Friday, February 17, 2006

Narrow Narratives from Rumsfeld, Kennedy and Al-Qa'ida


Secretary Rumsfeld spoke today at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York (transcript here) following his recent trip to North Africa. Titled “New Realities in the Media Age,” Rumsfeld told the audience that the U.S. lags dangerously behind Al-Qa’ida and other Islamist opponents in the media war:

Modernization is crucial to winning the hearts and minds of Muslims worldwide who are bombarded with negative images of the West, Rumsfeld told the Council on Foreign Relations.

The Pentagon chief said today's weapons of war included e-mail, Blackberries, instant messaging, digital cameras and Web logs, or blogs.

"Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but ... our country has not adapted," Rumsfeld said.

"For the most part, the U.S. government still functions as a 'five and dime' store in an eBay world," Rumsfeld said, referring to old-fashioned U.S. retail stores and the online auction house, respectively.

Rumsfeld said U.S. military public affairs officers must learn to anticipate news and respond faster, and good public affairs officers should be rewarded with promotions.

The military's information offices still operate mostly eight hours a day, five or six days a week while the challenges they faces occur 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Rumsfeld called that a "dangerous deficiency."

Senator Kennedy’s response was highly predictable: complain about Bush administration policies, a tactic he has been using a lot lately:

"Clearly, we need to improve our public diplomacy and information age communication in the Muslim world," Kennedy said in a statement. "But nothing has done more to encourage increased Al Qaeda recruitment and made America less safe than the war in Iraq and the incompetent way it's been managed. Our greatest failure is our policy."

Rumsfeld and Kennedy are both bright, driven men of vast experience, so it’s difficult to watch the Secretary’s desire to shape the global media battlespace solely through improved technology and public relations, and equally uncomfortable to witness the Senator’s reflexive criticism of U.S. policy and apparent lack of alternatives.

If Al-Qa’ida and its allies have any particular savvy in the media battlespace, it derives from self-knowledge—knowing which cultural buttons to push to influence Muslims. Everything comes back to humiliation by Zionist Crusaders and the upcoming, divinely ordained turning of those tables. It’s a limited narrative but Al-Qa’ida & Co. are remarkably consistent about viewing news events through this lens.

Most Muslims do not have access to the electronic gadgetry Secretary Rumsfeld lists; I’d be surprised if most had made a phone call, let alone surfed the Web using a BlackBerry.

Perhaps the question the Secretary should ask is: How can we strike a chord that affects all Muslims, not just the small percentage who have access to 21st-century technology? The answer may be some blend of Kennedy’s unspecified policy changes and Rumsfeld’s “rapidly deployable military communications teams, that are organized and focused on specific geographic areas of the world.” But it’s certainly not one or the other.

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