Tuesday, May 13, 2008

What if We Called It a 100 Year Slumber Party?

In a recent interview given to Al Jazeera, Paul Bremer discusses his tenure as head of the CPA in Iraq and some of the problems associated therewith. One of the more curious, though telling, passages comes as Bremer explains how one word supposedly proved detrimental to the Bush administration's efforts:

In my view, one of the more unfortunate aspects of having lawyers involved in the project was they determined that under international law, we became an occupying force and that was confirmed by the UN security council resolution.

I used to say to the Iraqis it is also not very fun being an occupier, especially for an American; I always thought it was an unfortunate term.

There was nothing I could do to change the noun, occupation. When Iraqis raised their concerns with me all I could do is sympathise and say "I understand you’re problem but there it is, it’s the international law."

The political ramifications and psychological ramifications I think were in many ways more important because of the implication to the Iraqi’s that we were an occupying and not a liberating force.

For many Iraqis they were delighted we had thrown out Saddam Hussein and his cronies. But they wake up the next day and hear that we’re occupying them and look out the door of their house and see Americans in tanks… I think it had an important, negative political ramification.

This would be a shocking claim if it were not put forth by a member of an administration whose officials boast proudly of their ability to "create [their] own reality." However, the contention that the use of the word "occupation" and not the actual reality of being occupied by a 150,000 strong army had any measurable impact on our mission (hint: it was the tanks outside the doorway, not the semantics used to describe them) reflects a flawed way of thinking that has led to mishap after mishap for the Bush administration.

Throughout its two terms, the Bush administration has taken the position that America's image in the world (particularly the Muslim world) has been suffering not because of our implementation of wildly unpopular policies, but rather the lack of an effective communications strategy to explain these policies, and American ideals, to the target population. As Fred Kaplan observed:

You've probably never heard of a State Department official named Price Floyd...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...Basically, he was tired of trying to convince journalists, here and abroad, "that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words." [...]

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.

The logical extension for one that espouses this way of thinking is to make the facially absurd claim that the Iraqi people would be more amenable to the upending of their society, and the continued presence and interference of our military, if we only had a better way of marketing the situation. In a sense, the reliance on this spin-based strategy of policy making is a product of the Bush administration's infamous preference for the political over policy, reinforced by the domestic electoral success produced thereby (until recently at least).

Foreign audiences, of course, are far less receptive: it's harder to convince someone with slick branding and scare tactics when their neighborhood is burning. Even staunch Bush supporter Richard Lowry was forced to concede this dichotomy:

Bush’s emphasis on the inherent hunger for freedom is powerful. It clothes his foreign policy in an undeniable idealism. It puts his liberal opponents in a tight spot, because it is awkward for them to object to the kind of sweeping universalism they have always embraced. It might be simplistic, but that is often an advantage in political communication.

The problem with Bush’s freedom rhetoric is that it appears to not be true.

Yes, I could see how that would be a problem. Especially when you're trying to convince people whose houses you're searching, whose family members you're arresting (and torturing) and whose relatives you've bombed that you're not really an occupying power, just a guest who brought over some democracy, whisky, sexy for the slumber party!

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