Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Brand strategy

So much of American consciousness is dominated by advertising and marketing that it is no surprise that the serious business of regime change, war and democracy promotion in the middle east has to be branded exactly right. First, we had the GWOT (global war on terror). Since that wasn't really catching on, a rebranding was ordered. Unimaginative Pentagon types came up with G-SAVE (global struggle against violent extremism). This time around, with the civil war raging in Iraq, poll numbers stubbornly stuck in the 30s and with elections looming, it is time to roll out a new brand. What better way to revive the flagging fortunes of the glorious struggle (and, incidentally, the poll numbers) than to sneak in a new term ?

The occasion for the launch was the discovery of the alleged plot in the UK to blow up airliners traveling to the US. From now on, the believers will faithfully replace "terrorists" with "Islamic fascists" and claim that the US/Western Civilization/the world is locked in a bitter struggle with the totalitarian ideology of Islamic fascism.

The term has been used, mostly in its variant form of Islamofascism, by the clash-of-civilization brigade for a few years. It is freely employed to describe the supposed ideology of a motley crew which includes the Taliban, Al Qaeda , Hamas, Hezbollah and any other member of the axis-of-the-generally-disagreeable.

Being an advocate of truth in advertising, I feel compelled to protest the inaccuracy of the description. Fascism, my trusted Oxford English Reference Dictionary tells me, means

1. the principles and organization of the extreme right-wing nationalist movement, prevailing in Italy under Mussolini (1922-43).
2. any similar nationalist and authoritarian movement.

A further note adds:

.... Although there is no coherent body of political doctrine associated with Fascism, it tends to include a belief in the supremacy of one national or ethnic group over others .....

The Taliban were clearly medieval, misogynistic and puritanical brutes. Al Qaeda phrases its ideology in terms of injustices wreaked upon the Muslim ummah. Hamas and Hezbollah cast themselves as resistance movements. Hezbollah is a Shia organization while the other three are Sunni. The Taliban are Pushtuns who speak a different language than the other three groups. In other words, they are all quite different from each other.

What they have in common is that they are Islamic. It can probably be said that they endorse fundamentalist interpretations of religion and society, though Hezbollah and Hamas are not emphasizing that very much. It is also likely that many of them believe in the inevitability of the restoration of a universal caliphate, just as many fundamentalist Christians believe in the rapture.

I don't see fascism in evidence here. The crucial ingredients of aggressive nationalism and assumptions of racial/ethnic superirority are missing.

Maybe a slightly more descriptive term for the common features of these groups is Islamic fundamentalism. However, that still ignores the political contexts in which these movements flourish. Of course, nuanced understanding is no match for snappy slogans. And then, fundamentalism as the evil of our times is so retro, having had its day during the Reagan era.

Onwards, then, in the glorious struggle with the Islamic fascists who hate our freedoms.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

And justice for all

I have come to regard the Guantanamo bay detentions as being the most despicable example of blatant injustice in the modern world. Arbitrary detention without recourse to the courts or due process is an utter disgrace for any civilized society.

The detentions are now almost into their fifth year with barely a whimper of protest. It is perhaps true that worse injustices have occurred and continue to occur all over the world. However, the detentions by the US government are particularly despicable because they are such blatant violations of justice taking place in a country with a long tradition of emphasis on individual rights. That this can happen so easily in an open society such as the US is chilling.

The mythology of the US justice system is a long-standing staple of books, movies and TV dramas . We all know that defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Despite this, Bush, Cheney and other administration officials keep repeating that the prisoners are all terrorists, without it being proven. In fact, these frequent assertions are contradicted by some simple facts:
  • The number of prisoners has gone down over the years from over 650 to 450, due to many people being released or being handed over to their home countries. A further 120 are scheduled to be transferred or released. If they were all terrorists, why were so many of them released ?
  • According to this report based on US government conclusions, 55% of the detainees have not committed any hostile act against the US. 86% of the prisoners were originally picked up by the Northern Alliance or Pakistan and exchanged for bounties. This makes it very likely that many of them were merely in the wrong place at the wrong time.
If indeed some of the prisoners are terrorists, they should be tried, convicted and punished duly. The US justice system, never shy of handing out death penalties, has a full range of harsh punishments available to it. The aim of detaining dangerous terrorists can be easily achieved through the normal judicial system.

The various contortions started by being merely bizarre . Consider, for example:
  • the creation of the new category, "enemy combatants" in order to dodge the Geneva conventions,
  • the "military commissions", "administrative review boards" and "combatant status review tribunals", all designed to bypass the courts,
  • the arguments claiming that US courts had no jurisdiction over Guantanamo bay.
  • the scornful response to allegations of torture by claims that prisoners are fed honey-glazed chicken and lemon fish.
They have now gone over into the surreal. We recently had six sigma examples of moral obtuseness. Three detainees committed suicide by hanging themselves with clothing and bedsheets. The camp commander called it asymmetric warfare waged against the US. Another official called the suicides a good PR move. I actually felt physically dizzy when I read about it. I doubt if even Kafka could have dreamed up characters such as these.

The recent Supreme Court decision gives me some hope that this executive absolutism may be reversed. I am not holding my breath for any prosecutions though. Fine legal minds such as "Geneva-conventions-are-quaint" Gonzales and "torture memo" Yoo have surely figured out by now that:

(a) breaking the Geneva conventions is illegal according to the war crimes law and
(b) the Supreme Court agrees with this.

That is why they are seeking changes to the law itself.