Thursday, September 02, 2004

Truth And Consequences

In today's world of communication and mass media, truth is not firstly based on coherence and clarity, but rather on frequency. Here, a repeated hypothesis or suspicion becomes a truth; a three-time-repeated assumption imperceptibly becomes a fact. There is no need to check because "it is obvious"; after all, "we have heard it many times" and "it is being said everywhere."
That is from an Op-ed written by Muslim scholar and Swiss national Tariq Ramadan, who has recently been grappling with the "truth" about himself, or at least the repeated allegations that he is radical, extremist, anti-Semitic, and similar aspersions. Despite the fact that the University of Notre Dame hired Ramadan for a professorship to commence this Fall, and his earlier receipt of a work visa from the U.S. government, Ramadan was informed in late July that his visa had been revoked by the Department of Homeland Security which, in typical Bush administration fashion, offered no explanation to the public or to any party involved. A spokesman for the University has issued a plea to the Federal government to reconsider, noting:

Tariq Ramadan is a strong but moderate voice in a world plagued by extremism. He addresses issues that evoke strong feelings because they touch the heart of personal and communal identity.
If you look at the actual record of his works, his books, his articles, his lectures, and other manifestations of his beliefs and instruction, you will find them devoid of these extreme ideas. Quite the contrary, Ramadan has repeatedly and forcefully denounced extremism, anti-Smithson, terrorism and violence. He views these as a perversion of Islam. Still his problems and critics persist.

A closer examination reveals that what we have is journalists or intellectuals quoting each other, conclusively reporting and infinitely repeating what others said yesterday, with caveats. Rather than using this as an occasion for reflection, the response to this finding is usually: "Well, there has to be some truth in all that."
Sound familiar? Isn't that eerily reminiscent of the way political "truths" are perpetuated in our society? Isn't that the same response Bob Dole gave about the discredited allegations made by the Swift Boat Veterans, where there's smoke, there's fire, and thus how could all 250 of them be lying? Isn't that how the Swifties baseless accusations gained life in the first place. The theory: constant repetition of falsehoods and exaggerations substitute for truth. The means: get the media to repeat these assertions without doing the work to parse the history or the record.

This strategy has been employed with increasing success by right wing think tanks, punditry and media outlets. Whether it be large meta-narratives (many of which I've posted on) like the claim that the media has a liberal bias, that the
academia is liberal, liberals are the elites or the Democrats are weak on defense, or mini-narratives like John Kerry is a flip-flopper, John Kerry is French, John Kerry lacks resolve, etc., the pattern remains consistent.

Nowhere was this method on display more than the Republican National Convention, especially in last night's performances. Overall, there has been a steady drumbeat of "truths" about Kerry but last night hit a crescendo, or nadir depending on your perspective. The two most egregious examples were Zell Miller and Dick Cheney.

Publius at
Legal Fiction wrote an incisive piece about the substance and delivery of Miller's speech last night. Some of the "truths" spoken by Miller, and sure to be echoed ad nauseum by the conservative media and punditry in the weeks ahead, include these statements:

This is the man who wants to be the Commander in Chief of our U.S. Armed Forces? U.S. forces armed with what? Spit balls?

Senator Kerry has made it clear that he would use military force only if approved by the United Nations. Kerry would let Paris decide when America needs defending.

But don't waste your breath telling that to the leaders of my party today. In their warped way of thinking, America is the problem, not the solution. They don't believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy.

So Miller hits on a tripartite of themes: That Kerry is soft on defense, would only use force if "Paris" decides, and that Kerry thinks there is no real threat from al-Qaeda other then that which America brings upon itself.

Does it matter that the record doesn't bear these accusations out? Does it matter that facts do not support these conclusions? Will repetition usurp truth?

First of all, Kerry has repeated the fact that he would not wait for the UN to authorize military action, yet that didn't prevent Miller from claiming just that. You don't have to trawl to far back to find evidence to contradict Miller. In his acceptance speech, Kerry spelled it out plainly stating, "I will never give any nation or international institution a veto over our national security." His record backs up that assertion. As recently as the past three years, Kerry voted to authorize Bush to use force both in Iraq and Afghanistan, absent the UN's imprimatur which he supposedly relies upon. Kerry believes that a more robust involvement of our allies is a laudable goal, and one that would improve our chances of success in such a grandiose endeavor as nation building in the Middle East, but so do conservatives and neoconservatives like George Will and Francis Fukuyama respectively, as do administration officials like Colin Powell and Richard Armitage at the State Department. But Zell and the GOP believe they will always have Paris.

Second, Kerry's record on defense is a mixed one, but one that has been defended by Republicans like John McCain. McCain pointed out how cheap the accusations were about his votes on funding military programs, noting that these programs were embedded in bigger budget bills so if you looked hard enough, you could find no votes on those programs for any lawmaker. Not to mention the fact that Cheney himself voted against all the programs cited in Kerry's record, and even proposed more substantial cuts in military and intelligence funding overall. Nevertheless, Miller repeats these taunts with the schoolyard evocation of spit balls.

Finally, Miller rounds it out with the suggestion that Kerry both doesn't consider al-Qaeda a threat, and blames America for any animosity al-Qaeda might harbor. That is a nasty insinuation of naivete combined with a lack of patriotism. Nice touch when the subject fought for his country in Vietnam, and who was in Washington, DC when the plane hit the Pentagon. Let me settle this here and now, every American understands al-Qaeda is a threat, especially John Kerry and John Edwards. It is actually Bush who has some explaining to do about why he diverted attention away from al-Qaeda to pursue regime change in Iraq, a country with no links to al-Qaeda. Please note, Osama is still on the loose, but Saddam is in prison.

And anyone that would suggest that Kerry, or any other thinker such as Francis Fukuyama, who argues that our policies can be improved upon to relieve tension in the Middle East is blaming America for terrorism, is simply a demagogue of the basest variety. Of course U.S. policies affect the world, that is not a debate. That doesn't mean America is to blame and Kerry, nor any other Democrat, has suggested as much. Yet the stir of echoes continues.

Next up was Vice President Dick Cheney, with
these quotes:

"He talks about leading a more sensitive war on terror, as though Al Qaeda will be impressed with our softer side."

"He declared at the Democratic Convention that he will forcefully defend America -- after we have been attacked. My fellow Americans, we have already been attacked, and faced with an enemy who seeks the deadliest of weapons to use against us, we cannot wait for the next attack. We must do everything we can to prevent it -- and that includes the use of military force."

"George W. Bush will never seek a permission slip to defend the American people."
So Cheney adds his own triumvirate of "truths" to the discourse: that John Kerry wants to treat al-Qaeda with naive sensitivity, that he would not use military force in any context unless attacked, and, similar to Miller, that Kerry would require the UN's consent before using military force.

Having dispensed with part three of Cheney's critique through the refutation of Miller's speech, I will turn to the question of the sensitive approach. As I posted
here, everyone from Cheney himself, to President Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, Oaul Wolfowitz, Generals Franks and Meyers, and others have stated and reiterated the need to conduct the war with sensitivity. Add to this list, most policy makers and thinkers, even conservatives like Will, Sullivan and Fukuyama. The point is, when you are conducting a war against an insurgency (as in Iraq) or against a group that is using propaganda to fuel its ranks (as with al-Qaeda), you must be careful to tailor your actions to the purpose of achieving your goals without creating more enemies than you destroy. Take this support of the need for sensitivity from Fukuyama:

The radicals swim in a much larger sea of Muslims-1.2 billion of them, more or less-who are not yet implacable enemies of the United States...On the other hand, recent Pew surveys of global public opinion show that positive feelings about the United States in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan and other supposedly friendly Muslim countries has sunk to disastrously low levels. What these data taken as a whole suggest is that for the broad mass of public opinion in Muslim countries, we are disliked or hated not for what we are, but rather for what we do. What they do not like is a familiar list of complaints about our foreign policy that we somehow continue to fail to take seriously: our lack of concern for the plight of the Palestinians, our hypocritical support for dictators in Muslim countries, and now our occupation of Iraq.

The War on Terror is, in other words, a classic counter-insurgency war, except that it is one being played out on a global scale. There are genuine bad guys out there who are much more bitter ideological enemies than the Soviets ever were, but their success depends on the attitudes of the broader populations around them who can be alternatively supportive, hostile or indifferent-depending on how we play our cards. As we are seeing vividly in Iraqi cities like Fallujah and Najaf, counter-insurgency wars are incredibly difficult to fight, because we must somehow destroy the enemy without alienating the broader population and making things worse. Counter-insurgency requires a tricky mixture of precisely targeted force, political judgment and extremely good intelligence: a combination of carrots and sticks.

Sensitivity does not mean not using aggressive means, and it doesn't mean negotiating with al-Qaeda. It just means paying attention to the region and its players and crafting a policy that accounts for those variables, and thus is more prone to succeed. So, like Cheney, Bush and Fukuyama, Kerry understands the need to be sensitive to these concerns, but perhaps he has a better plan to achieve these goals.

The second plank of Cheney's duplicitous critique revolves around the claim that John Kerry would only use the military if attacked. To uncover this "truth," Cheney relies on a quote from Kerry's convention speech that is taken out of context. Yes Kerry said he would "forcefully defend America if attacked," but he also said that wasn't the only time he would use the military. Interestingly, in that same speech Kerry said explicitly that he would never require a permission slip to use the military, but I guess Cheney was cherry picking quotes. Kerry has, on numerous occasions, explained his intended foreign policy strategy, and it has always included the right to act unilaterally (without UN or multilateral support) and if necessary, preemptively. Here is an excerpt from an interview Joe Biden gave outlining the new Kerry/progressive foreign policy:

[There’s] kind of a new standard that has emerged, that I think is the combination of what I refer to as this enlightened nationalism, that we operate in our national interests in every circumstance where we can under the umbrella of international rules and the international community. But where the damage and danger is irrefutable, we reserve the right to act in our own interest or in the interest of humanity, if we have the capacity. [emphasis added]
In this election the voting public will be presented with various memes, heuristics and narratives that they can employ as shortcuts to opinions, and alternatives to researching the actual positions of the candidates, and applying those positions to real world scenarios. In pursuit of this, the Republican strategists have expertly gamed the system, relying on conservative media and punditry to bombard the populace with repetitions that coalesce to conventional wisdom with nary a concern for their veracity. It remains to be seen whether the public will accept their version of "truth," but the possibility is undeniable. The strength of this strategy resides in the daunting realities described in this observation (quoted from Tariq Ramadan):

To seek "the truth," one must read, listen carefully, check and recheck for clarity and consistency, and be willing, if for a moment, to be decentred.

[Update: Eric Alterman has some interesting facts up about Dick Cheney and how his voting record on defense compares to Kerry's. Does Cheney want our men and women to use spit balls too?:

As Secretary of Defense,
CHENEY called for the elimination of the Apache helicopter,
CHENEY called for the elimination of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle,
CHENEY called for the elimination of the M-1s
CHENEY called for the elimination of the F-14 and the F-16
CHENEY called for the elimination of the B-2 bomber (which Kerry also opposed for its nuclear capabilities).
CHENEY called for the elimination of the MX missile.
CHENEY helped cut the defense budget by $300 BILLION]

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