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Building Peace and Deterring Terror: Meet Prof. Al Santoli

In this interview, Prof. Al Santoli, who will teach IWP’s course on “Peace through Development: Deterring Terror and Building Alliances” this spring, discusses his experiences in building peace internationally.  Mr. Santoli is the founder and president of Asia America Initiative, a non-profit, non-governmental humanitarian aid organization with its headquarters in Washington, D.C. and field offices in Manila and Mindanao in the Philippines. 

Albert Santoli Receives Philippines Order of the Golden HeartHow did you first become interested in humanitarian work and terror deterrence?

Doing humanitarian work is a calling you are born with.  It is an inherent responsibility whether a person chooses to conduct such efforts on a part time voluntary basis rather than as a full time vocation or in a full professional capacity.  Like in the proverb, “Many are called but few are chosen.”  In a multi-polar world of diverse power centers, strategic planners espousing freedom need to be rooted in one’s democratic traditions but also be open to unfamiliar or surprising innovative ideas.  I have always been intrigued by the cultures other than my own and in reading history. 

Terror deterrence through bonds of friendship became a part of my life experience when I was a teenage soldier in Vietnam.  After the third time I was wounded and thus not permitted to return to an infantry unit, my commanding officer “misplaced” my paperwork so I could help form an experimental combined intelligence and reconnaissance unit that operated along the Cambodian frontier a distance from American conventional units.  We lived in native villages on the Cambodian frontier along the North Vietnamese army’s Ho Chi Minh Trail invasion route into South Vietnam and in the middle of the spider web of the underground Cu Chi tunnel network. The area was full of local communist assassins and saboteurs.  To survive and defeat the enemy, we had to be very good at our martial skills but also learn a very different cultural approach which involved positive human interaction with villagers. Years later in Europe, I met a commander of Viet Cong security in the tunnels who had hunted us.  He said, “We really wanted to destroy your small group.  But local people always protected you.”  

Later, as a best-selling author of military history and refugee relief worker assisting with the International Rescue Committee and Lawyers Committee for Human Rights,  I observed how the King of Thailand and his mother created peace by integrating isolated southern Malay and northern mountain tribe communities into the greater Thai society. During the Reagan Administration Team B time, as a private citizen, I was informally mentored by the then-retired Gen. Edward Lansdale and surviving members of his historic Philippines and Indochina teams such as Rufus Phillips and Ann Miller on the human traits of making friends in tribal cultures.  This is why I appreciate working with interns today.

Princess Rohaniza, Country Director of Asia America Initiative -PhilippinesWhat methods have you found to be the most effective at terror deterrence?  

In terror deterrence, methods will vary based on history, culture and environment.  However, I prefer to use full transparency of intent and action to build trust with communities who trust hardly anyone.  You need a sincere and effective team of people who have courage and good instincts. As Americans we must play to our strengths such as democracy and self-reliance of communities to conduct their own development with just “a little help” from their friends.  People skills including a sense of humor are as important as technical proficiency in various inter-disciplinary practicums.  Hope is not enough — you shouldn’t make promises you don’t have a fair chance to achieve. Corruption at any level should not be tolerated regardless of political considerations.

Typhoon in the Philippines, December 2013Your nonprofit, Asia America Initiative, does much of its work in the Philippines.  What are some of the security challenges faced by this region? 

I chose to center AAI programs in the Philippines dating back to 2002, immediately after the World Trade Center bombing.  During the 1990s, as an international security expert in Congress, I had monitored the Mindanao peace process in the Philippines.  I became trusted by Muslim leaders and Christians because I was objective and a good listener. At the same time I was helping keep alive the Northern Alliance counter-Taliban tribes in Afghanistan when [1997-2001] while they had been abandoned by the rest of the world.   I believed the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan would be disastrous due to internal and international contradictions and rampant corruption.  But I saw the vibrant spirit of Filipinos – despite their leaders inconsistencies — as having a chance to set an example for progress despite the inequities there.  

In addition, the strategic location of the Philippines has been an epicenter of international crisis from World War II into the first half of the 21st Century.  This includes the rise of China as an aggressive military power, the international maritime passage of communications and trade between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and North and South Asia; climate change and intensive natural disasters; the spread of Islamic extremism.  There is a still-viable leftist militant movement; and the new globalism’s growing wealth disparity between oligarchs and impoverished masses is very apparent.  

Asia America Initiative VolunteersCan you tell us a little about the work of Asia America Initiative?

Asia America Initiative is intended to build alliances with communities that are suffering from severe poverty and cultural conflict.  The organization was created as a result of the religious/philosophical conflict in Muslim Mindanao, but AAI works with people of all religions and cultures worldwide. 

Our emphasis is on economic and social development, although, because we work in environments with severe natural disasters, we have also had do to a large amount of emergency relief.    In addition, during times of conflict, we have been on the front lines, along with the Red Cross, in terms of refugee protection and those who have been dislocated because of armed conflict. 

AAI provides both physical assistance and psychological and emotional trauma recovery. These efforts are particularly important because AAI works to end cycles of violence by dealing with root causes, including the desire for revenge, which can last for the decades in some communities.

In these peace-building efforts, our format is to have public schools serve as mediation centers, where children and grandchildren of rival people attend school together and become friends.  AAI works to promote education and to spark opportunity to the people as a means by which young people can have a better future.  Through these relationships at school, parents and grandparents can come together to create a better future, despite religious and political rivalries.  Of course, there will always be extremists, but we hope to isolate them. 

Asia America Initiative Volunteers December 2013How did AAI acquire its large volunteer corps? 

Many of our staff and volunteers are under the age of 30.  Many of them got involved when I was doing refugee work in Mindanao.  It was too dangerous to bring in foreigners, and we had to be very careful because of ethnic and cultural issues.  Volunteers, mostly high school and college students, came forward  to help with refugee relief without being asked.  Now, this network of Catalysts for Peace volunteers are very active in the areas of typhoon and war zones, where they help with AAI’s relief efforts. 

How has Asia America Initiative been involved in relief efforts for the recent typhoon?

We  are a very modest organization, but have fed over 80,000 people affected by the typhoon.  In fact, after the UN and the Red Cross, the efforts of AAI and our partners was the third or fourth largest response to those affected by the typhoon. For example, I coordinated a shipment of medicine valued at over $10 million, which has served close to 100,000 typhoon survivors.

How does Asia America Initiative put into practice “citizen diplomacy”?

Often, the only time the people with whom we work see the word “America” is when they see it on the t-shirts of Asia America Initiative volunteers.  We are representing America, even though all our staff are local young people. They see Americans as friends.  The assistance that they help provide comes from private American sources. 

This is a very significant part of building strategic relationships with lasting value.  People will never forget that you were there for them when they were in need.  By representing America through educational and relief efforts, and  addressing basic human needs of the most needy, AAI portrays Americans as people who care and not as a country with corrupt political processes.  Every human life matters to us.   

It is important that our organization has the word “America” in our name, for reasons mentioned above, but also because AAI stands for basic and traditional American ideals and principles. 

Al SantoliWhat attracted you to IWP?

I was attracted to IWP because I admired the commitment of Dr. Lenczowski to sacrifice much to create a formal educational center where the real world of strategic planning could be translated into advanced academic degrees.  Also, IWP continues to promote a significant American legacy of citizen diplomacy. In my experience with the Reagan Administration, I participated through the National Security Council in the White House in a continuum of the OSS tradition that was successful in World War II against the Nazis and later in Eastern Europe and elsewhere to end the Cold War with the Soviets.

My Team B participation followed the mass-murder and Vietnamese occupation inside Cambodia. As a matter of honor after US politicians and media abandoned Southeast Asia to a cruel fate, I voluntarily created programs to protect refugees, provide medical care, and assist with Cambodian royalists and republican efforts to strengthen communities against both the Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge communist armies and to help stop the Vietnamese army from attacking Thailand. Only a handful of Americans were directly involved.  During that period of the post-Vietnam War syndrome, the US appeared near defeat and the Soviet Empire appeared very strong.  Promoting American values of freedom, sometimes I was the only Westerner among Cambodians and Thais — not carrying a weapon — in areas of armed conflict. During the same time frame, I was reporting as an independent journalist on the struggles against communist tyranny in places like Afghanistan, El Salvador and Poland, where a diverse cross-section of Americans and democratic European compadres were also voluntarily — for no salary — creating effective and creative humanitarian programs.  Often there was no direct involvement of the US government. 

Team B was a basis for the Reagan Administration’s integrated effort to defeat the Soviet empire through social, cultural, economic and strategic policies without a major war and with prevention of massive destruction.  

When I first created Asia America initiative as a purely private organization with no government funding, IWP’s faculty and community of experience-based educators and strategic planners understood my intention for AAI’s transparent “peace through development” relationships within difficult communities and an emphasis on education.  This was at a time when most Washington insiders espoused “threats and bribes” or “overwhelming force” and thought “special operations” was merely bravado rather than the most important factor — triumph of the human spirit and ingenuity against impossible odds.  

What are you hoping students will take away from your course on Peace Through Development?

I hope students have their vision and insight broadly expanded.  My emphasis in the “Peace Through Development” approach is a human approach to political problems and how to mobilize teamwork solutions to address cataclysms — such as the recent mega-typhoon in the Philippines — that seem intractable. Students of many interests and professional skills are welcome.  The course explores integrating many disciplines of social and economic development.  My intention is for students to open their minds to seeing international security as being built not only on effective technical and administrative management but also the vital instinctive components and vital human bonds. 

Children thanking Asia America Initiative

Note: Photos are courtesy of Asia America Initiative.