30 May 2006

Do We Need A Council of Wizards in America?

I was freshly reminded of the power of religious symbolism by National Public Radio's coverage this morning of the Shi'ite Muslim story of the hidden 12th Imam and the influence of that story of Iranian politics. The intense interest in a not terribly well written book and ill executed movie, the Da Vinci Code, which is fundamentally about religious symbolism, also highlights this power.

The real power of the supernatural, of course, is not the power to bend spoons with your mind, or turn people into frogs. It is the power that belief in the supernatural has to influence human behavior. No one has ever broken their mother's back by stepping on a crack, or endured seven years of bad luck for breaking a mirror, but millions of people act, at least some of the time, as if these events had that effect. Of course, mere folk superstition is not the most powerful supernatural influencer of people. It is religion. Religious symbolism, and indeed, symbolic messages more generally, can move people and influence their opinions. For example, religious belief is a relatively good predictor of political opinion.

President George W. Bush, whose real introduction to politics was as a liaison to his father's presidential campaign for the conservative Christian community knows this as well as anyone.

But, all politics are local, and as a result, our leadership in Washington D.C. is perennially parochial in its worldview. Even national leaders made it to their place in the spotlight mostly from local political scenes, not national or international elites. Today's appointment of Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson the CEO of nationally known brokerage Goldman Sacks, is the exception that proves the rule. The result is a class of political leaders with a keen ear for the symbolism of the political romping grounds that brought them to power and an acute tone deafness for the symbolic sensibilities of the wider international stage.

The diplomatic corps, particularly the newly emphasized (if less than successfully prosecuted) concept of public diplomacy, has some impact here. But, only a little.

The ambassadors who channel information about world opinion are too often political appointees receiving their just rewards for a lifetime of loyalty to the cause with little diplomatic expertise or experience. The Bush Administration appointment of David Wilkens, who was the Republican Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives, as ambassador to Canada, despite the fact that he had only visited the country once three decades earlier, while in the National Guard, is typical.

Likewise, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes has been less than effective in her post. It is hard to recall a time when the United States has been held in lower esteem abroad. This isn't surprising given her background, which her official biography describes as follows:

A longtime advisor to President Bush, Ambassador Hughes served as Counselor to the President for his first 18 months in the White House. As Counselor, she was involved in major domestic and foreign policy issues, led the communications effort in the first year of the war against terror, and managed the White House Offices of Communications, Media Affairs, Speechwriting and Press Secretary.

Ambassador Hughes returned to Texas in 2002 but continued to serve as an informal advisor to the President and was a communications consultant for his 2004 re-election campaign. She is the author of Ten Minutes from Normal, the story of her experiences working for President Bush, and she helped write the President's autobiography, A Charge to Keep.

Ambassador Hughes is a former Executive Director of the Republican Party of Texas and a former television news reporter for KXAS-TV, the NBC affiliate in Dallas/Fort Worth. Mrs. Hughes is a Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude graduate of Southern Methodist University, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Journalism. She is a wife and mother and an elder in the Presbyterian Church.

Is Ms. Hughes a loyal and effective political aide and spokesperson? Absolutely. Is there anything in her background that would suggest that she has a scintilla of expertise in discerning how U.S. actions will be interpreted abroad? Not much. Her foreign policy experience began in the White House, rather than being the force that drove her there. Had she spent a semester abroad or engaged in foreign journalism before joining the President's diplomatic team? It isn't clear that she had.

Thus, rather than insulating the United States from its parochial tendencies abroad with helpful feedback to the President, the ambassadorial corps more often serves to emphasize those tendencies.

But, the job of managing the symbolism conveyed by U.S. policy makers abroad remains a vital task, even if those formally charged with carrying out that task are grossly incompetent at it, and for institutional reasons going back centuries, are likely to remain so. Managing symbolic messages received abroad from the U.S. government is a job that must be close to the President, for symbolism is so intimately intertwined with an administration's political message that it must be managed from the top, and yet sufficiently low profile that the temptation to appoint politicians is overshadowed by the need for experts. It is also a task ideally carried out in private, to avoidembarrassingg the administration, something that line officers in the state department, who must testify on demand in the face of Congressional inquiry is ill suited to carry out. In short, the ideal location for this function is not the State Department, but the Executive Office of the President which is also home to the Council of Economic Advisors, Council on Environmental Quality and the National Security Council, as well as the various officials dubbed "czars" by the media like the Office of National Drug Control Policy a.k.a. the "Drug Czar". The Executive Office of the President is also home to Karl Rove, who as deputy chief of staff, evolved into President George W. Bush's chief political advisor and head message maker.

Hence, the Council of Wizards. Now, why do I call them wizards, which, of course, could not be the official title of the post. Something like the "Council On International Understanding" or "Public Diplomacy Council" or even "Council of Spiritual Advisors" might be a better fit, although the latter name seems destined to be filled with evangelical clergy. But, just as individuals with broad interdisciplinary authority in the Executive Office of the President are generally called "czars", these officials could use a popular name, and "wizards", who would be professional manipulators of public belief in the supernatural in furtherance of state interests, seems an apt shorthand for the job.

The wizards would supply expertise about Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto and any other unfamiliarspirituall, religious and superstitious sensibilities abroad which would address administration lack of expertise, and suggest ways in which the administration could act symbolically and craft its message to better respond to those sensibilities. They might be people with PhDs, or people who grew up abroad and have first hand experience with foreign public opinion. They would be assigned to worldviews, rather than countries or policy areas (not unlike the President himself in his father's campaign.) Unlike CIA operatives, they would have little or nothing to do with information obtained from covert sources. There is more than enough ignorance to go around in Washington, and simply filling the part of the gap that can be filled from publicly available sources would be a welcome improvement.

Sometimes the suggestions would be designed to avoid gaffs. Don't name your next major weapons system the Crusader, something that the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and British Army have all done in recent history, and by all means, do not call war on terror a crusade. Avoid images of afternoons of beer, pork roasts and scantily clad women associated in any way with the U.S. government, especially during Ramadan, especially in or near U.S. interests in the Islamic world.

At other times, the wizards could identify opportunitiess for the administration to make a positive statement. For example, Middle Eastern leaders of all political stripes have long made it a point to provide for widows and orphans of suicide bombers, in an act that has drawn on Koranic injunctions to provide for widows and orphans. The United States Department of Defense, in fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, ought to consider having the President make high profile similar gifts both to victims of its own actions and the widows and orphans of Iraqi police trainees and security forces killed by insurgents, assuming obligations customary in Islamic sensibilities.

Sometimes, the wizards would influence policy. For example, the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba is fundamentally a symbolic operation. Its 500 or so inmates are only the tip of the iceberg, most like important intelligence, and the new detainees have long sense been diverted to a separate secret CIA gulag. The intended message of Gitmo, as much for domestic conservative supporter's consumption as abroad, is that the U.S. will be tough and go after terrorist unhampered by the fine points of the law, so you better not mess with the United States. The message received has been rather different, something along the lines of the United States is an evil empire that doesn't care about justice so you need to consider joining the jihad and signing up as a suicide bomber. The wizards might help prevent symbolic miscalculations of historic proportions like this one.

At other times, the wizards would work to develop an alternative narrative of what the United States is doing abroad, often simply by getting out the truth. The world is awash with widely believed, yet highly implausible conspiracy theories about U.S. foreign policy. Many people, particularly in the Islamic world, honestly believe that the U.S. or Israel was behind 9-11. In other parts of the world, it is more comfortable to believe that the U.S. is out to get you than it is to believe that the U.S. is simply oblivious to you, which is more often than not the truth. But, it takes only a few symbolic acts and statements to turn a reality of indifference into a myth of respect for foreign sovereignty, autonomy and development, something that the French, in particular, have managed well, despite a record of military involvement in foreign colonies as long as the track record of U.S. military involvement in Latin American and the Caribbean.

Ultimately, the only path to good policy is good leadership, but a Council of Wizards in the White House could, at least, provide a resource that might allow U.S. public diplomacy to be a little less tone deaf to the symbolic impact of its acts and statements abroad.

UPDATE: The one bad thing about the whole Council of Wizards name (my mind is usually more in the SF world than the ugly side of reality) is the association with the KKK. Enough said. Except for one thing. The second KKK (the one that swept Colorado in the 1920s) is actually an incredible historical event in the power of the media. It is one of the few, if not the only, widespread political movements attributed largely to a movie -- the Birth of a Nation. Thus, it shows the immense power of symbolic messages to spur political consciousness.

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