Our Reputation Precedes Us

Does a nation’s reputation matter? A nation with a reputation for playing fair and respecting the views of others – insofar as a nation can without ignoring its own national interests – has a far easier time in this world. It can be trusted. The eight years of the Clinton administration, while filled with conflict, were like that.  We may not have been feared as much as now, and were, even then, disliked on many levels – but we were, by and large, trusted. We were trying to do the right thing internationally, and sometimes screwing up, or passing on matters where we might have made a difference (as with the Rwanda genocide) – but we weren’t see as the bad guys.  That gave us leeway, almost in the nautical sense – room to maneuver.

 

Now world opinion has changed, and we made sure it did.  We act unilaterally.  Rejecting the Kyoto treaty, pulling out of the International Criminal Court (fine for others but we don’t want to be subject to it), revoking the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and the war in Iraq itself – it all adds up. We got this “bad boy” reputation – to match the president’s personality and the vice president’s inclinations. The British government joined us in most of this, by shrugging at it all no matter that the population there was aghast.  No other major governments were with us, however.  But we didn’t care – Rumsfeld scoffed at the “Old Europe” that he said really didn’t matter anymore.  France, our prickly ally since the late eighteenth century and the butt of many a joke, became our enemy – at least publically (there was always much cooperative antiterrorism work going on in the background, as Bill O’Reilly fulminated and we ordered our Freedom Fries).

 

In short, we openly declared we didn’t much care what the world thought about what we did, or even if they joined us in our war. We were doing what was right, so screw them all.

 

That of course had wonderful implications domestically – large enough blocks of voters responded to the idea that no one could tell us what to do, or what might be more prudent and sensible.  It spoke to the teenager in all of us.  It kept the administration in power.  Call it atavistic or immature but it doesn’t matter – it was powerful. It was just a matter of reading the mood of the American public after the 2001 attacks.

 

Everyone knows the usual warnings about throwing away one’s reputation in a fit of angry rebelliousness, and here are three –

 

“To disregard what the world thinks of us is not only arrogant but utterly shameless.” [Lat., Negligere quid de se quisque sentiat, non solum arrogantis est, sed etiam omnino dissoluti.] ~ Cicero (Marcus Tullius Cicero), De Officiis (1, 28)

 

“Reputation is character minus what you’ve been caught doing.” ~ Michael Iapoce

 

“A reputation once broken may possibly be repaired, but the world will always keep their eyes on the spot where the crack was.” ~ Joseph Hall

 

Some say we should go about repairing our previous reputation – that might be useful now that our fit of pique has passed. There are a lot of problems to be solved, and much to rebuild in Iraq and across the Middle East. A little help would be good right about now – if no troops, some cash, and if not cash, at least some cooperation.

 

But that’s unlikely to come. Consider what the outgoing Tony Blair said in the Sunday Times of London on Memorial Day weekend

 

I was stopped by someone the other week who said it was not surprising there was so much terrorism in the world when we invaded their countries (meaning Afghanistan and Iraq). No wonder Muslims felt angry.

 

When he had finished, I said to him: tell me exactly what they feel angry about. We remove two utterly brutal and dictatorial regimes; we replace them with a United Nations-supervised democratic process and the Muslims in both countries get the chance to vote, which incidentally they take in very large numbers. And the only reason it is difficult still is because other Muslims are using terrorism to try to destroy the fledgling democracy and, in doing so, are killing fellow Muslims.

 

What’s more, British troops are risking their lives trying to prevent the killing. Why should anyone feel angry about us?

 

Why? Glenn Greenwald suggests this

 

In general, human beings do not appreciate it when foreign armies invade their nation, shatter its infrastructure, drop bombs throughout the country, kill tens of thousands of civilians, unleash anarchy and chaos, and then proceed to occupy the country with a force of 150,000 foreign soldiers. And that is true even if a genuine monster like Saddam Hussein is removed from power and killed in the process.

 

No matter how well-intentioned the invaders might think they are – indeed, no matter how well-intentioned the invaders actually might be – that behavior is going to engender anger and resentment among the invaded populace, not to mention the rest of the world, and that resentment is going to increase as the brutality and duration (and ineptitude) of the occupation increases.

 

And all of that is to say nothing of the extremely precarious notion that Muslims perceive that the aim of the invasion is to bequeath to the Muslim world what George Bush calls “the Almighty God’s gift to every man, woman and child”: freedom and democracy.

 

Well, we have engendered vast anger and resentment around the world, and Greenwald sees why, even if Blair does not –

 

Our closest Middle Eastern allies are some of the most repressive tyrants on the planet, while we direct some of our most intense hostility to governments far more democratic. And we demonstrate infinitely less interest in regions around the world which lack resources we want and need and/or lack countries which are of great importance to key domestic political groups. In light of these facts, how receptive are Muslims going to be to the claim that we are the bearers of “God’s gift” to the Muslim world?

 

It is one thing to argue that we invaded Iraq in order to strengthen U.S. security. But the idea that people are going to be grateful when we invade various countries and subdue resistance with extreme violence and brutality is dangerously absurd. Echoes of the same mindset are evident now as various warmongers insinuate that the Iranian population is eagerly awaiting our “liberating” campaign of bombing and regime change.

 

The fact that Tony Blair – after four years in Iraq of extreme violence, chaos, disruption, brutality, death squads, Abu Ghraib, and a total breakdown of the most basic societal functions and norms – can ask: “Why should anyone feel angry about us?,” is a potent indication of just how self-absorbed, out-of-touch, and detached from reality the prime authors of this war have been.

 

There is that famous quote from Frank Barron – “Never take a person’s dignity: it is worth everything to them, and nothing to you.” Oh well.

 

Sidney Blumenthal, the former assistant and senior advisor to President Clinton, is of course, one of those who longs for the good old days – before “9/11 changed everything” as they say. He made some remarks at a conference, “From Terror to Security,” held by the New York University Center on Law and Security in Florence, Italy, on May 26, in which he argues, in short, America is Not Bush

 

Most of the world is not so sure of that any longer, but Blumenthal makes the argument nonetheless, offering for his subhead – “The damage the president has done to our country’s reputation can be rebuilt – by those who uphold our Founding Fathers’ ideals.”

 

Some of what he contends goes like this –

 

When President Kennedy in his inaugural address spoke of “a long twilight struggle,” he signaled that the Cold War was the challenge and framework defining U.S. foreign policy, as it already had been through previous Republican and Democratic presidencies. But President Bush’s conception of a global war on terror is not the Cold War. There is no consensus around its assumptions. On the contrary, its premises have been refuted by their own applications. The collision of Bush’s fantasies with reality has stripped them bare.

 

And Blumenthal does lists of what is just not so –

 

·         The current challenge is not a struggle against a totalitarian foe.

·         It is not, as Bush has said, “the ideological struggle of our time.”

·         It is not an ideological war.

·         It is not a battle against an enemy called “Islamofascism” – a confected category that conflates Bush’s idea of war not only with the Cold War but also with World War II.

·         Most important, it is not a struggle for national survival against an existential threat. Jihadism and its use of terror are, of course, a dangerous threat, but they do not, and cannot, destroy the United States as the Soviet Union could do.

 

But these assumptions, Blumenthal claims, lead to false choices – law enforcement and the administration’s “war paradigm.” Of course law enforcement and military force are rather essential these days. But then so is diplomacy, including public diplomacy.  Did 9/11 change everything, and war it is, or can the other tools be used without, at best, ridicule, and at worst, suggestions of treason?  No, not these days.

 

And this is rather obvious –

 

Among the many consequences of the idea that we are in a war for survival have been the distortion, corruption and subversion of American law and the U.S. legal system, from the abrogation of the Geneva Convention against torture to the suspension of habeas corpus. The corruption is an aspect of a general hostility to and undermining of not only the law but also our senior military, our intelligence community, the Foreign Service, and international institutions including the United Nations and the World Bank.

 

The contention here is that we have somehow romanticized the conflict we say we have on our hands, and that “has obscured the real one and the ability to deal with it.”

 

Try this –

 

Projecting the illusion of omnipotence has fueled the illusion of jihadism. The more boastful the claim of our virtue, the more vaunted the jihadists’ claim of holy war; the greater the claim of our limitless power, the greater the credence of jihadists’ universalism.

 

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” Bush declared after 9/11, a statement that underlines the one made by Osama bin Laden in 1995, long before Bush spoke on the subject. “This is an open war up to the end, until victory,” said bin Laden. Mimicking the terrorist leader’s rhetoric does nothing but lend credence to bin Laden and the jihadists.

 

And diplomacy isn’t pointless –

 

Public diplomacy is not about meeting and greeting, working the rope line, shaking hands or kissing babies. It is not a political campaign. And it is not about convincing Muslim peoples that we too are monotheistic. Public diplomacy rests on policy, and to begin with, the policy must be sound. It’s the policy, stupid.

 

And we’ve screwed that real good.  But we can recover –

 

One characteristic of the Bush administration’s false premises, and perhaps the one that has most damaged the nation’s reputation, is that its idea of America and its notion of American exceptionalism – Messianic and Manichaean – is the only idea of America. But there is another idea of the country, which began even before the country was a nation, before America became the United States, a nation under law. John Winthrop said (and has been cited by Republican and Democratic presidents since) that we must be “as a city upon a hill.” The next sentence is: “The eyes of all people are upon us.”

 

So what do we do now?  There’s not much here.  The piece is a bit of a sermon – long on principle and short on specifics.

 

But it’s not as if the administration now, after a long period of defiant ill-temper, has started to care about our international reputation. Perhaps they always did, but had the concept wrong.  Fred Kaplan argues that the administration has always seemed to believe that “public relations is a synonym for diplomacy” – and therein lies the problem. He examines that in Bush’s Failed Campaign to Rebrand America – and it’s amusing in a sad sort of way.

 

The item centers on a State Department official named Price Floyd, who resigned in protest last March. Floyd was director of media relations at the State Department – and that in itself is on odd job. He’s held diplomatic posts for seventeen years, beginning in the administration of the president’s father.  But he got fed up and walked away from it all.  In the May 25 edition of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram (he is from Forth Worth originally), he explains why he quit – he just got tired of trying to convince journalists, here and around the world, “that we should not be judged by our actions, only our words.”  That’s the nub of it.

 

He says it started right after the 2001 attacks – the State Department was tasked with “an unprecedented effort” to explain our foreign policy to all of us here in America and everyone else around the world.  It was a big deal – his office arranged almost seven thousand interviews, half of them with international media.  On any given day, “senior officials” were doing four or five interviews.  It just didn’t work – “poll after poll revealed rising animosity toward America.”

 

So why didn’t it work?  He knows why.  It doesn’t matter a whole lot what you say – words don’t matter, actions do. “What we don’t have here is a failure to communicate.” The problem was obvious – our actions, “which speak the loudest of all.”

 

So we rejected Kyoto treaty, and the International Criminal Court, and revoked the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.  Then came Abu Ghraib, and Guantanamo was always there.  “These actions have sent an unequivocal message: The U.S. does not want to be a collaborative partner. This is the policy we have been ‘selling’ through our actions.”

 

So what to you get?  Anything you “say” is ignored or dismissed as “meaningless U.S. propaganda.”

 

No kidding.

 

The Kaplan article recounts a phone interview on Wednesday, May 30 – Kaplan called the guy at the Center for a New Security, a Washington think tank, where he is now director of external relations. Kaplan wanted elaboration. What led Floyd to abandon his career at the State Department, the only place he said he’d ever wanted to work? Kaplan got it.

 

Try this –

 

“I’d be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House,” he recalled. “They’d say, ‘We need to get our people out there on more media.’ I’d say, ‘It’s not so much the packaging, it’s the substance that’s giving us trouble.'”

 

He recounted a phone conversation with a press officer at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad who wanted Floyd and his colleagues to sell the media more “good-news stories” about the war in Iraq. “I said, ‘Fine, tell me a good-news story, I want good-news stories, too.’ There was a silence on the other end of the line,” he recalled. “It was like you could hear crickets chirping.”

 

Floyd would tell his colleagues that the administration’s message was drifting dangerously out of synch with reality. He was finding it increasingly difficult to place officials’ op-ed pieces in serious newspapers. Few broadcast media, other than Christian radio networks, wanted to interview the department’s experts, dismissing what they had to say as “more blah-blah from the State Department.”

 

After a few recitations of these warnings, his bosses, as he put it, “started telling me to shut up. They didn’t want to hear this.”

 

So he walked away from the job of organizing the recovery of our national reputation.  He says you cannot do that with just words.  They seemed to think he was some kind of slacker, or someone who didn’t really understand his job, or was trying to hide the fact he just didn’t have the necessary skills.  He thought they were nuts – no amount of skill would fix things.

 

People joke about “putting lipstick on the pig” with the implicit giggle that people are generally so dumb they’ll think the pig is young Audrey Hepburn or something. Say it’s super or “new and improved” or some such thing and people will buy anything – they’re that dumb and that easily led. Floyd seemed to have had different experiences in the world – he must have run into some skeptical and half-intelligent foreigners and Americans in all those years at State. He seemed to doubt that you could spin most people. That old advice – “dazzle ‘em with bullshit” – seemed pointless to him.  Most people have pretty good “crap detectors” – at least in his experience.

 

Yes, you just thought of Karl Rove, who built the younger Bush’s empire on the opposite premise. They call him a genius, or used to.  Floyd didn’t belong in the administration.  We’re talking two different universes here.

 

Kaplan adds this –

 

The problem, of course, went – and still goes – well beyond the State Department bureaucracy. Ever since 9/11, President Bush and his top aides have acted as if they needed only to “rebrand” America – devise a slogan or set of images – in order to clear up hostile foreigners’ misunderstandings about our nature and intentions.

 

It’s crude marketing, and there are three key names to remember – Charlotte Beers, Margaret Tutwiler and Karen Hughes.

 

Kaplan remembers –

 

Shortly after the terrorist attacks, Bush hired Charlotte Beers, a prominent advertising executive, to be undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. She spent nearly a year producing a slick documentary, which preview audiences greeted with howls and catcalls, before hightailing it back to Madison Avenue. After Beers came Margaret Tutwiler, James Baker’s can-do press aide during the presidency of Bush’s father, who, it turned out, couldn’t do this job, either. Then came Karen Hughes, Bush Jr.’s own former spin-master, who embarked on two disastrous trips to the Middle East early on in her tenure and has lain low ever since.

 

The problem wasn’t Beers, Tutwiler, or Hughes personally. Rather, it was the assumption that led Bush to believe that they were qualified for the job to begin with – the assumption that public relations is a synonym for diplomacy.

 

Kaplan also points back to Santa Monica –

 

Back in 2004, the RAND Corporation issued a report that anticipated the main point Floyd would later make from the inside, equally in vain – that the key factor in public diplomacy is not what the U.S. government says but rather what it does.

 

“Misunderstanding of American values is not the principal source of anti-Americanism,” the report concluded. Many foreigners understand us just fine; they simply don’t like what they see. It’s “some U.S. policies [that] have been, are, and will continue to be major sources of anti-Americanism.”

 

And he points back to North Carolina –

 

One crucial aspect of this problem antedates George W. Bush’s presidency. It goes back to the mid-1990s, when Jesse Helms, then the xenophobic Republican chairman of the Senate foreign-relations committee, gutted the U.S. Information Agency and swept its tattered remnants into a dark, dank corner of the State Department.

 

In its Cold War heyday, the USIA had been a fairly independent agency mandated with blaring the principles of American culture and democracy across the world. It sponsored jazz concerts and radio broadcasts, speaking tours, public libraries filled with classic political documents. The operation was so independent from policy-makers that, during the 1960s and early ’70s, some American scholars sent out on USIA-sponsored speaking tours openly opposed the Vietnam War.

 

The agency’s relative independence – and its staff’s attunement to foreign cultures and languages – conveyed an attractive image of America. But it was also what annoyed Sen. Helms, and so he dismantled the whole operation.

 

Price Floyd liked that.  In the interview he said he himself traces the decline of America’s standing in the world to that moment –

 

Back then, the USIA transmitted American values – and this was separate from selling American policy. The two aren’t separated now. There’s no entity that makes it possible to separate them. So, if you disagree with our policy, which is easy to do now, then you hate America, too.

 

Kaplan says that in the interview and in his Star-Telegram op-ed piece, Floyd called for something like a restoration of the old USIA, at least in spirit – a return to public diplomacy (as opposed to public relations), a sustained demonstration that America is about more than bombs and soldiers, a realignment of America’s words and its actions.

 

That’s not going to happen, but it’s pretty to think so. We still think we can dazzle them. They’re walking away.

 

We not only learned nothing from Vietnam – we learned nothing from the Ford Edsel. “E-Day” was September 4, 1957, and The Edsel Show was broadcast on October 13 – the car was supposed to be all new and quite wonderful and all that stuff. The Edsel, however, shared its bodywork with other Ford models – and the crap detectors were working. The next day it got its nickname – the Ford sucking a lemon (just look at one).

 

Same deal. We’ve got lemon on our hands.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Couldn't Be So, Foreign Policy, Political Posturing, Reality and all that.... Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Our Reputation Precedes Us

  1. Russell says:

    Just wanted to say I enjoy your blog. Thanks

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