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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Today’s America and the Propaganda War

(Reprinted from the issue of April 10, 2003)

Capitol BldgWar, in Clausewitz’s famous maxim, is “the continuation of politics by other means.” If so, a war must be judged by its political results. Military victory alone is not the same thing as ultimate success.

President Bush has set a high standard for success. As he said in his recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute, he wants not only to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, but to create democracy throughout the Mideast. If he has his way, “regime change” is to be the essence of American foreign policy in the region.

But why should he have his way? The president has no constitutional authority to promote the overthrow of foreign governments. Nor can Congress give him such authority. Congress hasn’t even given him a proper declaration of war — merely vague approval for his undefined “war on terror.”

Properly speaking, Congress, in declaring war, isn’t “giving” the president anything. It is simply recognizing that a state of war already exists. The president’s proper role is simply to execute Congress’ will. Does this sound like an accurate description of how Congress and the president have behaved since September 11, 2001? Or have we been moving further toward executive dictatorship, with the president having a Caesar’s power to launch war when and where he pleases?

There is nothing to stop Bush from expanding the war on Iraq into the wider war — “World War IV” — his neoconservative supporters are thirsting for. Zev Chavets of New York’s Daily News is already gloating that “Iran and Syria are next.” He doesn’t suggest that there is any need to consult Congress first, let alone to ask the American people for their two cents’ worth. As for checking with our allies, there is now only one ally that matters — and it wants us to fight to the last Muslim. Onward, Christian soldiers!

But these big dreams of conquest may be a little premature. Even Iraq is putting up more resistance than expected. A U.S. military victory is still all but certain, if not quite the predicted “cakewalk,” but a political success at the end is another matter. U.S. troops have not been welcomed as “liberators,” and civilian suffering, even if accidental and unintended, has proved a problem.

The administration hoped to manage the media through “embedded” reporters accompanying the troops and sharing their perspective. This is no longer called censorship; the new phrase is “message discipline.” The news media become partners in the war effort, apart from inconsequential mavericks like Peter Arnett.

But the news media can no longer be controlled as in the past, for the simple reason that the media having the most impact around the world aren’t American. Foreign media, especially the Arab ones, are presenting the news from their own perspective, with heavy emphasis on the innocent victims of the war.

This means that the Bush administration is losing the crucial propaganda war that will determine the results of the military war. The Democratic Age is above all the Media Age. Public opinion can topple any government, however despotic, which is why dictators keep a tight grip on their media. If Bush hopes to rule the entire Mideast after the war, he will have to control the foreign media too, starting with the Al-Jazeera network.

It may be time to update the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword. The modern media are mightier than even the pen. If so, it may turn out that this war is being fought with the wrong weapons. Not even all the latest high-tech Pentagon gadgetry can produce images favorable to the U.S. cause.

Gone — perhaps forever — are the days when the United States was the most admired country on earth. It is still incomparably the most powerful, but to the extent that it dominates by sheer force it will be the most feared and despised. Pictures of maimed and dead Iraqi children don’t help.

Do such pictures give a fair impression of what the U.S. is doing? Maybe not. The U.S. forces really are trying to spare civilians this time, in contrast to the 1991 Gulf War, when they destroyed water and electrical plants, causing untold suffering in direct violation of international law.

But propaganda, like life, is unfair. This is how the world works in the Media Age. If you are going to wage war, you had better take this fully into account in advance, as the administration appears not to have done. One grisly picture, shown around the world, can change more minds than any military victory. It may even turn triumph into virtual defeat.
Once a Wholesome Culture

Anti-Americanism used to be largely confined to the far left. Now it’s rapidly becoming a global consensus. Even the Vietnam War didn’t have this effect. People understood that, even if the war was misguided, Communism was truly evil, and Americans were making real sacrifices to defeat it. Besides, American culture was still relatively wholesome; it had not yet become contagiously decadent, promoting sexual license, abortion, and other threats to any normal society. The America of 2003 would have seemed a ghastly nightmare to the America of 1963.

How many people I’ve heard say, “This is no longer the country I was born in!”

Today’s America is the society conservatives once hoped to prevent. But now so-called conservatives talk as if nothing has changed, when everything has changed, and they lead the way in jingoistic celebration of the new order.

They despise Bill Clinton without stopping to reflect that this is now a country in which Clinton feels entirely at home, like a reptile in a swamp.

“You can’t love your country and hate your government,” Clinton instructed us. Tell it to Solzhenitsyn. You may hate your government precisely because you do love your country. What God-fearing patriot doesn’t feel shame at his country’s dishonor, even as he takes pride in its cherished traditions? How can you venerate Jefferson for his principles, and feel loyalty to his successors who trample those very principles?

It seems insensate to offer today’s America as an inspiring model for the world. Its only appealing features are those traditions that haven’t been destroyed yet, but which may not last much longer.

And even those are no longer very visible from abroad. This war is only one of many things that offer rich opportunities to hostile propaganda.

So the defeat and conquest of Iraq may prove a Pyrrhic victory for the U.S. government, weakening its legitimacy both at home and abroad. That victory is a foregone conclusion, which is why this war is so urgent to certain “patriots” — especially some neoconservatives who don’t appreciate the difference between loving America and finding it useful, as they wave one flag in public and another in private.

No true patriot can wish the government success in an unjust war; nor can he take pleasure in seeing his countrymen die. He is left helplessly wishing that every shot fired on both sides could miss its target, without hitting innocent people.
Copyright © 2003 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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