Friday, February 24, 2006

No amount of spin can provide security in Iraq

If you want a sense of just how out of touch with reality the Bush administration has been about the situation in Iraq, take a look at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's speech last week. The military, he said, needs to drastically improve its ability to get the administration's message out.

Rumsfeld suggested a significant part of the United States' problems in Iraq is that insurgents and radical Islamists are doing a better job of spinning their story - it's called propaganda - than the Pentagon is doing with its campaign. And he bashed the U.S. media for paying more attention to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison than, say, to "the discovery of Saddam Hussein's mass graves."

Hello. It should be abundantly clear by now that the underlying dilemma Washington faces in Iraq is not inadequate PR, but that it has not been able to provide security to that nation. Everything else pales in comparison.

From almost the very beginning of the Iraq war, it was evident that Rumsfeld had tragically miscalculated what it would take to bring stability to Iraq once Hussein was out of power. He and his neoconservative henchmen believed the United States would be greeted with open arms, and Iraq would quickly move toward being a stable, functioning democratic state. The mistakes they made in planning the postwar effort reveal unbelievable arrogance and incompetence.

As if we needed a punctation mark on all this, the destruction Wednesday in Samarra of the golden dome of one of Iraq's holiest Shia Muslim shrines could prove to be a seminal event - one that could make an outright civil war between Sunnis and Shias ever more likely. Shia attacks on Sunni religious sites were being reported throughout the country yesterday. Maybe it will just be a spasm of violence. But it could be a tipping point in the whole U.S. involvement there.

My point is this: No matter how poorly or how well the United States spins the story about Iraq, the fundamental realities will determine how people really feel about the effort and the United States itself. Without security, no amount of sophisticated public relations - blogging, Web sites, manipulation of news - is going to change the story.

Not only that, but the unilateral manner in which the administration, especially Rumsfeld, handled the buildup to the war caused deep resentment throughout the world, including among our most trusted allies. That wasn't a PR problem. It was substantive. Rumsfeld himself said in his speech that the truth will win out in the end. Considering how the entire Iraq situation has been handled, that is not necessarily good news for the administration.

Was there some merit in what Rumsfeld said about the United States' having to do a better job of getting its message out? Yes. Recognizing 24-hour news cycles, the lightning pace that information travels and the critical new role of the Internet is necessary. Countering poisonous propaganda from the likes of Iran and al-Qaida through al-Jazeera is also necessary.

Rumsfeld said the Pentagon has to do a better job of communicating. Fine. But, frankly, I'd be more comfortable with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice giving that speech. Public diplomacy has been, and should remain, the job of the Department of State, not the Pentagon. A military organization is designed to win wars, not be an objective, credible source of information.

I'm all for the United States doing a better job of communicating its story. But the prerequisite to getting good press is having a good story to tell.



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