Nov 10, 2009

The failure of the “diplomatic” argument

“And I call upon the Iraqi people to reject violence, band together to insist that the country move toward a peaceful tomorrow. Iraq is changing for the better. I mean, look at the soccer team.”

– G. W. Bush, Interview with Al Zaman, May 20, 2004

Ethos. Pathos. Logos: the three Aristotelian pillars of successful argument still very much relevant today, but, for some reason, also very much neglected by several major states in their international affairs.

Modern-day conduct of foreign affairs heavily depends on communication, especially when it comes to public diplomacy and non-traditional warfare. After all, it’s about perception management and “manufacturing consent,” be it domestic, or within a foreign public: control over info. That’s the key.

A government cannot purge all unfavorable discourse from the public, excommunicate all “unorthodox” thinkers, or, for that matter, hunt down and burn all their writings: fortunately we have been out of the Middle Ages for a while, now. Yet, governments still get entangled in their attempts to literally control information, spin it to work in their interest, or improve their “international ranking” in terms of appeal. This is especially true when the government is also desperately trying to win a war of ideas, which essentially constitutes multiple communication battles.

To continue with the over-abused example of the American “War on Terror”… It indeed has a major ideological component. Yet, again, the US ended up in a situation where it had to learn the hard way. You cannot bomb ideas. You have to bend them, or you might even have to disprove them altogether. To do that, you need persuasion. Persuasion requires argument; cohesive argument. The US has been trying to persuade the Middle Eastern public for most of the last decade, and yet, its persuasion tactics have been far from even resembling a true Aristotelian argument (rather, they involved military invasions, consequent humanitarian crises, attempts to clamp down on the local media, and disaster cases such as the corruption in the “Oil for food” program or the Abu Ghraib controversy). So what is wrong, exactly?

Ethos: the ethical appeal, i.e. credibility. - The Western arrogance towards the region, and the invasion already established a “bad name” back in 2001. The outburst against Al Jazeera  (and other “uncensored” media, which freely covered the TRUE nature of the war) and the support of corrupt local regimes provided further proof that the US was unable to practice what it preached. Not to mention the constant negative framing of the Muslims and their culture by Western media – at least as perceived by the Muslims themselves. There goes credibility, down the drain. 

Pathos: the emotional appeal, i.e. sympathy and compassion. - I don’t think it is fair to expect many people in the Islamic world to feel enough compassion towards any of the coalition forces in light of the Afghanistan or Iraq invasions, and the events that followed. The local media – successfully providing counter-frames that worked – undermined all American effort to make a “sweeping victory” over the hearts and minds of the population. 

Logos: the reasoning of the argument, including cohesiveness and supporting evidence. - In this case, the initial rhetoric was that of hostility, and although it changed later on, it was far from being cohesive. As in the case of ethos, the US and its coalition partners showed, time and again, that they were unable (or were simply unprepared) to follow the very principles they were supposedly promoting, giving rise to many alternative explanations, that (at least seemingly) made more sense, especially to the local public.

This all in light of an incompetent speaker as president and a new media environment, where there is an abundance of alternative sources of information, as well as multiple channels of access to it. The US had apparently forgotten to take good note of that, and assumed that just like in the good-ol’ Cold War times the people would unquestioningly internalize whatever they were told, as long as it was coming from America. The flowers and cheers for the “liberators” were not there for the American troops. Did the US fall victim to its own rhetoric and information campaign?

Whatever the root causes and the real reasons behind the “War on Terror,” it is certainly not perceived as a war of “liberation” by the ordinary Iraqis or Afghans, or by most of the people in the region. The US attempts to promote the “democratization” rhetoric have fallen short of actual evidence to support it, while political and economic dealings get increasingly more dirty in both, Iraq and Afghanistan (and the US is conspicuously involved in most of these cases). And certainly, the most prominent example of the US not keeping to its own values is its very attempt to overtly control the flow of information: bashing of “unorthodox” (in American view) media, embedding reporters in the military (thus successfully hampering their chances of some true reporting), and sometimes even preventing journalists from reporting altogether (references can be found in all of this week's readings).

Basically, the Americans have failed to deliver; and even where they have, the means to these achievements were largely disastrous. Given the situation as well as the context, the US might not have many options left. The most promising one, however, remains true understanding of and sensitivity to the local cultures (and figuring out what is that they really value at the time, unlike "soccer," for example), as well as a better demonstration of the true American values through more effective communication and palpable evidence. Yes, openness and true freedom of choice for the people of the region might mean that in the short run the “coalition” might not see friendly governments there (but that’s just the way a true democracy works, right?). And yet, the picture might be different in the longer run, if these governments are engaged and better integrated in an international cooperation system. In the end of the day, despite the importance of communication, it’s not only about words, but deeds as well.

1 comment: