Aug 30, 2009

The Need to Make Things Straight

or How Things Can be Seen in a Different Light

How about the statement: “The US is the empire of our times”? Well, for some (surprisingly) it might be a shocker; for others, it’s already become a cliché. Let me play the devil’s advocate now, and try to look at the above-mentioned observation from the SIS 640 perspective.

Thussu refers to communication as a key tool for control and authority-maintenance. It was true at the time of Darius (5th century BC), Julius Ceasar (1st century BC), the Catholic Church in medieval Europe, the British Empire, the Communists in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and… the list can go on forever, but let’s turn to the United States today.

It is an undeniable fact that the Cold War necessitated the propaganda war, but I believe it is important to look at the core reason for the need of propaganda, in the first place. The entire “ideological rivalry” was nothing more than a strategic battle of two superpowers for global domination, while all the shimmering wording was a mere act of public diplomacy, trying to cloak the reality in a well-packaged and easy-to-internalize demagogy. Of course, the superpower battle was waged at many different levels and was manifested in various forms; and yet, its “public face” did not alter the essence of it.

VOA and RFE/RL immediately jump to mind. References have also been made to a state body – IIC – to implement the “international informational activities in support of the US national security policies and interests,” Project Truth being a part of it. (How much more explicit can it get? I bet Orwell was turning in his grave in 1981.) It all seemed to become obsolete by the early 1990s, as supposedly the other superpower was defeated never to rise again. But, as we can see now with the benefit of hindsight, the “end of history” is not that easy to bring about, and there is always an “enemy” to fight out there, especially when you need to maintain internal coherence and unity (hail Orwell and Leo Strauss!). So, the “information war” never stopped, be it against Saddam, Al Qaeda, Ahmadinejad, or even Putin.

Yes, we are all familiar, especially after this week’s readings, with the fact that the culture of independent and private media is very strong in the US, and that it figures as one of the basic principles the American people hold so dear. But then, unlike the majority of other states, the US government is also a true representative of its people and, particularly, its major businesses and other interest groups. The power dynamic is two-way and should be viewed as a cycle: all parties affecting each other. Military and political actions follow certain interests, even if well-cloaked in demagogy (freedom, democracy, human rights, etc…). And even if not directly owned or controlled by the state, the media cannot really counter these interests. After all, given the commercial nature of these organizations, none of the American media would want to be stigmatized as unpatriotic (the gravest of all sins) or to have to deal with the Pentagon. News media, such as the BBC and – especially – Al Jazeera, are largely despised for not playing into the overall American message, and have become targets of the information war themselves (I highly recommend watching the documentary “Control Room” made by an Egyptian-American director, who explores the Pentagon-Al Jazeera tension in 2003-2004). Of course, it is not just the major foreign networks, but at least the DoD can be sure that the strongest patriotic ethos, as well as the supposed “ethical considerations” are resonating among the local media. This, however, cannot be guaranteed among the foreign media, especially if they are owned, controlled, or strongly influenced by their respective governments. Having them privatized (i.e. commercialized), would give the US the opportunity to indirectly influence their message as well, by playing into their commercial interests, which, in its turn, would help to exert political influence.

Yes, the neo-imperialism claim might be a little over-stretched. But having in mind the current political situation around the world and the need to maintain thorough control of its “spheres of influence,” the US cannot afford allowing uncontrolled freedom to any news media, wherever it be located. At least, that is the attempt.


  1. Hmm.. There are two points I find fairly weird. First you claim all the media in the US is independent. True I agree if independent means not owned by the government. But then as I am sure you already know all of the existing TV and radio channels, along with the prited media are in the hands of a few selected individuals, who just happen to be sitting at the same table with the leading politicians. Thus, all the decisions made by the government are adorned with some gloss and presented as patriotic and the American people accept them led by their indeed genuine patriotism. Therefore the media cohorts, run by corporate interest are not really free-I mean they rarely work for the benefit of the people per se. And as you mention later in your post, indeed the subtle goals are veiled with the patriotism. In fact I disagree that the media are trying to counteract to the plans of the government-on the contrary it helps in their execution. The second point is the fact the US government is truly representative. Well I will argue it is not THAT representative. In fact, people voting for Obama for instance do not vote directly for him but for a person who is supposed to vote on their behalf for Obama. What if that person changes his/her mind? True, that has rarely happened but still the precedent exists. If the government is representative it should clearly follow the people's will-pull back from Iraq and Afganistan, and not enlisting Mexicans and Africans in its army just because they somehow ran out of volunteers. Indeed some would argue that if the government follows every single whim of the populations there will be anarchy, but if it utterly disregards their wishes it turns into a dictatorship. So far the US government has barely managed, in my opinion, to wallk on the edge, but as I see it it is going dows. And as far as the propaganda is concerned-it will always exist one way or another. I'll give you an example-in the early nineties the state television still used to broadcast movies about the titanic clash between Nazi Germany and the USSR and how the USSR heroicly won. This was all supplanted by the "facts" showing how the Russians single handedly won the war and how the Allies were just bystanders, how Russian weapons were the best and so on and so forth. NOW it is the other side of the coin-the Eastern front was a mere backstage to the climatic battles in the Pacific, which determined the outcome of the war in Europe... My advice is read carefully, think and do not watch CNN.

  2. I second the advice!

    I'll start from the last point you brought up, and will use the opportunity to express my GRAVE CONCERN about the general tendency that is so obvious in Eastern Europe, particularly (well, not only in EE, but in several CIS countries, too - Ukraine and Georgia being the best examples). The fact that the overall messages can be "turned over" so dramaticaly, in SUCH a short period of time is disturbing. And yeah, just because there is historic bitterness (I would argue, a large part of it is artificially created and is a pretty recent phenomenon) and a dislike of the current authorities, ANY message coming from the West is taken in unquestionably, and internalized as true. And just because the political situation of the past 15-20 years required very OBVIOUS manifestation of "love" for the West - i.e. sycophancy(well, the EU and NATO were there, with their arms wide open. They just had to prove deserving of membership, and you, guys, did) - the overall message was turned over, history books were re-written, and everyone suddenly realized that they NEVER knew, liked or understood Russian... I see it as pathetic, indeed.
    Now about the independence of media and "representation" in the US. I couldn't agree more with you. But let's take a COMPARATIVE look - after all everything IS relative - and evaluate the situation accordingly. When I was talking about the "commercial" interests in the media, I was referring to those VERY multi-billion corporations you mentioned. These are the ones that inevitably - directly or INdirectly - influence the American politics (domestic and foreign). Nevertheless, they ARE private, and at least nominally they are independent (well, I bet we cannot say the same of Al Arabiya, the Russian OPT, Armenian H1 National Channel, or the Bulgarian BTV, for that matter...).
    And government? Ideal representation and perfect democracy is IMPOSSIBLE - just as genuine objectivity is journalism is - and therefore, the BEST we can hope for now is to have a strong "relative performance". I can confidently claim that the US scores pretty high on such a scale (not among the top, though). Despite that, however, it also should be said that no matter what the political system or who the president is, when the country is so influential around the world, and is desperate to maintain AND enhance that influence, very little flexibility is allowed to the administration. Obama cannot JUST leave from Iraq or Afghanistan, just as the British could not leave from India, or the Soviets from Afghanistan.
    I'm curious for how long will the concepts of "freedom and democracy" be distorted and used for completely different objectives, before they can't be getting away with it anymore... Seems, though, that slowly but surely we are getting there... FINALLY!

  3. I agree whole-heartedly that the Obama Administration cannot just up and leave from Afghanistan and Iraq without possibly facing dire consequences yet again in the future.

    The very fact that the United States is currently in Afghanistan right now is because of their cut and run tactics during the Cold War era. The CIA trained the Afghans and the foreign mujhaideen to shoot down Soviet helicopter from the ground and then left the Afghans and the foreigners with this training and weaponry as soon as the Soviets were ousted.

    There was no consideration as to what might happen when you leave people who had formerly lived under a monarchy, many of whom were disenfranchised, uneducated and discriminated against (because all of the educated elites had fled the cities in the beginning years of the war), instead the United States left as if they were never there to begin with.

    Thus began the Civil War and foreign intrusions (most prominently from Pakistan) that lead to the Taliban, Al Qaeda (Arab creation), Bin Laden (Arab, not Afghan), 9/11, and now 30 years of civil war.

    For America to leave either country again, they would simply be restarting the cycle they began at the end of the Cold War. If anything, America needs to focus on security, development, and education in Afghanistan and reigning in the Pakistani government and forcing them to truly fight the Taliban.

    Much of the America people's notions that Afghanistan is Vietnam or Iraq 2.0 and that the US needs out of Afghanistan has to do precisely with the terrible job the US government has done in communicating the mission in Afghanistan to the peoples of America and Afghanistan.

    I wrote more about that here:

    and here:

    sorry for the shameless plugs

  4. Thanks for the contribution, Alibomaye :)

    You are SO RIGHT about the whole flawed perception of the situation in all of these countries: Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq... I think I can dare to say that due to the very same information war I was talking about earlier, the war rhetoric has been based largely on lies: just as any other war - NOT an exception. HOWEVER, given the current circumstances and the past experience, the American strategists could know better and either change the rhetoric, or be a bit more truthful about their goals. Otherwise, they have come to believe their own "propaganda", which has resulted in further mistakes...
    A democratic, educated, and developed Afghanistan will DEFINITELY benefit the US, particularly if the administration there stays US-friendly after the transformation. However, I'm still amazed at the fact that there is NO realization that you cannot simply IMPOSE democracy on a people: it's a contradiction in and of itself! The local context, historical and cultural factors - ALL of them - have to be taken into consideration and democracy has to be BUILT GRADUALLY through EDUCATION and economic prosperity, and not through weapons, bribes, or threats... I don't want to be praising what the Communists did there - on the contrary, it was a HUUUUGE blunder - but I believe they were pretty good with their educational policies in the 1970s and early 1980s. Yes, it was NOT a democracy, but through educating the MASS of the people they could have achieved development in a LONGER term.
    I think the US should pull out its military forces from these countries; BUT, if it just LEAVES outright - as you correctly pointed out - there will be even more trouble to come, for many MORE decades... particularly in Afghanistan... Solid foundations should be made for an EFFICIENT educational system and REAL economic development programs should be instituted, if any of these countries is ever to see peace again...

  5. Dear Ali,
    I utterly disagree with your statement that the US brings "Democracy" to Afghanistan, precisely for two majour reasons. First and foremost, the US needed a war and an enemy. The economy was lagging behind, China was on the rise and things in the EU started to actually work. The internal strife in the US has reached a high point with the contested president vote and the dubious way the new president entered the office. After 9/11 Afghanistan was chosen to be the scapegoat for two reasons-it had a nasty regime and held and still holds the first place in opium production-two things with substantial weight in the call to arms. Add Osama's bragging about the disaster and you have a bloodfrenzied nation ready for the kill. Being technologically backward, the Taleban offered little resistance. However they did manage to fool the Americans or at least CIA with the Tora Bora fiasco. But the main point here is that billions of dollars were put into the military industry, creating new jobs and sustainig old ones. The economy greatly benefited. Additionally, the US managed to drive a deep wegde in the EU with some states for and some states against the whole idea. The US acted entirely on the right of the strong one. US managed to achieve two things with the war-disrupt the fledging EU and boost its economy-pretty well done actually and hats off to the people who did that. That is of course from realist point of view.
    The second point which is fairly humourous is the democracy thing. USA manages very well to play one actor against the other. The divide and conquer principle is splendid! By playing different tribes against each other it fractions Afghanistan and it controlls it better. The very few people who think there IS democracy live in the cities and unfortunately in my opinion are deluded. Go to the province and you see the old customs more or less followed. A divided Afghanistan is a really nice thing for the US, for it can control the puppet government and the tribal chieftans. The possible pipelines running through Afghanistani territory will be secured cheaply thanks to the different allegiances and all the resources will not only not be allocated evenly, but will also fall in the cery same chieftains'hadns, devoiding the common people of any benefits.All in all the people there are unlucky. Moreover, the war was justified only on the grounds of murky allegations. Nice way to change an entire regime and reign over the country. THe only reason why this is not a second Vietnam is that this time for various reasons neither Russia nor China is helping Afghanistan. Otherwise the situation would have been different. Perhaps you are from the region and surely have your opinion, but this is how things appear right here in the southern corner of Europe. Democracy cannot be imported. It has to grow. Locally. Everything else is just another regime change. Cheers!