Friday, June 15, 2007

Perception Is Perception, but Facts Are Reality, Part II

In the first part of this series, I discussed Ralph Peters' bizarre contention that the insurgents in Iraq have thus far succeeded primarily through the effective use of a compliant media. According to Peters, if only the media reported positively on conditions and progress Iraq, and the public accepted this reporting as the true rendition of events, then we would be enjoying military success. Contra Peters, the most effective insurgent strategy developed to date has been: to actually frustrate our purposes by laying siege to Iraq, denying us control and draining our resources - whether or not the media is there to report it as such.

In Part II, I want to look at how pervasive this emphasis on perception over fact is, and how it has infected the Bush administration's approach to foreign policy - both in terms of analysis and implementation. Fred Kaplan provides a useful starting point:

You've probably never heard of a State Department official named Price Floyd (I hadn't until a few days ago), but his resignation-in-protest, late last March, is as damning a commentary on President George W. Bush's foreign policies as any of the critiques from retired military officers. [...]

[Floyd] explained his reason for quitting in a little-read op-ed piece in the May 25 edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (his former hometown newspaper): Basically, he was tired of trying to convince journalists, here and abroad, "that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words." [...]

But the problem wasn't our words; as he put it, "What we don't have here is a failure to communicate." Rather, it was our actions, "which speak the loudest of all."

I am of two minds on this because improving our avenues of communication has a value. Making appearances in international media, paying attention to various opinions and sensibilities outside of our borders and treating disagreements with foreign populations/leaders in a respectful manner can smooth over some level of friction. These are the "gimmes" of public diplomacy, and while the points scored may not represent a winning margin in and of themselves, they come at such low costs and can be scored so easily that failing to execute would be an egregious squander.

Unfortunately, our foreign policy over the past six years has created a level of tension that no amount of dialog alone is going to rectify. The limits of improved communications are exposed rather starkly when the underlying policies themselves are so detested that they drown out the outreach efforts.

Rejecting the Kyoto treaty, dissing the International Criminal Court, revoking the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo—"these actions," Floyd wrote, "have sent an unequivocal message: The U.S. does not want to be a collaborative partner. This is the policy we have been 'selling' through our actions." As a result, our words are ignored or dismissed as "meaningless U.S. propaganda." [...]

He recounted a phone conversation with a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad who wanted Floyd and his colleagues to sell the media more "good-news stories" about the war in Iraq. "I said, 'Fine, tell me a good-news story, I want good-news stories, too.' There was a silence on the other end of the line," he recalled. "It was like you could hear crickets chirping." [...]

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Bush hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent advertising executive, to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She spent nearly a year producing a slick documentary, which preview audiences greeted with howls and catcalls, before hightailing it back to Madison Avenue. After Beers came Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker's can-do press aide during the presidency of Bush's father, who, it turned out, couldn't do this job, either. Then came Karen Hughes, Bush Jr.'s own former spin-master, who embarked on two disastrous trips to the Middle East early on in her tenure and has lain low ever since.

The problem wasn't Beers, Tutwiler, or Hughes personally. Rather, it was the assumption that led Bush to believe that they were qualified for the job to begin with—the assumption that public relations is a synonym for diplomacy. [emphasis added]

In a sense, this was a learned behavior for the Bush administration. The PR-over-substance model had thus far worked quite well in terms of delivering successive elections to the GOP. Rather than grapple with big issues, the GOP, aided by wordsmiths like Frank Luntz, has been more interested in grappling with big adjectives.

All that was needed, according to the playbook, was a pleasant marketing message in order to complete a sale of otherwise unpopular policies: be it "Clear Skies" (which increased air pollution) "Healthy Forests" (which reduced the number of trees therein) or "The Patriot Act" (which could have powered Boston with the number of founding "patriots" whirling in their graves like some matrix of human turbines).

What the Bush administration has discovered, the hard way, is that international audiences are not so easily duped (though it's beginning to lose its luster domestically as well). For one, the international media is not as cooperative or deferential as the domestic version. If anything, there is a predisposition to cynicism and mistrust. Further, the actions themselves are often experienced on a more visceral level, such that slick marketing fails to persuade - for example, "shock and awe" elicited far less glee on the part of viewers in Baghdad than in, say, Peoria.

What seems most peculiar to me, though, is the tendency on the part of the Bush administration to fall prey to the same type of messaging tactics when employed by foreign elements. It's akin to the phenomenon whereby advocates of a cause begin believing their own propaganda, but not quite the same because this is structural. It is as if key Bush administration officials have come to endorse an entire method of salesmanship - the "words over actions" model - regardless of who is doing the selling.

At times this credulity is merely a self-serving feint (when we are promoting foreign-generated spin that we don't necessarily believe, but which is convenient nonetheless). Still, there are instances when our leaders become entranced by the public statements of certain actors such that we ignore those parties' actual behavior and underlying motives. We are dupes to their publicized narrative, as if lost in admiration for the handiwork of another talented salesman.

For example, while we have certainly promoted the spin of various Iraqi factions when doing so has suited our purposes, we have also shown a rather embarrassing proclivity to get tripped up by the public relations blitzes of other Iraqi camps, and goaded into acting against our long-term interests. It is hard to know where along that spectrum to place the belief in stories spun by the con-men who sold us the Iraq war, such as Ahmed Chalabi (from cynical promotion of spin - to well intentioned dupes). Most likely, there were different motives for "believing" Chalabi for different war advocates. In fact, delineating between good faith misreads and cynical exploitation of duplicitous spin is a pretty tricky task since it must probe intentionality. Thus, let's look at a few examples, and let the reader decide.

Primary amongst the post-invasion misreads, has been the Bush administration's willingness to accept, as fact, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's autobiography as a quietest, apolitical, nationalist agent of reconciliation. Edward Wong, reviewing Ali Allawi's book, gives a good breakdown:

One exception is [Allawi's] fascinating analysis of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the enigmatic, reclusive cleric who rarely emerges from his home in the holy city of Najaf. The Americans fooled themselves, Allawi says, into thinking Ayatollah Sistani would distance himself from politics. For unlike his clerical mentor, who promoted a quietist school of Shiite Islam, Sistani is "vitally concerned with the role of Islam in state and society." He "does not advocate a benign negligence or avoidance of all things to do with the state or government," Allawi writes. Therefore, by fashioning a political process endorsed by the ayatollah that ultimately put religious Shiites beholden to Iran in power, the Americans undermined their goal of creating a secular, pro-Western nation.

The key, in this and all other such attempts to glean the true motivations of the various actors, is to pay more attention to actions than the rhetoric.

A cleric who sold himself as "hands off", and a proponent of non-interference from the religious community in political matters generally speaking, has been intensely involved in the political process in Iraq from Sistani's early insistence on elections ahead of the Bush team's schedule, to his role in forming and maintaining unity in the UIA, to his recent efforts to block laws aimed at reconciliation (odd, that, if one believes he is a true "nationalist" interested in reconciliation).

Swopa breaks this dynamic down in the context of the recently stalled legislation aimed at easing the de-Baathification laws. Actually, Swopa scores a bank-shot off of Prime Minister Maliki's own, thus far successful, efforts to convince the Bush administration to ignore the actual results of his tenure in favor of his heartfelt assurances.

What's really going on here, I think, is a bit of a Kabuki dance -- I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that prime minister Nouri al-Maliki was beginning to rebel publicly against U.S. pressure on key issues (an oil distribution law and cracking down on militias, in addition to de-Baathification), and that Grand Ayatollah Sistani would probably not let the Shiite government he put into power back down on those points.

So, it seems that Team Shiite has fallen back on a trick they've used before: they make nice with the American occupiers and cut a deal, only to have Sistani -- surprise! -- announce that it doesn't pass muster with him. And then the Shiite pols go sheepishly back to the Green Zone and say, "Aww, shucks, we'd love to help you out, but you know we can't buck Sistani on this." Even if the Bushites have caught on to this game, I'm not sure what they can do about it.

The divergence is similarly stark in the case of Shiite leader Moqtada al-Sadr who, through the power of repetition, has convinced many that he is truly interested in Sunni outreach and a spirit of national unity. He brandishes these big-tent credentials despite his adamant opposition to that same de-Baathification law mentioned above, as well as his organization's continued ethnic cleansing of his Sunni "brethren" from Baghdad.

Speaking of PR moves, the artists formerly known as SCIRI recently underwent a name change - and a public declaration of support for the authority of Sistani. "See, we took the 'Revolution' out of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq moniker, so we can't possibly be close to Iran - wink, wink." While these cosmetic changes and shifts in tone were primarily aimed at the domestic Iraqi audience, creating the impression of distance between SIIC and Iran serves the interests of SIIC's leaders who are looking to build on the momentum of improving ties with the Bush administration signified by Hakim's recent trip to the White House. All indications are that the Bush team is, in fact, getting cozier with SIIC - an alliance no doubt made more palatable by SIIC's recent "break" with Iran. At the very least, these superficial changes have some pundits convinced.

The most recent example of the Bush administration falling for the seductive sound of those sweet little lies has been our military's dalliance with certain Sunni insurgent groups in Anbar province. These "former" insurgent groups have coaxed arms, money and other support from us based on a pledge to fight al-Qaeda. The problem is, some have already decided that repairing relations with al-Qaeda is more in their interests. Something tells me they won't be returning those guns though.

Even the Sunni insurgent groups that haven't forsaken their temporary alliance of convenience with the US most likely will after their common enemy is neutralized. Then, despite their assurances to the contrary, we will once again become their primary target (along with the Shiite government we currently defend - the one that really, really wants to offer power, money and access to their Sunni countrymen but just can't seem to muster enough votes!).

While the political and military situation in Iraq is already intricately complex, and shifting, the rhetorical smokescreens make getting a read on the situation near impossible. In that sense, there is a lesson to be learned from the hardships the Bush administration is encountering in selling its message on the world stage: Don't believe the hype, let the actions bring the noise.

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