Thursday, August 29, 2013


The world sent two messages to President Barack Obama, but it remains to be seen if he got them.

The two messages were: (1) The world is weary of America using its standoff weapons to vaporize its enemies, and (2)  What the world thinks, as in what the world’s people think, as opposed to what “world leaders” (or even local leaders) think, matters.

In my last blast  I accused the Obama White House of “old world thinking.”  What I was talking about was President Obama’s apparent conception of “sending a message,” in this case to the Syrian serial mass murderer President Bashar al-Assad.

The incremental escalation of the American government’s response to President Assad’s continuing crimes against his citizens, from (1) scowling at him, to (2) threatening to give some number of small arms (but not actually giving them) to -- which fraction of? -- the Syrian rebels, to (3) raining rockets or missiles or bombs on “military targets” is thought of as “sending messages,” to convince Assad to give up his war in favor of the civility of a “peace negotiation.”   Each nudge up the scale is a further “statement,” leader to leader.

It is significant that so far, the White House whispers of disapproval, and the brandished threat now on the table have not moved Assad to reform. 

So, the conventional political logic, accepted by “leaders” of the Democratic and Republican parties and the country’s media, asserts, Obama’s personal and national  credibility demand that he deliver on his threat, his metaphoric hard punch to Assad’s leadership biceps, enough to hurt, but not cripple or even short-term disable him.  

A manly sort of diplomatic communication: the kind that once could be done discreetly, a “message that was “private,” or “secret,” depending on whether or not you were “in the loop.”

Well, as I said in my very first post it is the defining quality of our new age of digital communication that your expectation of privacy and government’s expectation of secrecy are obsolete fantasies.  Because of the global network of mobile phone, tablet, computer and television screens it is literally true that almost everybody can know almost anything – personal or political  -- and know it instantly, from cell phone snappies of physical and political boobs or from video “live shots” from the Supreme Court steps or Tahrir Square.

One of the great things about human beings is, if you let them do something, most of them will want to do more; if you let people know something, most of them will want to know more.  Now that people know what their digital screens can show them, they feel entitled to unfettered use of them to see more, in as close to real time as possible.

This certainly has its downsides, as screens are extremely susceptible to manipulation, both through what they show and don’t show, and the “real time” obsession crowds out time to think.  But, too bad, screens rule, like it or not, which means these swift judgments of screen-watchers are both more widespread and deeply-held than any in history, including the comparatively parochial affirmations of faith in Christianity or Islam. 

People today, all over the world, see for themselves, and judge for themselves and then back their judgments with all the conviction their egos can give them. 

In today’s media age, governments, democratic or not, have to sell their ideas to their people, and so, doing nothing but denouncing the use of chemical weapons is sold as “caution,” or “patience,” or “prudence,” while threats of arms supplies or armed attacks or sold as “justified,” or “measured,” or “necessary.”  This is called “spinning” the American people.  When Assad spins his own people he claims Israel is behind any American aggression; when he adds that it will fail like previous American aggressions in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, he is trying to spin the American people and the world. 

So far, probably for the better, the noise of the multi-party attempts to spin the Syria crisis is drowning out, maybe flat sweeping downstream, the drums and guns of war.  Today, everybody in the world gets to listen in on the leaders’ conversations, gets to hear the messages, back and forth.  And draw their own conclusions.

That’s why the Arab League, the group of regional states which first tossed Assad’s government out, then gave status to self-declared representatives of the rebels, which has no love nor loyalty for the Syrian tyrant, has opted out of any military assault, no matter how “limited.”  Their people are telling them, loudly, on Facebook and Twitter, in the barber shops and beauty parlors, the Parliaments and on the streets, "Do not sign off on this American message of force."

So, it seems obvious, are the people of Great Britain and of Northern, Western, Eastern and Southern Europe telling their governments, “Hold on! Not so fast, and maybe not at all.”

From every corner of the world there is a call for evidence that the Assad government (and not a “rogue faction” of it, or not a faction of rebels) was responsible for the use of poison gas on civilians, women and children, and that any military response will be both careful of human life and effective in improving Syrian lives.

What is new here, and historically definitive, is that so many people have opinions they consider informed, and are so willing to share and embrace their judgments.  What is new here and defining of our age is that people can see what is happening “on the ground,” see how it is affecting the people who live on the ground, and tell their families, friends, neighbors, governments all about it.

For the past several years, people have seen global coverage of the results of American drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen.  Even sincere and professed enemies of the Taliban and Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula take little pleasure in them.  They know the warheads sometimes go astray and when they do, innocent civilians die, and, far too frequently, the American government and military minimize their culpability.

The net result in Pakistan and Yemen, polls show, is diminished affection and respect for the United States, and military intelligence suggests, continued growth in recruits to the terrorist cause.

And global polling shows, disaffection and disrespect for Uncle Sam also seem to be growing.  Our propensity for warfare, and interference in affairs and nations beyond our borders are usually seen as leading reasons why.

Everybody loves a winner, but not a bully, especially when the “loser’s” wounds are on display.

So “secret wars,” even “secret” attacks are no secret anymore.  No drone rocket falls without the eye of some sparrow-sized camera recording it, and sending the picture around the world. 

And as long as “secret policies” are executed by human beings, no policy-planner should feel his or her secrets are immune to the sting of an Ellsberg, a Manning or a Snowden, or the coverage of the Post or the Times or CNN, CCTV, Al Jazeera, RTV or YouTube, Facebook or Twitter.

This is called “living in the real world.”

Hey, White House! Get the message?         





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