Thursday, May 31, 2007

Public Relations as Diplomacy

Here's another data point to add to my alternate reality post from the weekend. Price Floyd, a long-time State Department employee has written a column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about why he recently resigned from his position as the State Department's director of media affairs. He argues that his job was made impossible by the insistence of the Bush administration that they could do whatever they wanted in international affairs as long as they got the PR right. The State Department's job was no longer to conduct diplomacy, but rather to sell the message. Reality didn't matter, symbolism was the only focus. The only result, Floyd says, was that people now view America's messages as meaningless propaganda. Slate's Fred Kaplan comments here. It reminds me, once again, how completely on the money the Defense Science Board's terrorism report was back in 2004 (blogged on BWJ here) when they wrote:
Policies, diplomacy, military operations, and strategic communication should not be managed separately. Good strategic communication cannot build support for policies viewed unfavorably by large populations. Nor can the most carefully crafted messages, themes, and words persuade when the messenger lacks credibility and underlying message authority.

Information saturation means attention, not information, becomes a scarce resource. Power flows to credible messengers. Asymmetrical credibility matters. What's around information is critical. Reputations count. Brands are important. Editors, filters, and cue givers are influential. Fifty years ago political struggles were about the ability to control and transmit scarce information. Today, political struggles are about the creation and destruction of credibility.
Too bad no one listened to them...

Our First Line of Defense Against Terrorism

An update to my post about James Fallows's Atlantic article, Declaring Victory, from late last summer. There Fallows argued, convincingly, that the primary threat of terrorism today is not international terrorist networks, but disaffected local Muslims like those that bombed London and rioted across Europe last year. Muslims in the US, as opposed to those in Europe, Fallows claimed, were highly assimilated and as such provided the US with a significant security buffer. Today the Christian Science Monitor editorialized on a Pew study of American Muslims that echoed Fallows's point, finding US Muslims to be "highly assimilated". CSM argued that the US must be careful to cultivate this identification of its Muslim population with the US and take care not to allow our public rhetoric to alienate young Muslims. I concur fully and hope that our politicians take note of this warning as the 2008 elections heat up. As it stands our Muslim residents are our greatest asset in the war on terrorism and a resource we cannot afford to squander.

Update: Speak of the devil, Fallows himself blogged a few comments on the Pew study today. And what's that at the bottom?? :)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Why The Atlantic Kicks Ass

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence made big news this week by publicizing prewar analysis from US intelligence agencies predicting the difficulties that we would have in Iraq. These reports were buried by the administration in their push for war. For many this was just one more stunning revelation of the recklessness and dishonesty of the Bush administration. For readers of The Atlantic Monthly, however, it was old news. James Fallows reported on this in January of 2004, and I blogged it here in July of that year. Nice to see that the Senate is catching up. I shouldn't be snarky; this is a good thing. Now that Democrats control the agenda in the Senate they can finally drag some of these things out into the light of day, and they should. But in any case, I think kudos are in order to Fallows and The Atlantic.

Update: Apparently Andrew Sullivan is not an Atlantic reader. He was shocked and outraged by this new report. Excerpt:
Just to anger up the blood some more, it's now clear, thanks to the latest Congressional report, that this president was warned starkly about the dangers of "a surge of political Islam and increased funding for terrorist groups" as a result of an invasion of Iraq. He was told that Iraq was "largely bereft of the social underpinnings" for democracy. He was explicitly informed that there was "a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict with each other unless an occupying force prevented them from doing so." And yet he still sent a pathetically insufficient occupation force in 2003 - and refused to increase it for three years of growing chaos and mayhem. Even if you excuse the original recklessness, the persistence in it - until our current point of no return - is and was criminal negligence - a callous disregard for your security and mine.

The gravity of the mistake this country made in 2004 by re-electing al Qaeda's best bet is only now sinking in as deep as it should. I fear, however, that we have yet to experience the full and terrifying consequences of that historic mistake.

We All Want Out of Iraq...

...but we can't shirk our responsibilities.

I'm going to stick with Matthew Yglesias (who I've been reading quite a bit of since The Atlantic picked him up as one of their regular bloggers), although many people have expressed similar sentiments about the Iraq funding bill, particularly at the major liberal blog sites. Yglesias was disappointed that Democrats didn't fight on the funding bill to the bitter end. I dissent. I was hugely critical of the Democratic votes in favor of the original Iraq war authorization bill, and my bitterness on that front has not receded a bit these past five years. But I think that Democrats in Congress did what needed to be done with this funding bill. They fought a good fight in the public eye, passing a bill with benchmarks and defending it in the media although it was doomed to be vetoed from the start. They forced Republican congressmen to stand up and publicly support the president's policy in Iraq (a stand many of them will regret next year). They pushed the president to negotiate with them, and were rebuffed. He was not going to negotiate. And if we have learned anything about George Bush, we should know that he would not have backed down, regardless of what the Democrats did. They simply didn't have the votes to overcome a veto, and everyone knew it. That left them with but two options: capitulate or defund the Iraq war.

I want out of Iraq as much as anyone, but I would not have us abandon our responsibilities there. A precipitous and complete withdrawal is just not an option. Extricating ourselves from this mess will be a delicate operation. I believe we need to get our troops out soon, because as far as I can tell all they are accomplishing is to maintain a miserable status quo. Our presence is inhibiting any progress by the Iraqis and preventing the situation from evolving. But I have no confidence with respect to what happens when we leave. Things could move in any direction from there. Some of what might happen (and here I have visions of Rwanda) would be utterly intolerable. If we see things proceeding in that direction I feel that we will be obligated to bring the troops back in to put a lid on things and try again. Even if it costs us, even if we don't have a clear path to success. We have a responsibility, an obligation to the Iraqi people that I hope we do not forsake. We will need to be careful with our withdrawal and keep sufficient force in the region to react to events as needed. We will need to maneuver deftly to retain enough influence in Iraq to nudge things in the right direction without appearing to interfere. Defunding the Iraq war will not accomplish that. What we need is open heart surgery, and the only tool the Democratic Congress had was a sledgehammer.

This means, of course, that we will have to continue to live with Bush's management of the war for the time being. So be it. Elections have consequences, and the American people voted for the war in the 2002 midterm election and ratified that decision when they reelected George Bush in 2004. Last year's midterm doesn't erase all that. Now we're stuck with the president we have. Maybe over the next year enough Republican congressmen will defect to allow Congress to force a responsible withdrawal on Bush. If so, great. If not, then we just have to live with him until we can get a president who can deal with this conflict like an adult. The hardline "bring the troops home now" positions I see on so many liberal blogs these days are no more responsible than the policies Bush is pursuing in Iraq today. It's no cause for celebration, but Democrats in Congress did what needed to be done, and I respect them for it.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Alternate Reality of the Right

In considering the "fighting them there so they won't come here" argument, Matthew Yglesias points out the obvious conflict between symbolism (retreating from Iraq makes us look weak) and reality (staying in Iraq causes us to actually be weak). He seems perplexed by the Right's tendency to "view national security policy as something that takes place entirely at the level of symbolism". This is, I think, not so difficult to understand. American conservatives live in an alternate reality, unable to distinguish between symbolism and reality. To them, symbolism is reality. If you listened to enough conservative radio and watched enough Fox News you'd live in that alternate reality too. Never was this more clearly illustrated than in Ron Suskind's famous discussion with an undisclosed White House official (Andrew Card, perhaps?) about how the Bush administration was in a constant process of creating its own reality. This was never a matter of the Bush administration being able to fundamentally alter the state of the world directly through their pronouncements and news releases, but rather an expression of the belief that if they can control news cycles and assert a concept of reality strenuously enough, everyone else would have little choice but to accept it as real, and the world would adjust itself to the White House's vision. It was Wag the Dog transformed from satire into official state policy. They could reshape reality through symbolism by convincing people that what they thought was true actually wasn't.

Obviously this doesn't work. There are too many competing sources of news and reality does eventually trickle in to displace this fictional presentation. The reality-based community inevitably gets the last laugh, as Suskind pointed out. This is why the administration and their supporters were always so furious about the media reporting on bloodshed in Iraq and missing the "good stories"; the media was deconstructing the administration's carefully constructed alternate reality.

But it's not hard to see why conservatives got suckered into this belief, and why they still can't seem to let go of it. Most conservative news sources are mere propaganda outlets. Witness the old Pew study finding that the more people watched Fox News the more likely they were to believe that we had found WMD's in Iraq or that Saddam was behind 9/11. Or this more recent Pew study that shows that while liberals see Republican presidential candidates in exactly the same way conservatives themselves view them, conservatives, by contrast, see all of the Democratic candidates as raving left-wing lunatics. American conservatives have replaced their own reality with symbolism, so why wouldn't it be natural for them to think the same is true for everyone else? Their own echo-chamber media has relegated them to a world that only exists in their own minds.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Al Gore and TV Culture

I was deeply impressed with this excerpt from Al Gore's new book The Assault On Reason from Time Magazine. It's heavily Amusing Ourselves to Death influenced. It makes a half-hearted diversion into being an advocacy paper for net neutrality in the closing paragraphs, but that may just be an artifact of reformatting the book into excerpt form, because prior to that turn the excerpt appeared to have a rather grander design. I'll be curious to see reviews of the whole book. I think Gore diagnosed the problem pretty well here, and I surely hope net neutrality is not the entirety of his answer. I have to concur with Andrew Sullivan, I much prefer the new public intellectual version of Al Gore to the old political candidate version. I hope he doesn't let himself be dragged into the 2008 race.

Opening Up Cellular Networks

Some time back we had a discussion here on the insistence of US cellular providers that wifi features on new phones be disabled before the phones were marketed in the US. In a column for Forbes, Tim Wu argues that the FCC should use the upcoming auction of wireless spectrum gained from the digital TV transition to enforce a right to attach rule. He notes that the exact same question was broached with respect to landline phone service in 1968, where the FCC ruled that AT&T must allow the Carterphone to interoperate with its system (a ruling the paved the way for the creation of MCI and the ultimate demise of AT&T's monopoly). The rule would force carriers who purchased spectrum in the auction to allow any device that conforms to basic specs to operate on their network, knocking down an immense barrier to entry for wireless device manufacturers. This is a good example of a pro-market regulation, carving out space for innovation and competition in an anticompetitive marketplace.

Monday, May 14, 2007

More Barack

A great in-depth profile from the New Yorker. Not too surprising to see some quotes from fellow Chicago Law prof (and BWJ favorite) Cass Sunstein, but there's also some stuff in there from Robert Putnam, from whom Obama took a seminar based on Bowling Alone. And Sunstein even throws out a Rawls reference. It's a regular BWJ-fest. Here's some of the meaty stuff:
Obama’s drive to compromise goes beyond the call of political expediency—it’s instinctive, almost a tic. “Barack has an incredible ability to synthesize seemingly contradictory realities and make them coherent,” Cassandra Butts says. “It comes from going from a home where white people are nurturing you, and then you go out into the world and you’re seen as a black person. He had to figure out whether he was going to accept this contradiction and be just one of those things, or find a way to realize that these pieces make up the whole.” In the state senate, this skill served him well—he was unusually dexterous with opponents, and passed bills that at first were judged too liberal to have a chance, such as one that mandated the videotaping of police interviews with suspects arrested for capital crimes. “In our seminar, whether we were arguing about labor or religion or politics, he would sit back like a resource person and then he would say, I hear Jane saying such and such, and Tom seems to disagree on that, but then Tom and Jane both agree on this,” Robert Putnam says. (For a couple of years, Obama participated in a seminar about rebuilding community, inspired by Putnam’s article “Bowling Alone.”) “I don’t mean he makes all conflicts go away—that would be crazy. But his natural instinct is not dividing the baby in half—it’s looking for areas of convergence. This is part of who he is really deep down, and it’s an amazing skill. It’s not always the right skill: the truth doesn’t always lie somewhere in the middle. But I think at this moment America is in a situation where we agree much more than we think we do. I know this from polling data—we feel divided in racial terms, religious terms, class terms, all kinds of terms, but we exaggerate how much we disagree with each other. And that’s why I think he’s right for this time.” Even when he was very young, Obama was scornful of, as he puts it, “people who preferred the dream to the reality, impotence to compromise.”

Sometimes, of course, there is no possibility of convergence—a question must be answered yes or no. In such a case, Obama may stand up for what he believes in, or he may not. “If there’s a deep moral conviction that gay marriage is wrong, if a majority of Americans believe on principle that marriage is an institution for men and women, I’m not at all sure he shares that view, but he’s not an in-your-face type,” Cass Sunstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago, says. “To go in the face of people with religious convictions—that’s something he’d be very reluctant to do.” This is not, Sunstein believes, due only to pragmatism; it also stems from a sense that there is something worthy of respect in a strong and widespread moral feeling, even if it’s wrong. “Rawls talks about civic toleration as a modus vivendi, a way that we can live together, and some liberals think that way,” Sunstein says. “But I think with Obama it’s more like Learned Hand when he said, ‘The spirit of liberty is the spirit which is not too sure that it is right.’ Obama takes that really seriously. I think the reason that conservatives are O.K. with him is both that he might agree with them on some issues and that even if he comes down on a different side, he knows he might be wrong. I can’t think of an American politician who has thought in that way, ever.”


A pretty cool web site.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Won't Someone Think of the Troops!?

I've been busy with exams lately, so I've been sitting on several things I hope to blog at some point, but I just couldn't let this one pass by. Last night Newshour had a feature on the Iraq war funding bill (you can watch it here). The story featured a moderated discussion between activists Jon Solz and Melanie Morgan. It pretty much encapsulates the entire war funding discussion in its complete absurdity (really, it's surreal, you have to watch it). It called to mind this astute post from a month ago by the Cunning Realist noting that:
Normally, U.S. troops support and serve as instruments of U.S. policy, not the other way around. Of course these aren't normal times. Now, national policy in Iraq and elsewhere is fixed around "supporting the troops" -- who are no longer the means to an end, but an end in themselves in our budding "troopocracy."
The degree to which "the troops" have become a political football is fairly sickening. There is a name for a government where the army runs the show and generals call the shots: dictatorship. Here in the US we have a republic where elected civilians give the army its marching orders. Political leadership does not end when war begins. There exists no act more fully and completely political than war. And there is no greater need for democratic political leadership than in a time of war. Did Abraham Lincoln listen to his generals and support the troops? No, he fired the generals one after another, because he was the head of state and they weren't doing the job he needed them to do to effect his political objectives. Why bother with elected officials if they are too busy worshiping the troops to make sound policy decisions? And to the extent that our elected government owes a responsibility to our military, I should think that the responsibility starts and ends with this: to make smartest and most rational possible decisions regarding the use of military force in the service of our national good. And you can't do that when the entire political debate revolves around who most loves the troops...