Wednesday, September 1, 2004

Symbolism matters in foreign policy


Americans, and especially political leaders, impart great power to words. When the killing, raping and relocation of Black Africans by Arab Africans in Sudan began to unfold this summer, Secretary of State Powell chose his words very carefully. It was a ?difficult humanitarian situation,? he said. When pressed by a National Public Radio reporter as to why the government refused to acknowledge it as genocide, Powell responded: ?There were some indicators ? but there was no full accounting of indicators that would lead to a legal definition of genocide.?

Certainly Powell is aware of the resonance that a word like genocide has. It is a resonance that would demand actions?actions that he or the government may not be ready to take.

But as important as words are in our foreign policy, they pale in comparison to the power of images and the symbolism they evoke. Powell should know this after experiencing firsthand the Vietnam War and protests that came with it.

Though it has become a matter of great political debate this election cycle, does anyone recall a single word of John Kerry?s 1971 congressional testimony denouncing the war in which he served? I doubt it. But I bet many people, whether they served or not, remember the image of a young, naked Vietnamese girl running from a Napalm attack.

While we use words to do battle on an intellectual level, images operate on a more basic, gut level. They tap more directly into our hearts and our sense of morality than do words. This direct line into our sense of right and wrong has a way of burning images into our memories, making them symbolic of some-thing greater long after any given event.

That Pfc. Lynndie R. England?almost elf-like in appearance?became the dominant image of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse would be ironic were the stakes not so high. The photographs of this tiny, female private giving the thumbs up to obvious acts of humiliation and de-humanization of Iraqi prisoners have been burned into our memories. They have also become symbolic on a grander scale of our apparent indifference to human rights.

Meanwhile, the Defense Department and investigators argue whether the interrogation techniques used there constitute legal definitions of torture, or vio-late the Geneva Conventions, or were approved at different levels of government, or were conducted by the CIA, civilian contractors of military police. It is a lot of sound and fury, because the symbolism of the images has already lost the battle for us.

To win the war, President Bush might consider employing the power of symbolism in foreign policy more often. In this particular case, offering up Rumsfeld would not change the military or its interrogation tactics in any operational sense, but it would be symbolic of our principles. What we cannot af-ford to do is just say we?re sorry, like President Clinton did after tolerating the genocide of 800,000 Rwandans in the mid-90s. We have to accept and ac-knowledge repercussions for our actions, regardless of whether or not there is a link between Rumsfeld and human rights abuses in Abu Ghraib. I have no doubt that terrorists and political tyrants pay keen attention to what the United States is willing to tolerate in the world. In fact, they are better students of our symbolic actions than is the American electorate.

The counter argument is that Rumsfeld is a good man, ably leading us in a difficult time of conflict. These are, after all, prisoners, people trying to kill us, who cares?

They are prisoners, but they are also people. And as soon as we start making distinctions among humans and, therefore, the human rights afforded them, we get into the untenable practice of adjusting our moral calibration on a case by case basis.

What?s right in America should be what?s right in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, Vietnam or Sudan.

The war on terror is, in the long run, a battle for the hearts of the young. Parsing definitions of torture and genocide, pinpointing where in a chain of com-mand abuse was condoned both miss the point.

Subtleties of language, gradations of what?s right and wrong are lost on those we hope to win over. Grander more symbolic gestures have to be made. We have to show, not tell the world we are who we say we are.

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