Thursday, August 08, 2002

Playing the Sympathy Card

Over at, Glenn Reynolds has a piece about Saddam’s possible new approach to war. Since conventional strategy failed so miserably the last time around, the post suggests that Saddam will now try to stir up world opinion and sympathy for the plight of the Iraqi people. Drawing a comparison to the Palestinians and their efforts to garner international sympathy, the article points out that Saddam will probably use a similar strategy to isolate the Americans.

That Saddam will attempt to use international public opinion to his advantage is more or less certain, but he’s not alone in doing so. For most Middle Eastern governments, rhetorical appeals designed to illicit western sympathy are a common feature of international relations.

In general, these appeals follow two strategies. The first highlights the suffering of those under the thumb of western oppressors, most notably Israel. The Palestinians have relied heavily on the emotive approach, constantly depicting themselves as the weak objects of unjust Israeli aggression. The ultimate point of these displays is distraction, creating a climate of moral equivalence where historical and political realities take a back seat.

This tactic isn’t new, it’s been practised quite successfully by many a third world dictator with substantial success. And in the heydays of the anti-western western intellectual, it was a sure means to academic renown and public adulation. Today, we can recognize this sort of ploy at work when we hear reference made to “the frustration of the hopeless” and the subsequent “desperation leading to violence” line.

The second strategy, common to Geneva, is resort to international catch-phrases. Using this approach, governments of dubious credentials cover their own misdeeds by attacking western democracies with the language of international law and censure. As a result we commonly hear of Israel’s “illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza” or “violations of international humanitarian law” by Americans in Afghanistan. That these accusations come from the most notorious violators of all norms of human decency is almost comic. But the real irony rests in the fact that governments in Tehran and Tripoli, bent on destroying all vestiges of western influence among their own populace, are so willing to rely on concepts of purely western provenance when currying international favor. They’ve learned the game played by the UN and have no qualms about joining in on the fun.

But will this work for Saddam Hussein? I suspect it won’t. As regards the first approach – playing the emotional heart strings – this just doesn’t have the magic it once did. Here the Palestinians are a perfect example. Throughout much of the second Intifada, the Palestinian Authority, relying on the western media, won over many in the West, specifically in Europe, by painting Ariel Sharon as a war criminal backed by the Bush administration bent on indiscriminately killing Palestinian civilians. For a time this worked. But ongoing attacks by militants blowing themselves to bits and sending three inch-long spikes into the eyes, hearts and entrails of Israeli civilians has only bolstered Sharon’s claim that security must come before peace. This coupled with false accusations by overzealous media and the UN regarding the non-existent Jenin massacre have done a great deal to undermine sympathy for the Palestinian plight. And overall, the anti-establishment atmosphere of the sixties simply doesn’t have it’s old punch. While many hoped the anti-globalization movement would take up the call of the socially conscious, it never really stood a chance. Even the great protests that once greeted Ronald Reagan when he visited Europe during the 1980’s are now replaced by “techno parades” and “love fests” among today’s complacent Europeans.

As for the second prong of the attack – invoking the hallowed principles of international law and its guardians at the UN – nations like the US and Israel simply aren’t listening. Indeed, not only are they not listening, but they’re taking the lead in changing those old rules. When the International Criminal Court came into being a while back, its proponents called it an innovative step forward for human rights and international law. One hears the same claims from the Eurocrowd regarding their beloved EU. But isn’t it really the case that the ICC and the EU are relics of the past? Like so much coming from Europe, these are reactions based on a reality that no longer exists, better suited to 1952 than 2002.

By instituting a pre-emptive strike doctrine, Bush is altering the old assumptions of international law that prevailed since the close of World War II and even back to the League of Nations. Saddam Hussein and many Middle Eastern governments hope to appeal to a public opinion formed under the guidance of these old assumptions. The problem is, George Bush is changing those assumptions, and with them he’s changing the future of international opinion.

In this respect, Bush is doing what others before him, such as Ronald Reagan, have done. It should also be no surprise that the United States is leading the way. Europeans often see themselves as the great progressive innovators compared to the infantile and savage Americans. This view, however, contradicts that of Tocqueville, who was probably the one European who most thoroughly understood the US. He claimed that the United States was not the past, but the future. Tocqueville also understood the incredible power public opinion has in a democracy. In the United States and in Israel, the attacks of the Palestinians and the events of September 11 have solidified public opinion. Bush and Sharon seem aware of this fact and are using that opinion to challenge the rest of the world. As Tocqueville understood, they are at the forefront once again, dragging the old world along behind, coaxing and cajoling. By using American and Israeli public opinion, they’re changing the forces that form international public opinion.

With this in mind, perhaps rather than reading the likes of Edward Said, Michel Foucault and a whole bookshelf of post-colonial, post-modern gurus, the folks in Baghdad might want to thumb through a bit of Tocqueville, though I suspect it may be a bit late for that.


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