The battle's done, and we kind of won, so we sound our victory cheer - where do we go from here?
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Saturday, September 27, 2003
I've written a lot about the failures of US public diplomacy, and the reactions in the Arab press to the recent round of workshops organized by Ed Djerejian's task force around the Islamic world. In each case, as I've written, the Arab participants have been infuriated by the task force's refusal to talk about policy and to only concentrate on the public relations aspects. Today's Times has a good piece on how these efforts played out in Indonesia, which is worth quoting at length:
" A group of Indonesian Muslims, handpicked by the United States Embassy here for their moderate views, this week told an expert panel from Washington in unvarnished terms why America is unloved in the Islamic world.
"The basic problem is policy, not public relations, said Yenni Zannuba Wahid, 28, who is the daughter of the nation's former president, Abdurrahman Wahid, and who has just returned from a year of graduate study at Harvard.
"There is no point in saying this is a problem of communication, blah blah blah," said "Ms. Wahid after a videoconference on Thursday night with the advisory group on public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world. The panel is to report to the White House and Congress on Wednesday. "The perception in the Muslim world is that the problem is the policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Iraq."
"That said, Ms. Wahid added, it would help alleviate, but not close, the distance between the Muslim world and the United States, if Washington would "explain the policy." ... Just talk to us," she said."
What really bothers me about this task force - aside from the complete unwillingness to accept the answers they receive, and their insistence on framing the discussion in unproductive ways ("why do you hate us?") - is that this approach to public dialogues starts down the right path and makes an infuriatingly predictable wrong turn.
Convening these groups of Arab and Muslim intellectuals and elites to talk about the collapse of public support for the United States is a good idea. Hand-picking moderates isn't a great idea, since this becomes an artificial sample and can give a very, very misleading impression, but is tolerable. But to then insist that only public relations can be discussed, not policy, and to insist on discussing only why Arabs/Muslims hate America, makes a mockery of the process. What kind of dialogue is that? For one, it's the kind of dialogue guaranteed to infuriate and humiliate the intellectuals you're trying to engage, and leave them more convinced than ever that they aren't being taken seriously. To have their articulately expressed views brushed aside - "yes, that's nice dear, but we were talking about your feelings" - isn't going to make them feel respected or give them much stake in the outcome of the dialogue. What a blown opportunity.
Oh, and how seriously does the Bush administration take this problem? "The panel was supposed to visit Pakistan and Indonesia, but faced with a tight budget and a scramble to write the report by Wednesday, it made do with videoconferences." There are a few good, talented people on that task force - people like Shibley Telhami - but it doesn't seem to have had the kind of mandate which would have let it do the right kind of job. I'm still looking forward to their report, but I've lost hope that it will make much of a difference.
David Brooks has always been rather tedious and predictable politically (you don't get to his position at the Weekly Standard without it) but, in my opinion, a first-rate pop sociologist. I enjoyed Bobos in Paradise - his section on academics breaking into the media was great - and found some of his Atlantic Monthly pieces (including the one about Princeton students) to be really sharply observed.
All that said, it sure didn't take long for him to trot out some tired old conservative nonsense. Yes, boys and girls, Brooks has taken up valuable NYT editorial space to claim that.... ba dum boom... conservatives are discriminated against in the academy. Brooks complains that political conservatives have a hard time getting hired and face discrimination everywhere. He doesn't have any actual examples or evidence of this, mind you - it's just, you know, a sense that he gets. All the tenured conservative professors he asked say so too. The conservative newspapers on every campus he looked at say so too. And he was able to observe it on all his speaking engagements at colleges and universities to which the liberal thought police, um, invited him.
Plus, there's lots of bright conservative PdD's working in Washington who couldn't get tenure track jobs - which can only mean discrimination, since what other possible reason could there be for PhDs not getting academic jobs in the 1990s? Good thing there were all those think tanks and magazines ready to pay them nice salaries, huh? Because we all know that the discrimination faced by, say, blacks or Latinos or political scientists who use qualitative methodologies or single mothers always ends up in the hell of think tanks and political journalism.
Who'd have thought? No, really - who'd have thought that Brooks would be out of ideas and forced to resort to tired cliche already? It's only been, what, a month?
Thursday, September 25, 2003
Al-Hayat also reports that Bremer is, in fact, putting pressure on the Council to reverse its decision on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. While some will see this as heavy-handed American interference with the (unelected, unrepresentative, dysfunctional) Council, I would see this as a good thing if true... saving the Council from its own exiles.
Al-Hayat reports today (in the Arabic edition; I don't know if there's an English version) that the Minister of Planning for the IGC Mahdi al-Hafiz stated his firm opposition to any relations with Israel: "Israel has no place in any development planning in Iraq. We consider Israel to be a hostile state and we are committed to the Arab position and the Palestinian position based on Security Council resolutions." He also said that an IGC resolution on foreign investment would state that it considers Israel to be a hostile state and will forbid dealing with it."
If this is a statement of official IGC policy, then it's interesting in several ways. It would be a statement of independence and bid for some popular legitimacy on the part of the Council. It would also contradict the regular assurances made by Ahmed Chalabi and the INC - and their neocon patrons - that a post-Saddam Iraq would establish normal relations with Israel. I'll be curious to see if and how this story is reported in the US, whether Hafiz is 'corrected' by the Council or by their superiors in Bremer's office, and how this plays with the Weekly Standard crowd.
UPDATE: Here's the AFP story from Monday on the same topic. I wonder why al-Hayat was so slow on the draw? My questions about the reaction to the story remain, however, since this hasn't exactly been burning up the discussions that I've seen.
Assuming it isn't an internet rumor, I'm really sad to relay that Edward Said died this morning after his long, long struggle with cancer. What can I say about Edward Said? Principled and committed advocate of Palestinian rights, eloquent speaker, the very model of the committed and engaged intellectual, a brilliant writer and polemicist, a bit of a case of tunnel vision and a stubborn streak which sometimes led him to endorse eccentric positions (I found his arguments about Kosovo misguided, for one example). His critique of Oslo and of Yasser Arafat seemed wrong-headed to many at the time, but few of his arguments about the structural problems of the peace process have failed to be borne out. I only met Edward Said twice, and at one of those meetings he was quite unwell, but each time he demonstated remarkable grace and insight. He made a lot of enemies, which he no doubt wore as a badge of honor. The nasty obituaries sure to come in the next few days will only be matched by a genuine outpouring of respect and love. Anyway, here's to hoping that I've fallen victim to an internet hoax, and Edward Said has the chance to read some of those postmortems, positive and negative alike.
UPDATE. Nope. Not a hoax.
The LAT has a good story today on the Iraqi Council's decision to bar al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya for two weeks. The story quotes Iyad Alawi as blaming the satellite stations for Aqila Hashimi's death by inciting and supporting the guerrilla war. What's more, Alawi accused al-Jazeera of collaborating with the attackers, because their cameramen were always there to film them - "once or twice could be coincidence, but Al Jazeera is always present. It's collusion." That's a nasty and unsubstantiated accusation, as the article points out (CPA representatives distanced themselves). Even more bizarre, Alawi accused them of fomenting ethnic strife by using the term "Sunni Triangle - "Some of these channels go on talking about the Sunni Triangle in Iraq, which doesn't exist. We have only one unified Iraq." Leaving aside that virtually every media outlet, Western and Arab alike, use the term Sunni Triangle, that's a pretty thin reed on which to hang an accusation of hate speech.
All of this shows how beleaguered and isolated the Council members feel, both at home and in the Arab world. Banning news media is not an act of strength. It's one of weakness and frustration. And it is perceived that way.
The news this morning all kind of reminds me of what somebody (who was it? can anyone remind a tired and stressed aardvark?) once said about truth: truth is what remains when all illusions are stripped away.
David Kay didn't find anything. His interim report apparently will hem and haw, go on about precursors, and make reference to hearsay and some obviously self-interested testimony from a few Iraqi scientists eager to cut deals. But, if the news reports filtering out now are true, the Kay report strips away the illusions of the 'Iraqi threat' crowd.
Nobody else is going to help the US. Today's Post reports that Bush has returned from the UN, having given his bizarre and pointless speech, empty handed. Indeed, his speech might well have cost him some troops and money. The illusions of American leadership of an international coalition, stripped away.
Bush's re-elect number has dropped below 50% in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll for the first time. And continues to free-fall. The illusions of invincibility, of popularity.
Aquila al-Hashimi, the Iraqi Governing Council member gunned down in the street five days ago, died last night. May she rest in peace. The final truth, the final illusion.
Wednesday, September 24, 2003
It's the classic story. You see it a thousand times, in a thousand places. Boy wants to invade country for no real reason. World says he can't do that right now. Boy comes up with a whole bunch of reasons why he has to invade right now. World is not convinced by any of them. Boy says that if the world doesn't want to play, then he's going to invade anyway and the world can just go be irrelevant. The world warns that if he invades, he's probably going to get hurt, and not to come crying to the world when it happens. Boy doesn't listen. Boy invades. Boy gets hurt. Boy comes crying to world. World tries to be nice, and asks if boy will just promise not to go invading countries without it next time? Boy says no, he was right to invade and would do it again, but that the world should now help out anyway, and anyway the whole thing is the world's fault. And world says....? You figure it out.
Tuesday, September 23, 2003
Sick babies, deadlines, endless meetings... sometimes a nice burrow under the African savannah looks awfully nice.
Meanwhile, kudos to the Iraqi Governing Council for finally taking the kind of bold leadership position we want out of an appointed, unrepresentative, and deeply dysfunctional body: banning al-Jazeera and al-Arabiyya from covering its affairs. What a great decision! Let me count the ways.
First, you get to prove that you aren't serious about democracy or freedom of speech, in case anyone was wondering. Defining criticism as incitement, and insisting that news stations should only report positively, should send a wonderful message to any would-be Iraqi investigative journalists or independent broadcasters out there. The message is forget that freedom of speech crap - that was just for the consumption of gullible American liberals. No, here in the New Iraq, we want our media on message or out the door.
Second, you guarantee more negative coverage from the most influential news outlets in the Arab world, further ensuring that Arabs will overwhelmingly view you as illegitimate. By abandoning the field to your critics, you make sure that your side of the story doesn't get heard, and you remove any incentive that the stations might have to give you the benefit of the doubt. Nice!
Third, you get to vent that intense anger you've been nursing for years (if you are Ahmed Chalabi or some other exile). The exiles hate al-Jazeera for not being enthusiastic enough about Iraqi liberation, and this shows that the exiles are in control of the Council. Forget doing something useful, or even in Iraq's self-interest - what could be more relevant than venting your anger in a self-defeating way? Nothing I can think of!
Good work, Iraqi Governing Council.
Monday, September 22, 2003
A couple of days ago I saw a particularly stupid argument on one of the conservative blogs (don't remember which one, sorry... though I suspect its author would be better served by anonymity anyway). It went something like this: 'all those people who used to whine about how many Iraqi civilians were being killed by sanctions should insist that efforts like the "Iraqi Body Count" take into account the net positive of lives not lost now that the sanctions are gone. They should be happy about the war, because of all the lives it has saved (not that the sanctions really killed anyone, understand - this is just a rhetorical game to show how hypocritical the 'Left' is).'
By way of a response, let me quote Sarah Graham-Brown (author of the excellent and even-handed book Sanctioning Saddam, and one of the most experienced observers of the Iraq sanctions) from the new issue of Middle East Report: "Over the summer of 2003, it seems likely that there will be a considerable number of excess deaths, especially among the very young and older people, due to the disruption of electricity supplies and the resulting impact on dilapidated water and sanitation services. Health professionals, NGOs and UNICEF report concerns that systems for disease control have been badly damaged by the war... A new hazard is posed, especially to children, by unexploded ordinance." How to count those excess deaths? It's hard: "their numbers are unknown, since with only a minimally functioning police force, there is no authority that can count and register those deaths." Net positives, indeed.
Graham-Brown points out that part of the problem in the American occupation was that the Bush administration just didn't believe that Iraqi's economy and infrastructure had been so badly damaged by sanctions. They were so convinced that it was all just political gamesmanship that they ignored all information to the contrary. And now everyone is paying the price.
Here's a good example of why I'm not sold on Ed Djerejian's new task force on public diplomacy. Bathina Shaaban, a Syrian professor, files this report on her participation in one of the long sessions held in the Arab world over the last month or two, in al-Sharq al-Awsat. Among the things she has to report;
Djerejian's team is framing the dialogues around the question "Why do you hate us?" and is concentrating exclusively on how to improve public diplomacy, not on policies themselves. Shaaban effectively relates the incredulity and fury felt by her and her colleagues at their insistence on completely separating style and substance, image and policy. Indeed, she seems to have left the long meeting even angrier with the US than before.
Asks Shaaban: "How can we discuss improving the image of the United States among Arabs and Muslims without discussing American policies at the same time? The committee's suggestions all focus on the language used by American officials, or their tone or other indicators which might convince Arabs that the US does not mean ill to them, but without changing any of the assumptions of American foreign policy." She then recounts the desperate attempts of the Syrian intellectuals to get through to the Americans that what mattered most were the ongoing realities in Palestine, in Iraq, around the Arab world, in the war on terror. "There is no doubt," she writes, "that if the committee really wanted to know what to do to improve America's image among Arabs and Muslims, they heard it from us. But what surprised us all the most was the very idea that it was possible to improve America's image without discussing its policies. The real question is why the American administration does not permit Arabs and Muslims to discuss its policies, especially when those policies directly affect their lives?"
Shaaban isn't just speaking for herself. This is the fifth or sixth piece I've now read from participants in these dialogue sessions, and every single one has said roughly the same thing. This suggests to me that Djerejian and his team have not really accepted the need to change the basic foundations of America's approach to the region, and - to quote the recent article in Foreign Affairs (and Sunday's New York Times) - to take Arabs seriously. The task force needs to rethink its mandate, and take seriously what they are hearing. There is certainly a dire need to change the tone of American rhetoric in the region, and Djerejian's mandate can help there, but fundamentally this isn't a matter of misunderstandings or bad public relations. It is possible to change Arab opinions, but not through better advertising or a jazzier radio station. A real dialogue, one that can produce results, is going to have to be willing to put American policies in play and be willing to defend or even change them if appropriate. A dialogue like this one, based overtly and explicitly on the premise that American policies aren't the issue, not only won't help, it will probably make things worse.
The New York Times describes a "6000 mile end run" which Chalabi and his fellow exiles are planning against Bremer (don't be fooled by the highlighting of names like Iyad Alawi in the article - this is vingate, unadulterated Chalabi). Leaving Baghdad, where they have no power and no influence, for the more comfortable climate of Washington DC where they have both, Chalabi and friends plan to describe Bremer's many shortcomings and to claim that they can provide just as crappy an Iraq at cheaper prices.
Here's how the Times describes it: "The council's end run reflects a political struggle between occupiers and the occupied that Iraqi officials say is inevitable and, so far, has not undermined the otherwise close working relationship that the council maintains with Mr. Bremer and his staff. But the good will is wearing thin as the interim Iraqi leaders, most of them from the opposition groups that helped persuade the Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein, become increasingly frustrated with the deteriorating security in the country and the impatient expectations of Iraqis to see some fruits of what the United States calls their liberation."
One problem with this spin is that the exiles should not be equated with "the occupied." Chalabi and friends do not represent Iraqis, and never have. Even if I agree about the need to rapidly restore Iraqi sovereignty, it should be done in such a way as to ensure that power is not simply transferred to another unrepresentative, undemocratic force like the INC. The French proposal has problems, but could push in the right direction. Juan Cole, over the weekend, offered another proposal which could be a starting point for a rapid move towards elections. Empowering the exiles won't solve any problems, and is a near guarantee of a rocky and contentious Iraqi future, one where the United States will continue to be blamed for everything that goes wrong.
Josh Marshall reports that Bush is planning to go back to the UN and challenge it to join the American program or else face irrelevance: "According to advance leaks coming from the White House, when President Bush addresses the UN next week, he will challenge the world body to pony up money and troops for Iraq or risk irrelevance. (Of course, these claims of the UN's irrelevance are rather belied by the president's hasty retreat to the same.) The UN must show, says Condi Rice, that it is "actually capable of acting, and really willing to act, and not just debating.""
"Lose relevance".."risk irrelevance"... where have I heard that before? Was it...no, that's not it. Could it have been... no. Wait, I got it! It was the last time Bush went to the UN, and told it to support the American position or face irrelevance! And here he is, back at the UN... I don't get it. I thought the UN was irrelevant?
Hearing all this talk of UN irrelevance jogged my memory, and sent me back to this piece which I linked to back in March, called "Irrelevance Lost." The author argued that "Far from demonstrating its irrelevance, the Security Council's remarkable resistance to US pressure has dramatically enhanced its image in the eyes of most of the world, and no small number of American citizens. Had the UN surrendered to Bush's pressure and bestowed artificial legitimacy upon the war, the institution might indeed have lost its relevance. Refusing to stamp its imprimatur upon Bush's war has arguably given the UN greater relevance as a moral center of world politics than it has ever before possessed."
And the author predicted that: "The triumphalism of anti-UN forces in American politics should not be taken at face value, however. It is highly unlikely that the Iraq crisis will fundamentally harm the United Nations. The institution will be needed almost immediately to help deal with the humanitarian consequences of the war, for which the United States seems to have done little to prepare. Most of the world celebrates the UN for standing up to Washington's unilateralism and views the institution as more relevant than ever. For all the conservative animosity, opinion polls consistently show that the American public places great weight on UN support, and even Bush's challenge began from the premise that a strong and effective United Nations best served American interests. ... regardless of the outcome of the UN process, the long months of brutal political give and take themselves confirm the importance which the UN commands, and will continue to command. While some administration officials have speculated off the record that the time might be ripe for the US to suspend its membership in the UN, cooler heads will no doubt recognize the unique value of the international body. The time will come again when the US needs the legitimacy and the global cooperation which only the UN can provide. By demonstrating that its authority was neither for sale nor easily granted under pressure from the world's sole superpower, the UN has ensured its future relevance."
That's looking pretty good right about now.
Sunday, September 21, 2003
Tom Friedman says: "Friedman's first rule of Middle East reporting: What people tell you in private is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public. "
Tom Friedman is right. American officials have generally not agreed with this over the last few decades, which is one of the reasons they have made so many mistakes. The American official hears an Arab diplomat or chief of state say in private that he supports, say, the sanctions on Iraq or a particular agreement on Palestine. Public opinion is solidly against said policy, but the American official believes that the Arab leader can and will ignore public opinion. And then the Americans are surprised when the Arab government follows a policy more in line with the public rhetoric than the views expressed in private.
Friedman is wrong to assume that if Iraqis would only speak up in public, they would say how much they appreciate the American presence. This seems like forced optimism, based on little beyond his own desperate hopes. "This is not Vietnam," he says, because "the silent majority" supports the US. And that argument, of course, was never made during Vietnam.
And Tom Friedman is just being naive, silly, or intentionally obtuse when he says "America is so radioactive in the Arab-Muslim world that even an America that has come to Iraq with the sole intention of liberating its people cannot be openly embraced." Does Tom Friedman really believe that the US invaded Iraq for that reason? Really? Not about what Tom Friedman would have done if Tom Friedman were president, but what George W Bush's America did in the real world? Arabs and Muslims are suspicious of American motives for the same reason that a whole lot of Americans less credulous than Tom Friedman are suspicious. No Arab will publicly embrace what seems so obvious to Friedman because, well, they don't want to be laughed out of the TV studio for being an obviously ignorant boob. It's got a little to do with anti-Americanism and a whole lot to do with the adminisration's consistent lies, its claims that don't add up, its shifting arguments and rationales. There is a deep suspicion that underneath, somewhere, there must be a real reason, if all the stated reasons fail to convince. Is that irrational?