Part IV - A Fundamental Inability to Communicate
This article is actually closely related to the one previous on the Bush Administration’s mismanagement of the War on Terror, but it also feeds into Polarizing America. What is the Bush Administration’s vision for the future of America? How does its definition of America counter the rabble-rousing ideas of Osama Bin Laden and radical Islamic fundimentalism? How well does it listen to its critics and respond? The Bush Administration’s clumsy communication skills is playing a significant part in dividing America and may well be costing the country the War on Terror.
The global War on Terror is not going to be won by bombs alone. The United States and its western allies are not fighting a country named Terroria, with a despotic president and an entrenched hierarchy. Such a thing would actually be a comfort, because then we could win the War on Terror by storming enough palaces. However, as documented in the movie the Battle of Algiers, the French were highly successful in running down and rooting out an effectively organized terrorist movement in Algeria, only to have another terrorist movement materialize and force the French out of their African colony.
America is not fighting a battle for land, it is fighting a battle for minds. Terrorism knows no boundaries, and its soldiers are almost indistinguishable from the innocent civilians that walk past them. To win the War on Terror, the United States must not only hunt down the terrorists and prosecute them, they have to convince the average public not to see these people as martyrs. They have to convince these people that the western world truly does stand for the same basic values that they do, or at the very least that the western world is not the major factor in what is wrong with their lives.
America should be good at this. After all, it led the western world in facing down the threat of communism. It did this over a fifty year period, not just by possessing more nuclear weapons, not just by building a more effective intelligence service than the KGB, but by building a society that was clearly more powerful and attractive than a communist society could be, and communicating the advantages of western society to the people living under communism. Thus the key battle to win in the War on Terror is the battle of ideas.
Which is what makes the reports now circulating about the mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq by American and British soldiers not only appalling for its inhumanity, but appalling for its stupidity. The ethical questions of such humiliation and torture aside (though that’s a horrible thing to set aside), it should have been common sense for the soldiers involved in these atrocities that news of their mistreatment would leak out. It should have been common sense for the soldiers involved how the people of Iraq would react to such news. To prevent greater instability in Iraq and to prevent more terrorists from being made, they should have been on their best behaviour.
To win the War on Terror, the United States and the rest of the western world has to show itself to be above the atrocities that take place in the prisons of the Middle East dictatorships. The best way to be seen to be above such thuggery is to actually be above such thuggery. And, yes, that is the reality: 99.9% of American and Canadians and Europeans and all the rest of the people are above such thuggery. But it’s also the reality that any blemish on one’s record stands out, and makes the task of convincing the potential opponents that we are on their side that much harder.
Unfortunately, the Bush Administration doesn’t seem to have this understanding. Their attempts to communicate America’s side of the story has been half-hearted, and they’ve walked into situations, including the invasion of Iraq, where accidents were likely to occur, mistakes were likely to be filmed, and the enflaming results likely to be delivered to a receptive public.
Indeed, it’s quite possible that Al Queda knew about this, and counted on it. Witness this quote from Gwynne Dyer:
The first task towards getting God back on your side, to returning to traditional values, is to overthrow the existing Arab governments. The trouble is that 80 to 90 percent of the population, while not necessarily supporting the government, also doesn’t want to go back to the village days. They saw what happened in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over. The Taliban paid no attention to traditional governmental roles, like the economy, health or education (except to restrict it), but “were obsessed with attire, beards and burkhas…these guys were hicks and most Arabs have no intention of doing that.”
There are underground revolutionary Islamists in every Arab state, waging low-level civil wars for the past 20 years in which hundreds of thousands have died, 100,000 in Algeria alone.
There are 18 Arab countries, but not once has an Islamist government come to power. They have an unblemished record of failure.
Terrorism by itself does not bring down governments. You need either broad public support or a military coup, and the military traditionally sides with the government.
So how do you get public support? How do you bring people into the streets?
In 1998, bombs outside the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania killed 240 people, mostly Africans in the street, and 24 Americans. About 5,000 were injured. Bill Clinton, not really knowing who to punish, unleashed 70 cruise missiles “into the blue,” destroying, among other things, a pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum that supplied half of Sudan’s medicines.
Al-Quida looks at the sequence of events…24 Americans, 70 cruise missiles fired essentially at random, and says, ‘We can work with that. What we have to do is go to the U.S., kill thousands of Americans, and they’ll go berserk. They’ll get some of us, but we’re ready to die, and thousands of civilians. And if we sucker them into doing that, we’ll win’.”
Yes, this is an issue that Bill Clinton faced as well as George W. Bush. Bill Clinton has been criticized for shooting missiles “into the blue” and not following through with attacking the dictatorial regimes that aided and abetted Al Queda. George W. Bush’s “understanding” that “this is war” is hailed by some as a sea change, but the Bush Administration’s approach suffers the same weakness as Bill Clinton’s initial response: it creates collateral damage. It gets the civilian population around said collateral damage angry. It makes martyrs out of the enemies that need to be fought. It certainly doesn’t articulate why the western way is the better way; all the shell-shocked citizens can see is death and more death. Couple this with the actions of a handful of rogue U.S. and British soldiers that echo the atrocities of Saddam Hussein, and the correct response that one should have is to bang one’s head against a wall in frustration.
So, how do you communicate that the western way is the better way, or at least not the Great Satan that radical Islamic fundimentalists paint us to be, especially now that so much damage to our credibility has been done? Ironically, one way is to send in more troops. Even before the invasion of Iraq, there was criticism of Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s assertion that only 100,000 American troops were needed to oust Saddam Hussein and restore order in Iraq. Outgoing generals noted that complements five times that number were required to restore order quickly, rebuild the infrastructure. Similar measures were not followed through with in Afghanistan. Thus, the Bush Administration has shown that it considers the war against radical Islamic fundimentalism to be a primarily military campaign. It’s commitment to the battle of ideas, it’s willingness to communicate the strength of its democratic ideals to the people of the Middle East, is surprisingly lax (although installing an Arabic news network to compete against Al Jazeera is a start).
But communication is not just about speaking loudly. It’s also about listening. In the battle of ideas, the radical Islamic fundimentalists tactic has been to claim that the war on terror is a war by the west against all Islam. They have been able to claim that the West supports dictatorial regimes, that the West looks away from atrocities when its convenient, that the West sees the Middle East as simply a repository of oil to be exploited. Backing this is a few centuries of (admittedly spun) history, and the continuing bad news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan (and, yes, even the European oil-for-food scandal feeds right into this and they should be ashamed of it). In key ways, the western world has not shown itself to be above what the radical Islamic fundimentalists are charging us with being.
From the beginning, I’ve always felt that one of the weaknesses of the Bush Administration was its inability to communicate. I’m not talking just about George Bush’s fumbling malapropisms, either. It goes to the Bush Administration’s unwillingness to work across the political centre in governing for America. It goes to the Bush Administration’s propensity for seeing no need to compromise. Why listen, and why compromise if you think that you have the totally right solution to the problem.
The instability in Iraq and Afghanistan and the strength and resilience of the guerilla fighters and the terrorists, should have provided the Bush Administration a wake-up call long ago, but wake-up calls are sort of lost on an Administration that tends not to listen to contrary opinions. I knew, from the 2000 election campaign, that communications strategy was going to be a problem for Bush, but I never thought that the Bush Administration’s poor skills would have such consequences in major international affairs.
Can the Democrats do better? How do we win the hearts and minds of a hardened Middle East? Well, there are ways, and there are rays of hope. Two Democrats have already proposed a Marshall Plan. Grants and low-interest loans to elevate countries such as Jordan, Afghanistan and (hopefully) Iraq would help begin the long process of transforming the Middle East into a prosperous and democratic region. It would take a lot of money and a lot of time, both of which have already been spent on the military side of the ledger by the Bush Administration.
But one thing the Bush Administration did make clear in the weeks following the September 11 terrorist attacks: that the war on terror would be a lengthy war. It will require a lot of sacrifice and a lot of commitment in order to win. All that is true. Now, if only we could get more commitment on the battle of ideas, we might start seeing more progress on the war on terror.
Next Reason: There are better candidates