Monday, 12 March 2007

Image is everything? Perception and the 'war on terror'

Throughout this month, I will be posting excerpts of my lengthy paper "The War on Terror and the Fire Paradox", as mentioned in this post. Here is one such excerpt...

Image is everything? Perception and the 'war on terror', in their eyes
How do human rights and other abuses committed in the name of the war on terror tie into the terrorism? Perception: how the world sees the United States and, most importantly, how the moderates in the Muslim world view the US. Instead of just angering moderate Muslim communities — in the US and abroad — the United States should choose policy decisions that limit the perception that the US is after (all) Muslims, which is exactly what the radicals want the moderates to think. In addition, tying ventures like the one in Iraq to any counterterrorism operation only increases the confusion and gives all counterterrorism a bad name.

Sadly, because the United States failed in its plans to bring stability to Iraq following the 2003 invasion, which was under false pretenses, there is now more than ever a need for counterterrorism in Iraq and the wider Middle East. Radicals have been able to garner more popular support from the majority-moderate population. The United States' occupation and perceived targeting of Islam is their scapegoat and rallying cry; the US's scapegoat are the extremists and allegedly extremist-supporting states like Iran.

Not only has the failure in Iraq created more Mid-East instability, it has allowed countries like Iran, a Shia-majority semi-democratic, semi-theocratic country, to enjoy an unprecedented power and hand in their neighbors affairs. At the same time, America is seen as an occupier — a true statement — but also a source of great evil. Islamic extremists see the US as evil; the US sees the Islamic extremists as evil.

Overall, the US has generally refrained from using terrorism — i.e. fear of violence in opposition to gain political power and control — in its efforts to 'win over' the support of the Iraqi people, or scare them into submission. However, things like secret CIA prisons and detention centers like the one at Guantanamo Bay, and the torture tied to many related operations, has hurt the American image abroad and diminished political capital at home.

There have been numerous polls analyzing the popularity of the US. One such poll was created by the BBC, GlobeScan, and PIPA. The global view of the United States is not very positive, and support is eroding. The overall average, from 25 countries polled, resulted in a negative outlook of US influence of about 50 percent; positive outlook was only a bit over 30 percent.

The survey raised some questions, as the BBC's Marcus Jonathan wrote the day the poll's results were released — following President Bush's annual State of the Union address.

This poll underscores conclusions drawn from several other surveys - that anti-Americanism is on the rise, and the more the US flexes its hard power - the more it deploys troops abroad or talks tough diplomatically - the more it seems to weaken its ability to influence the world.

Maybe Washington will bounce back. America's image improved markedly in the post-Vietnam era. But then there was still the Cold War to keep America's allies on-side.

Comparable surveys suggest that there is still strong support around the world for the values enshrined in US society. But it looks as though America itself is seen to be living up to those values less and less.

As a result, America's soft power - its ability to influence people in other countries by the force of example and by the perceived legitimacy of its policies - is weakening.

And in a turbulent, globalising world, where the US - rightly or wrongly - is associated by many with the disruptive effects of globalisation, soft power matters more than ever.

At root is the problem of legitimacy.

It is the Bush administration's handling of the issue that is reflected in this BBC poll; not the policy options themselves. These are complex.
The US undoubtedly has an "image-problem", and there are worrying signs that this is having an impact upon the administration's ability to get the policy outcomes that it wants.

One of the wisest writers on these issues is Joseph S Nye, now Dean of the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is in many ways "Mr Soft Power", having written and theorised about the phenomenon for many years.

He has long-argued that Americans need to better understand how their policies appear to others.

"To communicate effectively," he has written, "Americans must first learn to listen."

This opinion poll, then, represents a powerful argument for those seeking to make the case that Washington should listen more and try to win over its friends as much by persuasion and force of example as by firm actions and tough rhetoric.

The US government turns a blind eye to regimes that contradict what Bush administration defines as American values (freedom, etc.), and, at the same time, disown democratic countries who disagree with the US's views in their self-gratifying crusade for 'freedom' and against 'terrorism'. This is similar to the politics of the Cold War: 'us against them', 'with us or against us'; having a general, evil enemy at home, which garnered political capital, and supporting regimes with contradictory policies abroad. These foreign policy contradictions, coupled with America striving for authority in any area it think relates to terrorism, make some very angry.

During the Cold War, America was battling 'communism'; nowadays it is fighting 'terrorism'. They could say it is sunny on a cloudy day (or vice versa) and, sadly, many people would believe them. Unconditional support for Israel has not helped others' perceptions of the United States either, not least in the Muslim world, where the terrorist insurgents we are talking about come from.

All of the aforementioned tie into how others view America. A negative PR has strong implications for how US policy affects others. Ultimately, a poor image allows terrorist insurgents to recruit more, or at least get more public support, at a time when too many in the Muslim world think the US is against them — there is, in their eyes at least, little evidence to the contrary.

See also "Why are we obsessed with terrorism?". And a post on the 'fire paradox'.

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