Saturday, February 18, 2006

What He Says and What He Means

Donald Rumsfeld gave a speech yesterday to the Council of Foreign Relations in New York City in which he said that the U.S. military has to get better at creating a positive image of the United States among Muslims.

Here are some selected quotes from the transcript with my annotations:

A few years ago in Iraq, under Saddam Hussein, an Iraqi could have his tongue cut out if he was found in possession of a satellite dish or used the Internet without government approval. Today, satellite dishes are ubiquitous in that country as well.

Now, under U.S. military control, we might bomb a news organization's offices or shut down a newspaper, but we won't cut out anyone's tongue.

Regrettably, many of the news channels being watched through these dishes are extremely hostile to the West.

Their hostility has no legitimate foundation in history or actual events; it is rooted in the inherently evil nature of the people who run these news channels.

The growing number of media outlets in many parts of the world still have relatively immature standards and practices that too often serve to inflame and distort -- rather than to explain and inform.

Inflaming and distorting without explaining and informing can sometimes be okay -- but only when we do it.

We saw this with the false allegations of the desecration of a Koran last year. Once it was published in a weekly news magazine, it was posted on websites, sent in e-mails, and repeated on satellite television and radio stations for days, before the facts could be discovered.

Actually, the allegations are not necessarily false. There have been many accounts of Koran abuse from Muslim detainees -- in Afghanistan as well as at Guantanamo. Newsweek made the mistake of relying on a single source, who in the past had given reliable information, to report that an as yet unpublished government report was going to confirm the incidents of Koran abuse. That of course was journalistic sloppiness on Newsweek's part; but it was not proof that the allegations themselves were false. Nevertheless, Newsweek apologized for the entire story. Now, that is a strategic communications framework.

What complicates the ability to respond quickly is that, unlike our enemies, which propagate lies with impunity -- with no penalty whatsoever -- our government does not have the luxury of relying on other sources for information -- anonymous or otherwise. Our government has to be the source. And we tell the truth.

Let's skip over the fact that asking and expecting the American people -- or any people -- to take it on faith that their government "tells the truth" is asking and expecting the American people to do what no citizen of a democracy should ever do.

But setting that aside, Rumsfeld is telling us that our government "tells the truth" in 2006 -- 35 years after the Pentagon Papers revealed that five -- count 'em, five -- successive administrations shamelessly lied to the American people about what they were doing and what they were planning in a war that killed about 67,000 Americans (including suicides after returning home), roughly 300,000 non-U.S. forces fighting on the American side (South Vietnamese and others), and about 4 million Vietnamese civilians (both North and South, and over 21 years of continuous war).

Not only is Rumsfeld telling us the government doesn't lie; he is expecting us to believe it, and implying that we should believe it. No American should ever again take it on faith that "the government tells the truth."

In Iraq, for example, the U.S. military command, working closely with the Iraqi government and the United States Embassy, has sought non-traditional means to provide accurate information to the Iraqi people in the face of the aggressive campaign of disinformation.

In Iraq, for example, the U.S. military command is bribing reporters and others to write stories for the Iraqi press that are favorable to the U.S. military and to the Bush administration. These stories the military pays Iraqis to write is accurate; even though we are paying them to write it and even though there is never anything negative about the U.S. military in these reports. Our propaganda is accurate; theirs is "an aggressive campaign of disinformation."

"The final question is whether democracy can be defended by undemocratic means. Can the United States have confidence in undemocratic allies? Can the United States foment terrorism in order to defend its own democracy and national interest? There might be good results at first, but problematic in the future." -- Leo Valladares, former Honduran National Human Rights Commissioner

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