Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Three Cups of Tea, the Art of Compromise, and the Limits of the Big Tent

Greg Mortenson, director of the Central Asia Institute and author of the phenomenal best-seller Three Cups of Tea, has been appearing at schools and colleges around Colorado Springs to promote the NGO, and encourage the building of public schools for both sexes in tribal regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan, with a special emphasis on educating women in small Islamic communities in the tribal areas. Since these are the areas where Taliban-affiliated militants promote madrassas, it's no surprise Mortenson's schools have been attacked, and no surprise that various U.S. agencies would like to "help" Mortenson. He insists he hasn't taken a dime from DoD or State Department, and I believe him. I like his insistence that he must function above politics, and it was good to hear that he forced his publishers to change the subtitle of his book from "Fighting Terrorism" to "Promoting Peace."

Many readers say that Three Cups of Tea has become popular precisely because he tries to avoid taking sides. And Mortenson himself tries to find ways to work with mullahs in the Pakistan earthquake zones, even though this would make U.S. officials look askance at his efforts. But let's deal with a couple realities: The U.S. Army War College has ordered 5000 copies of his book for counterinsurgency purposes. And his visit to Colorado Springs was co-sponsored by the Center for Homeland Security at UCCS, an organization run by a guy with a long intelligence history, Steve Recca. Sure, there are plenty of reasons to establish dialog with the intelligence community, and CHS/UCCS can probably point to a lot of good things it has done. Mortenson is trying to play an honest game with his efforts, but you simply cannot be above politics in Taliban-controlled areas. As the old New Left saying goes, "Not to decide is to decide."

Co-sponsor for this tour was the Colorado Springs independent newsweekly, Colorado Springs Independent. The Indy has shown itself to be much braver and more useful than Denver's Westword, which is one of several weeklies run by Michael Lacey of Phoenix, weeklies that try to avoid mention of true political topics. For a long time now, the Indy has proven itself worthy of respect, at least more so than its neighbor to the north.

But I wonder if Indy publisher John Weiss is too anxious to play the "Big Tent" theory. Since Colorado Springs has such a large military and intelligence contingent, it's important to find ways to have dialog. But Weiss has been working with the Fort Carson Sustainability effort in a venue that tries to ignore the reality that an active Army post cannot be "green" by its very nature. The Indy has sponsored town meetings on the Fort Carson expansion which admittedly asks questions no one else will ask, but still is reticent to take the questioning of Fort Carson too far. And the newspaper did not want to delve too deeply into the question of CHS sponsorship of Mortenson, and whether the work of CAI could be misused by the U.S. military. I wish Mortenson well, I wish Weiss and theIndy well, I suppose I even wish CHS and Recca well. I just wish that people could use a little more honesty in discussing when the goals of aid to Islamic women and the goals of the military and counterinsurgency experts can lead to some questionable results.


Eric @ said...

I appreciated when Mortenson related that occasionally he's awake at night wondering if he's doing the right thing. I like what he's doing, and I'm hopeful others will do more, but I don't want the Pennies 4 Peace promotion co-opted so that the public becomes convinced that private funding of schools will be enough.

In the lead up to Mortenson's appearance we've hit Three Cups of Tea as infinitum! Up next- Recca.

barb michelen said...
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