Monday, April 30, 2007

Frank Luntz on "Words That Work"

Love or hate the guy who coined "Contract with America" and a bunch of other memorable phrases that defined GOP success in the 1990s, Frank Luntz is worth reading for a brief education on efficient use of language. Focus on results, not process, Luntz says; don't dwell on 'putting more cops on the street'—talk about 'public safety' instead. It worked for Luntz when he worked for Rudolph Giuliani.

Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear is not as colorful as Buck Up, Suck Up and Come Back When You Foul Up, but I'd recommend it for a look at GOP and corporate opinion-making.

PD applications? If you're of the "the policy's fine, we're just not telling it right" school, this book is for you. Luntz would argue, though, that efficient wording can arise only where a policy that people actually agree with is in play—and Luntz's descriptions of the mechanics of figuring out whether that's the case is another good reason to read the book.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

In Memoriam: David Halberstam

I was appalled to hear that David Halberstam died yesterday in an auto accident in California. He was 73 and had years of productive life ahead of him.

The Times's obituary and the Post's.

Typically, Halberstam died on his way to interview a subject for yet another book.

I had the good fortune to see him speak several years ago in San Francisco, where he uttered the words that became part of my e-mail signature for years: "This is a great country to be a reporter. Everybody talks."

Monday, April 23, 2007

Seven Days in April


The best job title to have in the military right now is “retired.”

Groups of retired U.S. generals have recently sounded the alarm about climate change and slammed President Bush’s “surge” plan from big-media megaphones and the floor of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

This morning’s Wall Street Journal ices the cake with “The Courting of General Jones,” an account of a politically hot retired Marine Corps general. James Jones is friendly with bigs in both major political parties and has indie cred, causing those parties to chatter about how he could help them in presidential politics:

Gen. Jones is a freshly retired Marine Corps general who stands 6-foot-5, speaks fluent French and served until December as supreme allied commander in Europe. He says he thinks that the troops should stay in Iraq but that the U.S. should close the Guantanamo military prison “tomorrow.” He advocates engagement with friends and enemies alike. And, more to the point, he pledges allegiance to no political party.

All of which has made Gen. Jones one of Washington’s hottest political commodities. As they look toward an election sure to be dominated by issues of war and national security, candidates from both major parties are clamoring to get Gen. Jones on their side.

How have generals (and admirals) gone from being the cagy coup-plotters of Seven Days in May to being accorded unlimited access and attention?

—They’re in a position to know the true state of the military and the situation on the ground worldwide, especially in Iraq.

—Their words, resumes and appearance are polished and measured, thanks to a lifetime of high-level education, grooming, and successful movement within the Pentagon bureaucracy.

—They have had to keep their personal opinions hidden for decades and are now presumed to be telling the unvarnished truth.

—They are usually tilting against the Bush administration—which is only expected from those wronged by the administration, like Anthony Zinni, but which is surprising in so many successful, high-level military men whose retirements were handled more gracefully.

The courtship of General Jones isn’t surprising; for those too young to remember the Eisenhower example, Gen. Colin Powell was similarly feted in 2000, declared himself a Republican and was anointed Secretary of State for the first Bush Administration. Unfortunately, at that point he had to participate in making U.S. policy rather than executing it, and had to either get on board with the Iraq war or resign. Powell chose the former, destroying much of his soft power and causing him to vanish from public life.

Will today’s crop of retired generals remain on the sidelines in blue-ribbon commissions and CNN green rooms, or will they jump into actual policymaking Wesley Clark-style, and risk success or failure in their second (civilian) careers? Watch for much side-taking and policy-making from today’s retired generals as grow more comfortable in their civilian suits.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Controlling Gaza Inputs


Anyone who doubts that soft power is important should look to the Gaza Strip where, as the Wall Street Journal reports today in “Uncertain Fate of Gaza Reporter Deepens Concerns,” a new breed of radicals is focusing on control of information:

JERUSALEM—Fanatical Islamists of the type sowing chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be operating with increasing impunity in the Gaza Strip, heightening concern about the rising danger posed by al Qaeda-inspired groups or similar violent fringe groups in the Palestinian territories.


The same day [a] claim about [the kidnapping and alleged killing of BBC reporter Alan] Johnston was made, two Internet cafes and a Christian bookstore in Gaza were bombed. That followed last week’s bombings at a computer lab and library of a cultural center. Since the beginning of this year, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights has documented a string of such attacks, targeting businesses or institutions with products or services that are deemed by Islamic radicals to be impure or potentially corrupting.

The article implies that these are not Hamas- or Fatah-inspired bombings, but either homegrown freelancers or the leading edge of an al-Qa’ida surge into Gaza. In either case, the perps are clearly concerned about cutting off Gazans’ access to any information flow but their own—and it’s unclear what their views are at this point. Next up, I’d watch for bombings of broadcast facilities and news crews, and there are a few in Gaza.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Best PD Quotes from 2006

John H. Brown recently compiled his PD quotes of the day for 2006 here, and they're a hoot. My fave: "When you are persuaded by something, you don't think it is propaganda." Give it a look.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Arab Media React to Speaker Pelosi’s Trip to Damascus


Those who thought Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Damascus was purely about head scarves and poking a finger in the president’s eye might want to look at MEMRI’s roundup of Arab media reaction to the trip. It was as mixed as U.S. reaction, but for different reasons: Where U.S. reaction played out entirely along the left-right axis, Middle Eastern reaction questioned whether Pelosi’s visit presented possible changes in U.S. policy—some welcoming engagement with Damascus, others considering it a sham, still others dreading that it will leave Arab democracy activists twisting in the wind.

But all seemed to consider Pelosi’s visit a serious move of some sort, with the possible exception of Al-Riyadh, which hinted dismissively at “supreme interests ... that do not change with a change in leadership.” Now, who the heck could the Saudis be implying pulls the strings?

Monday, April 09, 2007

First Impression: John Edwards


This will be the first in a series of reports on the Democratic and Republican candidates as they make their rounds here in eastern Iowa, because even though the presidential election has little to do with public diplomacy it does have to do with soft power—reputation, branding, recovery from setbacks, long-term message management.

Iowa provides unique opportunities to vet presidential candidates early. For example, on Tuesday, April 3, I had the choice of seeing Hillary Clinton in Iowa City, or John Edwards or Rudolph Giuliani at separate events in nearby Cedar Rapids.

I chose to see Edwards because he threatens to disrupt the Clinton “inevitability” strategy which reportedly is playing out even at the local level; I read a newspaper account claiming that even minor-league Iowa Democratic officials are being buttonholed by the Clinton campaign and told to endorse now—11 months before the caucuses—or forget any future consideration from the nominee-presumptive.

I’m not sure how well this kind of hardball plays here—I’m not involved in Democratic politics—but former governor Tom Vilsack recently got on board with a Clinton endorsement in exchange for help retiring his campaign debts—a rather naked use of the power of the purse.

The Edwards town-hall meeting took place at Prairie High, about two miles from the Cedar Rapids airport. Hundreds—I would guess about 750—filed into a gymnasium festooned with one giant and two merely huge American flags, plus banners relaying Edwards’s message that “tomorrow begins today.” The gym was harshly lit to accommodate cameras from the local CBS affiliate and others; sitting behind what was the “stage” by virtue of the TV cameras being at the opposite end of the gym, I stared into high-powered lighting for over an hour.

Campaign workers passed out the standard “John Edwards ‘08” placards to wave before the cameras and then, somewhat more cynically, a large collection of handmade signs saying things like “Live Strong Elizabeth” and “Iowa Is a Blue State.” I should put “handmade” in quotes because although they were obviously made by hand on posterboard with Magic Markers, they were not made by anyone who wound up holding them at the rally.

Two officials warmed up the crowd for Edwards: the school’s associate principal and Linn County Sheriff Don Zeller, a white-maned Vietnam vet who also worked for Edwards’s 2003-04 run at the presidency. Here I encountered the rally’s only technical stumble: After Zeller gave a rousing intro emphasizing his first-hand experience with Edwards during the last election, there was a gap of 7-8 minutes before Elizabeth and John Edwards entered the gymnasium.

Still, the place went nuts—the crowd on its feet, applause, cheering, the former senator and his wife making their way, Moses-like, through the slowly parting sea of handshakes.

John Edwards gave a short talk warning against candidates who don’t give specifics about their policy plans, a clear shot at Barack Obama and an echo of last week’s Big Horserace Question about the Illinois senator: Isn’t he a little weak on specifics? Edwards also stated that he wants U.S. troops out of Iraq sooner than later, and outlined a healthcare plan that would put the country on the road to single-payer coverage. Both these lines got lots of applause.

In fact, the line I remember getting the most applause (besides curse-this-awful-war sentiments) was Edwards’s line about how his healthcare plan would eliminate pre-existing conditions. People connected very strongly with this idea, and I think this issue is one to watch through the remainder of the primaries.

Edwards, a former trial attorney, seemed to enjoy one-on-one interactions during the Q&A session. One questioner put him in Tony Blair’s shoes regarding the captured sailors: What would he do as commander-in-chief had the sailors been Americans? Edwards answered that he would first try to ascertain the facts; if U.S. sailors had indeed been trespassing, he would have no trouble apologizing—unlike the current president, he implied. But if U.S. sailors had been seized unfairly, he would have demanded their return and sent his secretary of state directly to Tehran to negotiate, another unsubtle jab at the Bush administration, whose secretary of state sometimes seems to operate only at the grand-strategic level.

I asked Edwards how he’d gone from an undergraduate degree in textile design (I believe) to a career in the law, and how that would inform his presidency. He answered that his father had been a mill worker, so that was one factor; but he’d also been concerned with being able to make a living once he got out of college, which ruled out a liberal-arts degree. (This got some polite chuckles.) Edwards insisted that he’d always wanted to be a lawyer, and thus his textile degree was a pragmatic move to be able to have an income until he could get into law school.

He then connected this remark with the second part of my question, saying that his career helping defend (mostly) little guys had given him empathy with them, and that this would influence an Edwards presidency.

It’s hard to overstate how focused Edwards is in answering this and other questions. He simply never takes his eyes off whoever asks him a question unless it is briefly, for the dramatic effect of including the rest of the audience in his reply. This makes him a potentially superb one-on-one campaigner—a crucial quality as the money primary continues and Edwards has to grip and grin with ever-increasing numbers of donors.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

On “The Edge of Disaster”


Terrorists and even some nations often hold that their adversary governments can’t take a punch. The North Vietnamese used to maintain that the U.S. was a “paper tiger,” Saddam Hussein predicted swift U.S. withdrawal once the body bags started heading home in 1991, and the U.S. thought that without Hitler and later Castro, Nazi Germany and Communist Cuba would simply collapse.

Jihadists frequently use the “paper tiger” argument about the U.S., and it seems to have been a rationale for the 9/11 attacks: Cause enough bloodshed and terror—shock and awe, to borrow a phrase—and the U.S. will leave its Arabian bases, stop supporting Israel, et cetera.

The 9/11 attacks didn’t cause any such thing, but Stephen Flynn, among many others, worry that jihadis won’t stop trying. Flynn’s new book The Edge of Disaster details all the other infrastructure that remains exposed due not so much to poor security as sheer ricketiness and lack of maintenance: bridges, dams, the electric grid and, in one memorable scenario, a vulnerable Sunoco refinery in Philadelphia that, when bombed, releases a cloud of highly toxic anhydrous hydrogen fluoride onto the crowd at a nearby Phillies-Mets game.

Flynn, a former Coast Guard officer who has helped game out terrorist disruptions for years, doesn’t argue that the U.S. can throw a punch militarily; he worries that it can’t take a punch very well because terrorists + rickety infrastructure = unnecessarily spectacular civilian death tolls + weakened national will.

Update the infrastructure—rebuild the bridges and dams, move the refineries away from population centers as they age out, update the electrical grid—and you automatically lower the body count and disruptions to large, complex systems like the U.S. economy and polity, whether from terrorism or natural events like Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Robustness, resilience, call it what you will; terrorists who take such pains to stake out their targets as al-Qa’ida does will be discouraged by the low return on their lives, and the systems themselves will be more reliable in natural disasters. Would-be terrorists will have to gravitate toward trying to disrupt higher-value targets which will tend to be better protected.

I’m about halfway through so far but am interested in Flynn’s arguments for resilience from a public-diplomacy standpoint. A United States that is rapidly updating its infrastructure and talking about that update is also improving its technologies and its ability to export them to other countries, helping those countries update their own facilities while indirectly stating that terrorists looking for the U.S.’s glass jaw will be disappointed.
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