The Link between Anthropology and Politics

In what have been somewhat unorthodox and rather telling moves, the link between anthropology and politics has been monetarily quantified to be worth either $400,000 in annual salary or $40 million, depending on whether you ask the CIA or the Pentagon.

TIME has reported that the CIA has been recruiting anthropologists with salaries up to $400,000 while the Defense Department has financed a $40 million initiative dubbed Human Terrain Teams where four to five-person groups of anthropologists, sociologists, and social psychologists are to be embedded with each of the 26 U.S. combat brigades in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Human Terrains Teams exist and function to attenuate or mitigate the public relations and diplomatic contretemps that arise from the occupations. Perhaps more importantly, however, they have been commissioned to speak up to help the U.S. military and government obviate the political debacles in the first place.

Pakistan, not exactly known for its affable or tolerant approach to dealing with militants, has had its new coalition government insist upon using violence as a last resort, according to the New York Times. The paper reported that Asif Ali Zardari of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Nawaz Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, have responded to a precipitous escalation in suicide bombings not with calls to arms, but with the determination to negotiate with the militant groups behind the attacks.

Somewhat ironically, in a contrapuntal stance to the U.S. military’s three Predator drone strikes in Pakistan since the beginning of 2008, Zardari and Sharif have united in opposition to the bomb-first, ask questions later that Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and the U.S. have adhered to.

“We are dealing with our own people,” Sharif told the Times “We will deal with them very sensibly. And when you have a problem in your own family, you don’t kill your own family. You sit and talk. After all, Britain also got the solution of the problem of Ireland. So what’s the harm in conducting negotiations?

“With all the concerned elements. I don’t think guns and bullets have so far produced any positive results.”

Zardari for his part intoned “Obviously what they have been doing for the last eight years has not been working. Even a fool knows that,” according to the paper.

For a nation that remains perhaps the most violent and deadly area in the world, the revolutionary paradigm pursuant to a communicative offensive’s inherent superiority to a militaristic one unveils a drastic and positive change in the traditional politics of warfare and national security.

Joel Fitzgibbon, Australia’s newly appointed defense minister, told his fellow allied coalition defense chiefs in a December 2007 meeting in Scotland that “more work needs to be done to win the hearts and minds’ of the people of Afghanistan” and that “We need much more than a military response,” according to CNN. Fitzgibbon also issued that the coalition needs more political advisers and that until the “hearts and minds” issue is resolved the allies will continue to have “no real strategic effect.”

Fitzgibbon perhaps took a page from newly elected Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd’s adroit use of anthropology in politics in offering formal apologies to the aboriginal tribes of Australia. Preliminary reports have indicated that Rudd has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity since issuing that apology.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who attended that meeting with Fitzgibbon, seems to concur with his fellow defense chief’s sentiment as he propounded in a November 2007 speech that “Public relations was invented in the United States, yet we are miserable at communicating to the rest of the world what we are about as a society and a culture, about freedom and democracy, about our policies and our goals.”

Gates proffered that the U.S. needs substantially more “cultural relevance” in its public diplomacy, which serves to explain the Pentagon’s motivation to come up with the $40 million for the aforementioned Human Terrain Teams.

Senator Joseph Lieberman went so far as to declare that the public diplomacy post is “the closest thing to a supreme allied commander in the war of ideas and one of the most important posts in Washington,” according to CNN.

Lieberman’s lofty rhetoric appropriately serves to describe the link between anthropology and politics because accurate data, understanding, and diplomacy preexist effective policy decisions. As Pakistan’s Zardari previously offered, “even a fool knows” better than to persist in beating someone over the head when all he wants is to be listened to.

And in a good-faith effort to demonstrate that they are willing to listen to the occupied peoples, militants, friends and foes alike, the top officials in governments worldwide have been doing all they can to demonstrate that they are willing to listen to the anthropologists who serve as mediators and cultural interpreters.

To follow up on the success of the Human Terrain Teams, TIME reported that the U.S. “military’s renewed appreciation of the importance of culture” has already borne encouraging results, most immediately with the 82nd airborne division in Afghanistan reporting a 60-70% decrease in attacks and some local mullahs being moved to initiate peaceful policies.

“The more unconventional the adversary, and the further from Western cultural norms, the more we need to understand the society and underlying cultural dynamics,” Montgomery McFate, a Navy anthropologist and early advocate of what she describes as “anthropologizing the military, not militarizing anthropology,” told TIME.

Politics need not be demagoguery. Politics need not be lofty oratorical flights of fancy.Politics need not be condescending inculcation. Politics need not be empty promises. Politics need not be one-sided. And allied with anthropology – with the most punctilious and scrupulous ethics of anthropology – politics need never be counterproductive, a hindrance to real progress, or a sticking point in fruitless circumlocutory failed negotiations.

Linked willingly and inextricably with anthropology, politics can negotiate positive change. Together they can engender real peace.

The Pentagon hopes that’s the case; it bet $40 million on it after all.