Mr. Bush, Tear Down That Metaphor!
March 18, 2005
President Bush, Tom Friedman and other pundits are invoking the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to describe what's happening today in Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt. Not so fast, explains former foreign service officer John Brown. Not only is the comparison incorrect, but damaging to how the United States approaches the Middle East.
John Brown, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, has written about public diplomacy and its history. He compiles a daily “Public Diplomacy Press Review” available free by requesting it at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The right-wing gloating about President Bush’s “successes” in the Middle East is subsiding. Conservatives are concerned that a Washington-inspired ineluctable march toward freedom in the Middle East may, in fact, require more than a few detours. Clifford D. May, for example, lamented in The Washington Times that “revolutions beget counterrevolutions.” And the National Review somberly editorialized that: “While recent headlines [about the Middle East] have been gratifying and even at times astounding, we should put a hold on the victory parade.”
The Fall Of The Wall Doesn't Explain It All
This growing reactionary angst notwithstanding, the current administration and its cheerleaders cannot abandon their favorite metaphor, aimed at praising Bush’s “successes” in the Muslim world: Events in the Middle East are like the downfall of the Berlin Wall in Eastern Europe. (Our pro-Bush wall-obsessed pundits don’t point out that in the Middle East, General Sharon, Bush’s companion in arms, is constructing a wall that East Germans apparatchiks would have envied for its technical eleganz . But on to less controversial things).
There are, of course, surface sociological similarities that the East Europe/Middle East metaphor does evoke, such as the admirable political engagement of enthusiastic, T.V.-influenced young people in different parts of the world, in eras separated by many years, voicing idealistic slogans in street demonstrations. But, together with the fact that the Bush-triumph metaphor doesn’t conclusively prove that his policies shaped the events under consideration, it fails as explanation or vindication of the administration’s actions overseas:
The differences between Eastern Europe in the Cold War and the Middle East today are striking—and far outnumber their similarities. Take the general “mindset” of the regions. In Christian Eastern Europe during the Cold War, atheistic communism—the ideology that defined the area for the outside world—was despised by many as totalitarian control imposed by an aggressive Russian imperial power on countries proud of their own traditions, some of them democratic. In the Middle East, Islam, the reigning religion, is not foreign to its peoples and their historical experience, where Western-type democracy has been the exception rather than the rule.
Eastern Europe, while dominated for centuries by empires, was never colonized like the Middle East. Despite the inefficiencies of socialism, Eastern Europe was more advanced economically vis à vis the “developed world” than the Middle East is today.
In Soviet-dominated Europe, access to information was limited. The Middle East—thanks in part to modern communications and globalization—is exposed to numerous television channels and the Internet, even if government censorship exists. There was no Al Jazeera behind the Iron Curtain.
Finally, Eastern Europeans under socialism, with few exceptions, admired the United States, despite (or perhaps because of) negative comments by their governments about it. In the Middle East, some governments officially remain friendly toward the United States, but anti-Americanism is a fact of life among the larger population.
American policy in these two dissimilar regions—carried out during different centuries—is marked by profound variations. Most important, in the Cold War, the United States never invaded the area it wanted to “democratize.” In Eastern Europe, American military forces did not ruin the United States’ moral standing by shooting and torturing local inhabitants for reasons incomprehensible to much of the rest of the population. America was not in the contradictory position, as it is in Iraq, of imposing democracy from the barrel of a gun—of being, in the words of Naomi Klein, “occupiers against the occupation.” Moreover, the United States was not engaged in a “war on terror” in Eastern Europe—an ill-defined term that many in the Middle East consider an excuse to kill, maim and dominate them.
In the Cold War, “soft power” was taken seriously by the U.S. government—of course, given the nature of the bureaucratic (and thus confused) beast that was the U.S. government, not very consistently. Evidence of this off-and-on concern, even before the term itself—“soft power”—was coined, was the creation of USIA, the United States Information Agency, in 1953. For all its failings, USIA, with its many public diplomacy programs—including its Voice of America (VOA) jazz broadcasts and its now-closed cultural centers with open-access libraries—made a generally positive, but hard to quantify, impact on how the world viewed America. USIA no longer exists, having been consolidated (evaporated is a better word) into the State Department in 1999, after “we won the Cold War.”
The recent nomination of Karen Hughes, Bush’s close adviser, as the State Department’s undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, suggests the White House has at last begun to realize that, from a public diplomacy perspective, its policy in the Middle East—far from being a triumph—is a disaster that has created more walls than demolished them.
How successful Hughes will be is far too early to tell. But there are reasons to be pessimistic. She may have been born in Paris, France, but her international experience is limited and her knowledge of foreign affairs minimal. Most troubling of all is that she may try to engage, inform and influence key audiences abroad—the aim of public diplomacy—with the kind of base propaganda used to sell the war in Iraq. The Bush administration’s Iraq propaganda, you recall, was based on simplification, repetition, demonization and utter disregard for truth.
Using inappropriate historical metaphors to praise Bush’s putative democratization successes in the Middle East will not help his public-diplomacy efforts in the region and, in fact, serves no one. It serves least the citizens in that troubled area who seek freedom without American intervention or condescension. Instead of vulgarizing the past to suit its version of the present, the administration should remember that history offers no simple lessons or comparisons. Perhaps then America would be better understood—and its policies more effective—in the Middle East and elsewhere.