It depends on what the meaning is...
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Many people are familiar with Bill Clinton's famous words, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." Despite the ridicule that this definition jockeying earned him, it would appear that the current administration has not taken this lesson to heart.
During last Thursday's Senate Budget Committee hearings, Senator Conrad questioned Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the progress of rebuilding in Iraq. "Madame Secretary, did I hear you right when you said that water and sewer has [sic] improved in Iraq?" "Yes, you did." To which Conrad replied with a report that the Inspector General for Reconstruction in Iraq gave to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The report stated that the number of people with drinking water has dropped from 50% before the war to 32%, and the number of people with sewage has dropped from 24% to 20%. When asked about this discrepancy, Rice read out a set of numbers that indicated an increase in water and sewage service, without making any attempt to answer for the discrepancy. She then quickly tried to change the subject: "So the numbers have been going up on water and sewage. The problems--you are absolutely right, Senator--have been on oil and electricity." Dissatisfied, Conrad interrupted, repeated the Inspector General's numbers, and once again asked for her to explain the discrepancy. Finally, Rice replied, "I think this may be an issue of whether we are talking about delivery or capacity." According to Rice, the Inspector General looked at how many people actually received services, and the numbers that she cited represented only capacity.
Is the Bush Administration trying to sugar-coat the issue by playing technicalities with definition? As the IEEE Spectrum has pointed out, there are major difficulties in establishing electrical service in Iraq because the infrastructure is so spread out. It is relatively easy to build and defend a power plant, but to erect, maintain, and defend miles upon miles of distribution infrastructure is difficult. I would imagine that the same could be said about water. But ignoring the distribution infrastructure and by focusing on what is probably the easiest component of the system--the capacity of treatment plants--the Administration is not only riding on a technicality, it is doing so in a way that is disingenuous and distorting.
In other news, the United States has finally recognized the need to win the battle for public opinion. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, "Our enemies have skillfully adapted to fighting wars in today's media age, but... our country has not." I believe that any long journey begins with a first step, and in this case, it is to establish trust, which is difficult to earn and easy to lose. It would appear that the Bush Administration has not yet learned this lesson. Take, for example, the accusations of torture. Playing its favorite card, the White House has defended it on technical grounds. The Geneva Conventions do not apply because these are not enemy soldiers in the traditional sense. That may very well be true, and it may very well be true that in a legal court, such a technicality would be defensible. But what would such a technical victory gain us? In the court of public opinion, playing this technical defense is not only unconvincing, but leaves people with the impression of insincerity. When Clinton used those famous words, not only was it unconvincing in the court of public opinion, but it also backfired by convincing people that he was disingenuous and not to be trusted. If the court of public opinion is as important as they believe it to be, then playing on technicalities, opposing McCain and the Senate, and quickly dismissing the recent UN call to close Guantanamo* do not help the American case. That is not to say that we should take a soft tone with terrorists, but it does mean that we need to handle such issues much more delicately and with much more humility. It may be terribly inconvenient, but we cannot afford to let the Bush Administration's reckless arrogance in handling such sensitive issues squander away what little public opinion in our favor we still have left, especially because negative public opinion is what fuels Islamic extremism.
For starters, in light of the recent rekindling of the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, it would be nice for Rumsfeld to resign. In societies such as Japan where "honor" is so important, company leaders have been known to accept blame and step down even when the blame lies entirely with their underlings (arguably, Rumsfeld might not even be entirely blameless for fostering the prisoner-treatment culture that allowed this abuse to take place). When building public opinion, such gestures are necessary to establish a sense of sincerity, and most importantly, trust.
* If Bush feels strongly that Guantanamo should be kept open, then he needs to defend that position convincingly and adequately, without resorting to arguments couched in legal technicalities. He must also actively engage the critics of Guantanamo and address specifically their concerns and objections. And if he is unable to mount such a defense, then perhaps he should reconsider how strongly he feels about this prison.