The media welcomed President Bush’s admission, at a joint news conference with the British prime minister, Tony Blair, recently, that he had made mistakes in his conduct of the war in Iraq, calling it (in the words of CBS's Bob Schieffer) "an unusual burst of candor." But what makes them think he was being candid?
From The Washington Times.
June 18, 2006.
In the media culture there is a natural predisposition toward the confessional because it makes great TV. The press has been trying to get an admission of error out of the president for more than two years now, which is why they're so excited over even so small a mistake as "saying, 'Bring it on'; kind of tough talk, you know, that sent the wrong signal to people. I learned some lessons about expressing myself maybe in a little more sophisticated manner, you know."
Do the media think the president so unsophisticated he doesn't know how gratifying such supposed sophistication is to the media?
Political discourse is always conducted with a view — sometimes a faulty one — of the effect it will have on others. The offending remarks that the president now professes to regret were calculated for their effect on the enemy, but their collateral effect was deeply to offend the media.
Now he says that "I think in certain parts of the world it was misinterpreted." What he doesn't say is that the main parts of the world where it was misinterpreted were New York and Washington and London, where the educated elites think such remarks encouraged the insurgency in Iraq.
But in the Arab honor culture, they were much likelier to have been interpreted, correctly, as a warning and an assurance of U.S. resolve. Mr. Bush's kind of masculine vaunting behavior had to have been well understood as part of the age-old rituals of fighting. Like a boxer making the "come here" gesture in the ring, Mr. Bush was saying in effect: "I'm not afraid of you. Hit me with your best shot and I'll still defeat you."
Mr. Blair could have reminded the gathering of the motto of the defiant British during the worst of the German bombing in World War II: "London can take it."
The insurgents themselves frequently engage in an even more ferocious version of this kind of bravado. Only the day before the press conference, the Times of London had reported that Mullah Mohammad Kaseem Farouqi, a Taliban commander in Afghanistan, had said: "My message to Tony Blair and the whole of Britain is, 'Do not send your children here. We will kill them.' "
A few weeks before, Ayman al-Zawahiri had boasted suicide bombings in Iraq had "broken America's back" while Abu Musab Zarqawi had confidently predicted America would leave Iraq in "defeat and humiliation."
Another common formulation is that of Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a spokesman for al Qaeda, who was quoted as saying a few years ago that "the Americans must know there are thousands of young people who are as keen about death as Americans are about life."
Are they really "keen about death?" Of course not. Those suicide bombers are not suicidal in the normal sense at all. But their acts are intended as just another form of the same vaunting attempt to intimidate an opponent: "See how fearless we are? There's nothing we'll stop at. You'd better not mess with us."
It's not very "sophisticated," maybe, but it's the way warriors talk and always have talked. And that's the problem. Since the collapse of our own honor culture in the wake of the Vietnam war, we feel an obscure sense of shame about talking that way ourselves -- or in any way approaching it. Somehow, it's "sinking to their level." If we're fighting and killing them every chance we get, haven't we already sunk to their level?
The Bush critics seem to think the shortest way to peace is to conciliate the enemy, yet their own defeatism about Iraq suggests the opposite. If they're ready to throw in the towel when the other side talks tough, doesn't it show tough-talking is more effective?
If you want to impress an honor culture, try a touch of Texas "swagger;" if you want to impress the anti-honor media culture, you're much more likely to get results with a confession of weakness or error. They eat that stuff up.
I just hope the terrorists were more skeptical than Bob Schieffer and company. For when we apologize and make nice and share our regrets about our own behavior, we may demonstrate our personal psychological and emotional authenticity. But we don't conciliate our enemies. We only advertise our weakness and invite further aggression.
James Bowman is the author of "Honor: A History," published by Encounter Books, and is a resident scholar at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
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