TCS Daily


What a Week for 'News'

By James Pinkerton - May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

If loose lips sank ships during World War Two, then what's the equivalent today, in the wake of the Newsweek story about Koran-flushing at Guantanamo? How about "loose reporting loses wars"? That's not much of a rhyme, but it might accurately describe what's happening in the media, and in the Middle East.

All of us who have praised globalization over the past few decades might reflect upon the Newsweek item, which reminds us that globalization is also feedback-ization. That is, the same globalizing techno-forces that empower us to export goods and services -- and to project regime-changing military force -- also empower our enemies to counter us in shocking-and-awe-ing ways. We got a bitter taste of that "blowback" on 9-11. Now, in the wake of the new Gitmo allegation, which set off fires across the Islamic world, we have discovered that what Muslims "know" about us, true or not, can be devastating, too.

So if the big battle of the young 21st century is the struggle for the hearts and minds of Middle Easterners, then the "global feedback" phenomenon -- let's shorten that to "globoback" -- must be considered as a topic of grave strategic importance to the US.

Few Americans have given serious thought to this globoback question. After all, many similar accounts of Koran-abusing and flushing have been floating around news reports and cyberspace for years, and yet it doesn't appear that American authorities did much to counteract them. Which is to say, it was probably only a matter of time before one of these stories set fire to a Muslim fuse. But even days after the Newsweek item had set Kabul ablaze, the top brass in the Pentagon was dismissing the story's impact.

So let's make four points here, about Newsweek and, more importantly, about globoback:

First, Newsweek is playing a double game on this retraction business. After ceaseless pressure, the magazine first apologized on Monday for the story, and then, a few hours later, retracted it outright. But reporter Michael Isikoff maintains that he did nothing wrong, and that he reported nothing wrong two weeks ago. And for now, at least, he seems to be paying no penalty either for his original journalism or for his damage-control off-messageness. Indeed, behind the scenes, Newsweekers are telling anyone who will listen that the retraction was a matter of cynical expedience, as opposed to sincere penitence. And this hidden-hand spin, as a result, has been reflected in the coverage by the Main Stream Media (MSM), as catalogued by the invaluable Media Research Center. So it's little wonder that foreigners aren't buying the retraction.

Second, and closely related, the White House is going to have a hard time getting full retraction-satisfaction from Newsweek. Presidential press secretary Scott McClellan, describing the weekly's disavowal of the Isikoff story as a "good first step", seems to think that more crow-eating by the magazine will follow. Don't bet on it. As the Drudge Report notes, many in the White House press corps are in open rebellion against perceived pressure from the administration.

The Wall Street Journal provided some historical context in a Tuesday editorial, which argued that hostility to foreign wars is pretty well hardwired into the media -- at least for this Baby Boomerish generation. The Journal detects "a basic media mistrust of the military that goes back to Vietnam and has shown itself with a vengeance during the Iraq conflict and the war on terror." The paper continues:

        "Long gone are the days when AP's Ernie Pyle -- an ace reporter by the 
        standards of any era -- could use the pronoun "we" in describing the Allied 
        struggle against the Axis. In its place is a kind of permanent adversary 
        media culture that goes beyond reporting the war news -- good or bad as 
        it should -- and tends to suspect the worst about the military and American 
        purposes."

But of course, any consideration of "the media" these days requires the question: "which media?" Or, to put the question more painfully precisely, "Which media is likely to remain extant in the next few years?" The basic business model of most of the MSM is tailspinning, and the weekly newsmagazines are no exception.

Moreover other Schumpeterian forces, such as LexisNexis and Google, are making it possible to undermine further the legitimacy of the MSM -- nailing, for instance, a seemingly endless skein of reporters, from New York to California on plagiarism and fabrication raps.

And while we're on the subject of Google, it's possible that the MSM will be Googlezon-ed out of existence entirely. And in that case, what will replace the MSM? A bunch of blogs? That might cheer conservatives and various stripes of anarchists for a while, but it's a safe bet that plenty of blogs will be as lefty as the MSM -- and maybe even harder to extract corrections from. And of course, even if the American media fragments into non-existence, will such not-always-America-admiring news outlets as the BBC, Al-Jazeera, and Xinhua fade away, too?

Back to globoback: the third point is -- let's admit it -- that there's a decent chance that the Newsweek story is true, or at least based on the truth. As noted, tales of Gitmo abuse have been legion; there's always been something fetish-y, even Foucaultian, about the way Camp X-Ray was operated.

And because we live in an increasingly transparent world, it was always likely that whatever happened in Gitmo would not, in fact, stay in Gitmo. Plenty of "alumni" have emerged from that Cuban facility to tell their sides of the story; there's even been a play, much beloved by the critics, which enjoyed long runs in London and New York.

In such an environment, all the good ideas for improving America's public diplomacy aren't going to help much. In a word, the underlying substance of places such as Gitmo must change before the surface can be made any more attractive. Alas, such perceptual change is going to prove difficult when the top lawyer at the White House writes a memo describing the Geneva Conventions against torture as "quaint" and then is promoted to be Attorney General. It's little wonder, therefore, that long prior to the latest Gitmo allegations, America's image in the Muslim world has been mostly negative.

The fourth point addresses an even larger issue: It's simply not clear that America has the stomach needed to sustain the grand project outlined by President Bush. It's never easy to be the hegemon; intentions, no matter how benevolent, will always be seen by others, in faraway places, as malevolent. And there's nothing new about the negativity grapevine; long before electronics, rumor-spreading in India led millions of Hindus and Muslims to believe contradictory lies about the British colonialists, thus triggering the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857. But as the Prussian military philosopher Clausewitz observed, "friction" is as inevitable in the realm of geopolitics as it is in the realm of physics.

Today, globoback -- specifically, all those pesky reporters and NGO's, and their cameras, and also, of course, the cameras of American soldiers as well -- prevents Uncle Sam from using the sorts of tactics that worked in the past to subdue enemy populations. One can only guess at the number of Americans who have died in Iraq because we can't or won't use overwhelming force to break the enemy's capacity and resolve.

And so, more than two years after "Mission: Accomplished," the US Army is suffering from plummeting enlistments; in April 2005, the Army set a recruitment goal of 6600, and yet it gained just 3821 actual recruits. In the fourth year of the War on Terror, the US still lacks the resources -- in terms of language- and area-experts, military capacity, alliance support, and regional buy-in -- to chart a clear path from where we are now to the full realization of "liberty century."

To put it bluntly, no matter what happens to Newsweek, it has yet to be proven that the US can win a protracted war in this techno-media environment. That is, we could win in Grenada and Desert Storm, but if the fighting stretched out to the length of Somalia, let alone Vietnam, we couldn't handle it. And it could be a basic painful truth that the Fourth Estate, here and around the world, eventually erodes public support for protracted military missions.

Does that sound a bit defeatist? Is it disappointing to hawks, to think that maybe Americans are "soft"? Perhaps. But the first rule of strategy is to know one's own capabilities, as well as the strategic contours of one's environment. On those dimensions, the Bush Doctrine is still being tested, although the US has some good cards yet to play, such as First Lady Laura Bush's forthcoming trip to the Middle East.

Still, we must consider the possibility that the neoconservatives have set forth a brilliant foreign policy vision for America -- only to discover that America is not the right country, nor this the right era, for implementing that vision.

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