Sunday, November 25, 2007

Image Is Everything

There's a very interesting opinion/analysis piece in today's New York Times magazine, that contains this intriguing paragraph:
We are locked once again in a war of ideas. And public-diplomacy enthusiasts would have us gird ourselves once again with the weapons of advocacy. But the political weapons of the cold war are as antiquated today as the military ones. The 1950s witnessed the birth in the non-Western world of mass media as well as mass politics. The U.S. could dominate the airwaves not only of South Vietnam but even of Japan, as Osgood describes; and we could thereby reach the small but growing segment of society engaged in political discussion. That world is gone forever. Today, as the Djerejian report observed, “Arabs and Muslims have a surfeit of opinion and information about the United States.” We are bound to lose any battle of spin control, whether carried out by a pal of the president or by the most credible Arabic-speaking proxy.

From this we may draw two opposite conclusions. One is that we must simply accept that the cost of acting in our national interest is that publics in the Islamic world will shower us with contempt. The alternative is to recognize that public opinion is the medium in which we now operate. All diplomacy is therefore public diplomacy. When Vice President Dick Cheney and other senior officials split hairs over torture, that shapes our ability to conduct the war on terror more powerfully than do the interrogation techniques themselves. What we say about ourselves no longer has much effect; but what we are seen doing — on occasion, what we are caught doing — matters immensely.
(emphasis added) That last sentence sums all that up nicely: it no longer matters what we say in private to world leaders whom we are trying to persuade, but what we do in public.

This is a new paradigm brought on, I believe (and as James Traub examines) by the rapidly changing face of what passes for mass media in not only this country, but the world. Time was, we could beam Radio Free Europe behind the Iron Curtain and be guaranteed to reach a mass audience, despite the technological sophistication of the Soviet Union in blocking signals. Better still, our only competition in passing along information was the state-run media. We ran on equal footing, which gave us equal access to the audience and allowed the audience itself to choose which information to receive.

Now, not so much. In a world dominated by media of a more personalized, more localized nature, the Internet, e-mail, blogs and websites, we're fighting a new diplomatic battle with old tools. People aren't gathering as much information from mass media, which is now more entertainment-oriented anyway. "American Idol" reaches people that would shun "60 Minutes", and these people are forming their opinions from opinion makers who "are in the know", who post blogs from talking points disseminated from a central core of information.

Sort of like how the Republicans operate Fox News and the right wing fringe bloggers in this country. In our own nation, where 100% of people have free access to *some* form of information, nearly a quarter are still operating under the delusion that George W. Bush is a good man.

Ratchet that scenario around a bit, and you can see how Pakistan, for all the blatherings about free elections and the treaties signed between Musharraf and the warlords, is still under siege by radical Pakistanis and their Islamist allies. It doesn't take much: all it really takes is a neighbor to say "I read on Al-Jazeera's website that the US is secretly sending troops into Kashmir", and that's the end of all the public pomp.

As with all mass media, taking this informal information dissemination system apart to figure out how to subvert it (like was done using "Radio Free Europe") is going to take some time. How do you create an alternative information system in what amounts to a closed loop?

This is why Traub's point is so incisive: we cannot afford publicity of the sort the Bush administration has so disingenuously and flagrantly thrown around: waterboarding isn't torture, it's an enhanced interrogation technique; we're winning in Iraq; we will stop Al Qaeda by killing civilians in a country where Al Qaeda didn't exist until we invaded.

It doesn't matter what the inarticulate bastard in the Oval Office says, even if he is perfectly misunderestimated. In the case of international relations, specifically in advancing the cause of freedom, what we say is not nearly as important as what we do. And we are years behind the curve in advancing our cause in this fashion.

Particularly when your public "statements" have amounted to as series of embarrassing bungles:
In [Karen Hughes'] first appearance in the Middle East, in 2005, this Bush confidante and fellow Texan avoided substantive issues while reassuring audiences that “my most important title is Mom” and that Americans “greatly value many religious faiths.” The trip was a very public fiasco for the White House; thereafter, Hughes appears to have been largely withdrawn from circulation.

Hughes was not the first casualty of the administration’s attempts to improve America’s global image. That distinction belongs to Charlotte Beers, a Madison Avenue executive who produced and broadcast throughout the Middle East a series of uplifting video clips called “Muslim Life in America.” Beers retired for “health reasons” in 2003 after the campaign was widely ridiculed in the Arab press. She was succeeded by Margaret Tutwiler, a former State Department official, who was welcomed with great fanfare and who stepped down after a few months.
See, we're no longer trying to persuade a people to join in uprising against a monolithic imperialistic faceless tyranny.

That's Al Qaeda's domain, and they seem to be doing a pretty good job of painting America in the 21st Century as the Soviet Union. No, we're trying to prevent people from joining in an uprising by putting a face on our nation, a name to our freedoms, and revealing the true heart of the American people, that we recognize tyranny and are prepared to deal with it and join with the rest of the world in shunning it, that we dislike governments that bully and restrict and harm the powerless and poor.

That's a message, I fear, that we can't establish from the government we have, or the government we will elect. That's going to have to come from we, the people.