Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Real men of genius...

The State Department's Counterterrorism Center advises America's diplomats re language to use and what to avoid while discussing terrorists and terrorist acts... Language is important, and often, inadvertently, those attempting to condemn terrorism do so using language that supports the terrorist's paradigm...

Words that Work and Words that Don't: A Guide for Counterterrorism Communication

Hmm, so after more than six years (March 2008) the State Department geniuses at the CTC have figured out that the U.S. shouldn’t say things that enlarge the terrorists’ stature; that we shouldn’t appear to equate terrorism and Islam; that we should emphasize their criminal backgrounds and nature; etc. To crib an advertising jingle from Bud Light, here we have “real men of genius…”

Back in November 2001 this blogger made very similar observations, nothing amazing, just what seemed to be fairly ordinary common sense – see OPED1 reprint below:

OPED1 Hearts and Minds - the propaganda war (11/13/2001 reprint)

The war on terrorism that is under way is being fought on many fronts. Among these is the war of words or the war of ideas aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the public across the world, particularly that of the Arab "street". (Note: the term propaganda will be used through the rest of this article, to distinguish the war of words from the military action) The fundamental aims of this propaganda battle are to frame the situation as a war against terrorism, and to then gain support for the military war and the methods being employed in prosecuting the war. This propaganda war also needs to be fought on many fronts utilizing different methods depending on the context in which the engagement is taking place. For example, in Europe it is generally accepted that this is a war against terrorism so that propaganda efforts need to focus on maintaining a high level of support for the military action. Conversely, in the Muslim "street" the propaganda effort necessary is to ensure that this is seen as a war on terrorism and not a war on Islam as is argued by many enemies of the U.S.

The administration has seen the need to vigorously prosecute the propaganda battle and so has put together a team (Karen Rove, Charlotte Beers, etc.) to craft a consistent message for foreign audiences, especially in the Islamic world. Though this is a positive development improvements need to be made in the propaganda battle. This article is intended to proffer a few small suggestions as to how the propaganda war can be improved.

The first change that needs to be made involves a change in the rhetoric employed by our leaders. President Bush has been framing this as a war to save civilization. Prime Minister Blair has also been using similar apocalyptic terms. In his speech to the nation November 9th President Bush said "Our nation faces a threat to our freedoms, and the stakes could not be higher" and "We wage a war to save civilization, itself" Usama Bin Laden and his ilk are terrorists - criminals and murderers. The scope of their crimes may be immense, but they remain criminals and murderers. American civilization, Western civilization, our civilization is not threatened by their actions. To continually frame this as a war to save our civilization is to concede Usama Bin Laden a stature that he does not deserve, a stature that exists only in his fevered vision of the world. Our leaders need to stay on message - we are after criminals and mass murderers. This is how Usama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda organization should always be referred to. Prime Minister Blair needs to stop traveling the world foolishly building up Bin Laden among the disaffected of the Islamic world by giving him the stature he aspires to. We also need to continually emphasize that while Bin Laden needs to pay for his crimes, that if his aim is to demolish our civilization his efforts are futile. Neither he, nor his organization, nor any other country or combination of countries can destroy our civilization!

Second, since we especially want the Islamic world to understand that this is a war against terrorists - criminals and murderers - and not a war against Islam we need to be sensitive to how some of our actions might appear to those inclined to this belief.

  • When members of the administration speak of terrorism and terrorists they shouldn't appear to equate terrorism only with Islam. Currently every mention of terrorism is accompanied by mention of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hizbollah, etc., giving the incorrect impression that the US only cares about Islamic terror groups. Occasional mention of the many other terrorist groups (the LTTE, the IRA, the FARC, or any of the other dozens of groups that span the globe) that engage in criminal activities that effect the U.S. would help dispel this misconception.

  • Similarly when the FBI came out with its list of the Top 22 terrorists and the government published its first list of individual and groups whose financial assets were to be frozen these were exclusively Arab and Islamic. How hard would it have been to have a Top 25 with a few non-Islamic targets? Subsequent to the first list other non-Islamic individuals and groups have been added to the list and have had their assets frozen, why could they not have been on the initial lists?

The bottom line is that context and appearances also matter and that the propaganda war needs to be as finely calibrated as the military war.

Third, as mentioned above, the propaganda war needs to fought on many fronts. With former advertising executive and Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers having been assigned by the State Department to the task force that is coordinating communications and the propaganda war, presumably this will happen as marketing techniques (market segmentation, etc.) will be used to target the U.S. message. However, this needs to be supplemented with cultural understanding so that the message and the medium work in concert with and reinforce each other for maximum effect. An example of this would be the use of Al-Jazeera to broadcast our position to the "street". Several administration officials have appeared on Al-Jazeera shows to explain the position of the U.S. government e.g. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice, former Ambassador to Syria Christopher Ross, etc. While to us Condoleeza Rice represents a triumph of the American spirit (first woman in this prestigious position) to the majority of the intended audience in the Middle East she represents a facet of America that they hate, hardly conducive to having the audience get beyond the messenger to listen to the message. The messenger and the message need to complement each other if either is to have an effect.

Finally, we also need to use as many non-U.S. messengers as is possible to supplement the message. Examples could include Bosnian Muslim leaders e.g. Alia Izetbegovich, Muslim Kosovar leaders, etc. who could speak to the fact that the U.S. has fought on behalf of Muslims, relatives of Muslims that were killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center, Muslim clerics that will speak against violence, etc.

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