended one woman who was picked up, Billie
Boggs. In court they argued that she could not be forcibly committed to
psychiatric care and won the case.

A guest asked both Soffer and Koch what their most memorable moment
was in writing the book and serving as mayor, respectively. Soffer’s moment was
his interview with Robert Wagner, Jr., which was hours long. Koch’s response
was the twelve-day subway strike of 1980. He was in a meeting with the police
commissioner when he looked out the window and saw thousands of people walking
across the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.
“It was like Lake Ladoga,” Koch remembered, referring to a frozen lake
on the outskirts of Leningrad
that allowed Soviet soldiers to get supplies into the city and defeat the
Nazis. Koch went downstairs from the meeting and started yelling, “Walk across
the bridge!” encouraging people to continue coming to work.

In closing, Dean Schall asked all of the people who served in Ed
Koch’s administration to stand. Well over a dozen people stood, and Dean Schall
encouraged the current students at NYU Wagner to talk with them during the
reception. Koch added that members of his former administration continue to
meet every year, and roughly 200 people attend these get-togethers. “You can’t
stop them from coming,” he said. “Most are now in the private sector but if
they had the opportunity to go back to public service, they’d go in a

What do you think? If you could change one thing that Ed Koch did as
mayor, what would it be and why?

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The post-racial conversation, one year later

ONE YEAR after the inauguration of America’s first African-American president, MSNBC presented “Hope and Fear in Obama’s America: 2010″ on Monday, January 18, at 10 p.m. (Eastern),an extended discussion on race, with Irshad Manji, Visiting Scholar at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service (NYU Wagner) and the Director of the Moral Courage Project at New York University.

Manji, author of the bestselling book “The Trouble with Islam Today,” joined a lively panel of thought leaders in discussing some of the most pressing and provocative issues related to the changing landscape of racial relations in the United States. This Martin Luther King Day special broadcast will be conducted live from Texas Southern University in Houston, and moderated by Chris Matthews of “Hardball” and radio host Tom Joyner.

 Tune in to hear Irshad Mani’s comments at  and offer your own by clicking the “Comments” link above.

As glaciers melt, adapting means more than cold, hard science

SCIENCE IS SO ELEGANTLY straightforward. Greenhouse gas emissions go up, the earth warms, glaciers melt, and some places get wetter while other places get drier.

Mark Carey, environmental historian at Washington & Lee University, certainly didn’t question climate feedbacks, and showed iconic photographic evidence of slowly retreating glaciers in the Peruvian Andes. What Carey did question during his lecture November 17 at NYU Wagner — the latest in the “Climate Change and Water” series sponsored by the school — was how climate science is used, and whether the equations really take all of the relevant variables needed for effective adaptation efforts into account.

Using the Cordillera Blanca range in the Peruvian Andes, Carey made a case for climate adaptation work in glacial areas to go beyond hard science into the muddy realm of historical trends, culture, and governance in the region. Why? Because glacial regions are naturally hazardous and unpredictable – glaciers are lax in staying put, and when they move around, the resulting earthquakes, avalanches and flash floods can wipe out villages and kill untold thousands in the valleys below. A warmer world exacerbates these incubating risks, and governments and international donors stand ready to prepare hazard mitigation projects designed by teams of engineers and other technicians.

Questions of adequate funding aside, things can get a little prickly. The science of engineers, glaciologists and climatologists isn’t so great at predicting human behavior – and its biases can result in conflicting situations and thus hamper efforts to reduce risks for vulnerable populations. Carey offered he hydro power sector as an example, showing first the historical influence of macroeconomic policy in promoting hydro development, and how the now-privatized sector continues to develop and compete with other users (e.g. farmers) for dwindling water supplies. 

Competition for water use resulted in the forcible takeover of a Duke Energy dam by local farmers, following accusations that the company was taking an unfair share of the supply and leaving them with too little for their crops. In a question of who has the ultimate right to a common-pool resource; the lack of legal and institutional clarity has resulted in an impasse that has lasted well over a year. Similarly, Carey reported on situations where glacier scientists, company representatives and government workers have become entangled in conflicts and occasional stone throwing, largely due to inattention to local attitudes and governance structures in studies and project work.

The main take-away of the presentation was that adaptation measures need not neglect history or fail to integrate the technical and social sciences — and can effectively mitigate conflicts in helping regions adapt to disappearing glaciers. Carey proposes a framework that gives some weight to sociocultural and governance issues, along with the technical questions Perhaps a next challenge is figuring out how to operationally integrate hard and soft sciences —  before the glaciers melt.

Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers, and Fighters

Traditional images of war generally depict men as fighters and women as passive victims. While women are certainly victimized in conflicts, the narrow view neglects the roles women play as agents in armed conflict. In some cases, women often occupy a space between fighter and victim.

On Thursday, October 29, in the final installment of the Conflict, Security, and Development Series of the fall semester, Wagner welcomed Jeannie Annan, the Director of Research and Evaluation for the International Rescue Committee and a Visiting Scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health. Addressing an audience of over 50 NYU students, faculty and staff, as well as members from outside the NYU community, Dr. Annan discussed the topic “Women and Girls at War: Wives, Mothers and Fighters,” based on paper she co-authored on the reintegration of women and girls abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. The full findings of the study challenge the conventional wisdom regarding women and war.

The overall findings of the study challenge traditional understandings of the roles of women in armed conflict and, fortunately for a Wagner audience, expand upon the policy implications in post-conflict settings. By including policy and programmatic choices that can address the experience of women at war, the conversation was very concrete for an audience of current and future practitioners.

With most demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs tailored towards the needs to men, women are often under-served. The programs that do address women in post-conflict situations are based on assumptions that women will be marginalized and/or stigmatized upon their return and are highly exposed to sexual violence.

While not disputing that women are victims of sexual violence and do have special reintegration needs, Annan challenges preconceived notions, stressing that post-conflict programs should be tailored to meet needs based on evidence, instead of our assumptions. Dr. Annan’s work attempts to improve our understanding of humanitarian needs, both policy and programming, based on rigorous research relying on evidence.

Annan’s research arrived at a variety of intriguing conclusions: first, women abducted by the LRA are not simply sexual victims, nor are their experiences the same as men. Sexual violence is not used as a “mad theology” but rather based on strict hierarchies to increase control. For example, civilian rape is prohibited. Finally, upon reintegration into their community, women are not more disadvantaged than their male counterparts who had also been abducted, nor is either group completely marginalized by society. In fact, the level of trauma is highly concentrated in a significant minority, instead of being diffuse across the population.

Annan’s presentation ended with a particularly poignant quote from a woman who had been abducted by the LRA advising parents of other women who had the same experience: “Take good care of her. It is not the end of her life. She should forget what happened. Be a good example for her. She is still surviving. She should not see this as the end of her life. She can still continue.”

Mayor Bloomberg Announces Help for Nonprofits at NYU Wagner Forum

SPEAKING in front of 300 public service leaders at an event
sponsored by NYU Wagner on April 6, 2009, New York City Mayor Michael
Bloomberg unveiled a series of initiatives to help the more than 40,000
nonprofit cultural, health and social service organizations of the city
weather the economic downturn. New York University President John
Sexton introduced the mayor, and NYU Wagner Dean Ellen Schall framed
the critical discussion, citing the economic challenges the nonprofit
sector confronts, and the central role the graduate school has in
training students to become leaders in public service.

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Is the War in Iraq a ‘War of Ideas’?

TO GRASP the appeal that becoming an al-Qaeda suicide bomber has for a young person in the Islamic world, Visiting NYU Wagner Professor Michael Doran recommends considering the story of the early 1990s Seattle grunge band Nirvana. Or more specifically, Nirvana’s tragic lead singer Kurt Cobain, whose suicide in April, 1994, at the height of the band’s popularity propelled him from rock star to mythic legend.

“They catch these guys at their Kurt Cobain moment,” Doran, speaking April 2, 2009, at the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service at New York University, said, referring to  the most vulnerable targets of recruitment efforts. “They fill their head with a lot of promises, and they’re ready to just go and do it.”

Doran is an expert on US foreign policy and the Middle East. Prior to joining NYU Wagner, he served in the U.S. State Department as Senior Adviser to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He has also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Defense for Support of Public Diplomacy and as the Senior Director for the Middle East at the National Security Council. He has taught at Princeton University and the University of Central Florida.

While it has been well-publicized that al-Qaeda recruits are promised 72 virgins when they reach heaven, Doran said, what many don’t realize is that al-Qaeda recruits are also told they can choose to bring family members to paradise with them. “They’re not just a hero of the community, but a cosmic hero.”

Doran first gained the notice of the Bush administration for an article he wrote in the January/February 2002 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine entitled “Somebody Else’s Civil War.” In it, Doran asserted that Osama Bin Laden had “no intention of defeating America” by staging the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks but planned the attacks  as a method “to help his brand of extremist Islam survive and flourish among the believers.” Al-Qaeda wanted U.S. to send troops into Islamic countries so Muslims would turn on governments in the region allied with America and bring about their collapse. In essence, he argued (in the article, presumably?), “Americans, in short, have been drawn into somebody else’s civil war.”

More so than any other war America has fought, the war in Iraq is a “war of ideas,” or a “media war,” Doran told the audience at NYU Wagner.

Illustrating this, he displayed a letter that was intercepted from Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second in command, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of one of the deadliest militant organizations in Iraq. In the letter, al-Zawahiri pleaded with al-Zarqawi, who was attacking Shia shrines and market places after declaring “all out war” on the Shia, to show restraint.
“Does this conflict with the Shia lift the burden from the Americans by diverting the mujahedeen to the Shia, while the Americans continue to control matters from afar? And if the attacks on Shia leaders were necessary to put a stop to their plans, then why were there attacks on ordinary Shia? Won’t this lead to reinforcing false ideas in their minds, even as it is incumbent on us to preach the call of Islam to them and explain and communicate to guide them to the truth? And can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shia in Iraq? Has any Islamic state in history ever tried that? And why kill ordinary Shia considering that they are forgiven because of their ignorance?”

Al-Zawahiri ends the letter with a reminder to his gung-ho comrade. “I say to you: that we are in a battle, and that more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media. And that we are in a media battle in a race for the hearts and minds of our Umma (nation).”
For awhile, Doran said the United States’ military strategy in Iraq played perfectly into al-Qaeda’s hands, as insurgents lashed back at this perceived invading army of foreigners.”For a couple of years it looked it was building and building and building and al-Qaeda was getting stronger. Then it was gone,” he said snapping, “just like that.”

He credited what he called General David Patraeus’ “genius” in initiating counter-insurgency measures that took into account local politics and public opinion for turning the tide.  He said the military has been able to secure hot spot areas and gain the trust of locals who are now providing information on the “bad guys.” Also, through captured insurgents, the military learned that the overwhelming reason insurgents were fighting the United States wasn’t because of ideological beliefs but money.

“They were paid to do it,” Doran said.

To counter this, the United States military has provided jobs for the would-be insurgents or in some cases are simply paying them not to fight.

Doran said that the U.S. is just now starting to get the hang of this new type of nuanced warfare. Historically the United States military was geared toward fighting a potential super power like Russia or China and was not prepared for fighting a “war of ideas.”

“I think the way the military thought of war was either you are taking territory or you were destroying capabilities..You never asked yourself what was the nature of the populace,” he said.