By Steven and Cokie Roberts
“The rule book of international relations has been torn up,” British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last week. “Nations, even ones as large and powerful as the USA, are affected profoundly by world events, and not affected over time or at the margins, but at breakneck speed and fundamentally.”
Blair was talking about many forces that cross boundaries at “breakneck speed,” from people and pollution to disease and dollars. But the day before Blair spoke, he stood next to George Bush at the White House, while the president focused on two other globally traded commodities that are damaging his presidency: images and ideas.
For the first time, Bush talked frankly about the mistakes he’s made in Iraq, and he demonstrated how slowly he’s come to understand the worldwide media universe in which he’s forced to operate.
In that universe, technological innovations mean that even “large and powerful” nations cannot control what ordinary people hear and learn. The rulebook has been “torn up” because everybody can now see how the game is played. Slogans and spin cannot erase reality.
Start with Abu Ghraib, the notorious prison where inmates were tortured by their American captors. Bush described those excesses as the biggest mistake of the war: “We’ve been paying for that for a long period of time.”
Abu Ghraib illustrates a concept described by Steve’s colleague at George Washington University, Steve Livingston, as the “impediment effect.” Livingston points out that “grisly” images can deeply affect public support for foreign conflicts. As a result, war planners try desperately to avoid those images, and foes try just as desperately to create them.
That’s why the American media withheld photos of dead GIs during World War II; why the image of a naked girl fleeing a napalm attack undermined American support for the Vietnam War; why American journalists were kept away from the front during the first Persian Gulf war.
What’s new about Abu Ghraib, however, is that the repulsive pictures from inside those walls were not taken by a professional photographer, but by an outraged prison guard. All it took was a digital camera and an Internet connection, and his photos rocketed around the world.
Think about that for a second. One amateur, with the right tools in the right spot, could change world opinion. No wonder the president sounds baffled.
In musing about his mistakes in Iraq, Bush also mentioned the toll exacted by civilian casualties: “I mean, when you turn on your TV screen and see innocent people die day in and day out, it affects the mentality of our country.”
The president and his allies have complained repeatedly that American networks ignore peaceful towns and positive stories, but the violence on the ground continues to overwhelm the administration’s efforts to shape the news.
This week, a CBS crew was reporting a story on how American troops spent Memorial Day. Their convoy was ambushed, the cameraman and sound tech were killed and correspondent Kimberly Dozier was critically wounded. So much for their upbeat feature story. TV viewers saw one more day of carnage -- exactly what the insurgents wanted.
Bush’s third confession of error concerned his use of language, particularly his challenge to Iraqi insurgents to “bring it on,” and his promise to capture Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” His “tough talk,” he conceded, had “sent the wrong signal to people.”
But that “tough talk” was not accidental: It was straight out of the self-image Bush has cultivated carefully. The jeans, the ranch, the pickup truck -- they’re all part of an attempt to say, “Forget the preppie from Andover; I’m the sheriff from Crawford.”
That image plays well at home, where Americans continue to revere the cowboy of myth as a fearless enforcer of justice. But foreigners tend to see cowboys as trigger-happy braggarts, too quick to pick a fight with a quip or a gun.
To make Bush’s problem worse, bin Laden understands the worldwide media market, using his access to al-Jazeera, the Arab language satellite service, to taunt the president through audio and videotapes that become instant fodder for 24-hour news channels.
So Blair is right: The rulebook has been “torn up.” The media environment is changing at “breakneck speed.” Even the most powerful man in the world cannot control what’s said and read about him. And merely changing his public-relations strategy won’t win the war for public opinion in Iraq. He has to change the facts on the ground, and that seems like an almost impossible task.
Steve Roberts’ latest book is “My Fathers’ Houses: Memoir of a Family” (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2006, United Feature Syndicate, Inc.