New start in DC

Pamela Olson
April 12, 2006

I'm starting to get my life together here in DC, where I'm in my second week doing foreign policy analysis for a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) that focuses on issues related to defense. We're hired by the government to do objective analysis regarding the merits of various projects and proposals, and we're non-partisan and forbidden from having conflicts of interest such as stock in Halliburton. I am the only white person I know of in the ten-story building who has any experience in an Arab country without a convoy around me. It's a very strange feeling. And my security clearance is going to take ages. That's what I get for learning about another country.

But most people here -- roughly 70% of whom have PhDs -- are quite open and interested in hearing about what it's like on the ground over there. I would even say most are pretty liberal, although they have to act like lawyers and behave professionally as if they have no personal opinion. It seems like a lot of them are very smart and conscientious individuals who don't want to leave national security completely up to right-wingers and hawks. The institute lets the facts speak for themselves (such as that Missile Defense is, in layman's terms, a big fat turkey) and hopes their advice will be heeded.

The institute is well-respected, but the government isn't forced to listen to the recommendations we make and can just go ahead and do whatever they want after glancing through our reports. But people here still believe in the institutions they are supporting, even if they get abused now and then. Hopefully the system will work itself out.

Incidentally, Cheney threw the first pitch at the Washington Nationals game this weekend, and he got booed so badly that Fox News had to turn down the background volume during their coverage of the event to muffle it.

In any case it seems fairly clear to me that the carrot and stick -- i.e. bribery and violence -- approach to foreign policy isn't working so well in an increasingly sophisticated, educated, and connected world with increasingly powerful non-state actors and more and more people who have read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So maybe they are looking for alternatives.

One project I will be working on involves gathering and talking with and listening to Muslim intellectuals from around the world. America tried bombing a country into the Democracy Age, and we see how that worked out. It is hard to believe it's taken the Department of Defense this long to start talking to the people they're otherwise trying to convince to be friendly to us by destroying their cities and infrastructure, torturing their citizens, and obliterating their sense of security and self-determination. But at least it's finally happening.

Another project involves risk assessments for major assets and infrastructure in America that may be vulnerable to terrorist attacks. It's a very difficult and interesting problem -- how to calculate risk based on wildly unpredictable threats, how to allocate funds based on perceived risks, how to factor into our calculations intangibles like the value of human life and psychological effects, etc. Of course, I'd rather be working on studying and eliminating the motivations for terrorism -- I don't buy the 'they hate us for our freedom and there's nothing we can do about it' line. But it's an interesting project.

The company is also good about paying for university classes that relate to our work, and I look forward to taking some Arabic classes in the fall. Between now and then I am contentedly busy figuring out where I am going to live, meeting people, and enjoying what DC has to offer.

DC is great. I've been well impressed. The defining element and driving force here is public service even more than ambition, which surprised me. At least half the people seem to work for non-profits on issues they genuinely care about, and a lot work on the Hill making less than if they worked for industry. And people are pretty savvy. They tend not only to have opinions but also to have arguments to back them up. The public transport is excellent and there are parks everywhere (a French guy designed it) and events all the time. The spring is absolutely gorgeous. The little local cafes all over the place in Northwest DC are spilling out onto the rooftops and sidewalks.

And DC is like the Middle East in that you can see with your own eyes what is actually happening vs. what the media is saying about it. It makes people not necessarily more cynical, but definitely more discerning about believing what they're told. Watching CNN International in the Middle East was like watching a cartoon parody. CNN from DC looks almost like a local access channel.

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