Rhetorical Questions

Tough talk couldn't have saved Ambassador Stevens.

One argument heard lately is that by "apologizing for America," President Obama projected a weak image of America, thereby emboldening radical forces in the Muslim world to target American interests -- and specifically American diplomats in Benghazi. Setting aside the question of whether Obama actually apologized for America, one may ask whether it is plausible that administration rhetoric could have such a consequences. Do mere words matter so much?

National level communications designed to influence as well as inform are often labeled "strategic." The classic formula offered by President Theodore Roosevelt was to "walk softly but carry a big stick." TR felt that actually brandishing the stick could be unnecessary and even counterproductive. The very possession of power should be sufficient to garner respect, whereas overt threats might make it more difficult for one's adversary to back down under pressure. Roosevelt's iron-fist-in-the-velvet-glove approach successfully resolved a mounting crisis with the United Kingdom and Germany over their blockade of Venezuela in contravention of the Monroe Doctrine, and later helped garner him the Nobel Peace Prize for mediating the end of the Russo-Japanese war.

There are counter examples, where weak rhetoric may have emboldened adversaries. In the weeks before the outbreak of the war in Korea, Secretary of State Dean Acheson made a speech identifying American security interests in East Asia but failed to mention South Korea. Ever since, historians have speculated that this omission encouraged the Soviet Union's leader, Joseph Stalin, to give North Korea a green light to attack the South.

Similarly, in 1991, the George H.W. Bush administration, observing Iraq's military buildup opposite Kuwait, failed to clearly warn Saddam Hussein, either publicly or privately, against such an attack. Again, there are many who believe that such a warning might have caused Saddam to pull back. Of course, Saddam later proved remarkably unresponsive to much more explicit American threats -- first to expel him from Kuwait, and then a decade later to invade and overthrow his regime.

Two factors affect the impact of strategic communication. First is the choice of audience; second is the juxtaposition of word and deed.

One might imagine that the target audience for foreign policy pronouncements would be foreign audiences, but in reality the domestic public is usually considered far more important. White House and State Department communications on topics that Americans care deeply about and follow closely will thus largely be tailored to them, even at some considerable cost to their efficacy abroad.

American rhetoric following 9/11 is a good case in point. The "global war on terror" played well with domestic audiences, even as this phrase turned off audiences everywhere else. Arguing in support of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration's explanation that "we are fighting them there so we don't have to fight them here" was clearly not a message designed to appeal to an Iraqi audience. President Bush's "freedom agenda" provided a domestically appealing rationale for that war, particularly important once the original rationale, weapons of mass destruction, evaporated. This message had but faint resonance among the Iraqi population and antagonized every other regime in that region, all of which were anti-democratic. "Bring 'em on," Bush's visceral response to the growth of an insurgency in Iraq, was not designed to reassure the Iraqi people or even deter the Iraqi resistance, but rather to inspire a vigorous American counteraction.

These themes had their desired effect domestically, at least for a while, at the cost of making it more difficult for the United States to rally support from allies and friends in Iraq and elsewhere.

On entering office President Obama chose to hew closer to TRs' advice. He dropped mention of a global war on terror while actually increasing strikes against terrorist targets in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Softer voice, bigger stick.

However one characterizes the strategic communications of the early Obama administration, there can be little doubt that by calibrating his messages more to foreign audiences, he increased regard for America around the globe, as confirmed in numerous opinion polls. This effect was particularly pronounced among America's closest and most powerful allies, in Europe, but there was also a more positive view of Americans in the Muslim and Arab worlds. Domestically, however, he was criticized for apologizing for America, demonstrating the divergences between foreign and domestic reactions to the same content.

The effectiveness of Obama's Middle East rhetoric became hobbled by the second factor mentioned above: the disjunction between promise and delivery. Early on, Obama promised renewed American efforts to promote peace between Israel and its Palestinian neighbors and a more even-handed approach to the two parties.

This effort bore little fruit and has since been abandoned, disappointing audiences throughout the Muslim world. Obama still polls higher there than did Bush, but lower than he did three years ago. Indeed, by the time of the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya had become, according to opinion polling, the most pro-American society in the Arab Middle East. This was a result not of Obama's somewhat tepid pro-democracy rhetoric, but rather his irreplaceable military support of their revolution.

The populations in Middle Eastern countries more closely allied with Washington, such as Egypt, Jordan or even Turkey, have much more negative views of the United States. Thus whatever positive effect Obama's early communication directed to this region had upon public opinion had, by 2012, been largely dissipated as a result of his failure to follow through on hopes he had earlier inspired. Negative public opinions in this region are going to become increasingly damaging to U.S. interests as popular governments responsive to those opinions take over from the "presidents for life" who have ruled Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria until recently.

So words do matter, but they can only have the desired effect if directed toward the right audience, and if accompanied over a sustained period by comparable deeds. Foreign governments and populations listen to what we say, but they also watch what we do and adjust their own actions accordingly, for better or worse.

As regards to the death of Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues in Benghazi, it is as naïve to think that tougher U.S. rhetoric would have protected them as it is to believe that Bush's "bring 'em on" challenge (for which he later expressed regret) could have deterred the Iraqi insurgents. What failed in Benghazi was deeds, not words -- specifically, security precautions equal to the threat. Yet if security were the overriding consideration, Ambassador Stevens would never even have gone into Libya in the midst of its civil war as he did. One can consider Stevens a hero or a fool for running such risks, but it is inconsistent to celebrate him for taking these chances and castigate others for allowing him to do so.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Running Toward Danger

Why the world still needs war correspondents.

The young freelance journalist kidnapped recently in Syria, Austin Tice, joins the long list of reporters who, having taken great risks with their lives and freedom to focus our attention on the travails of distant and very different people, are now paying the price. That list, which includes Mary Colvin, Tim Hetherington, and Daniel Pearl, among many others, had my name on it for seven long years.

Unlike many others, I survived my kidnapping in Beirut in 1985, and the seven years of imprisonment. After I came home in 1991, many people asked me: Why? Why put yourself at such risk? Why ignore the warnings, defy family and friends' worries, to go watch horrific things happen to people no one here really cares about? People who, for many Americans, are the enemy -- "those crazy Muslims, terrorists"?

In a Facebook post several weeks before he disappeared, Tice tried to explain: "No, I don't have a death wish. I have a life wish," he wrote. "So I am living in a place, at a time, and with people where life means more than anywhere I have ever been, because every single day people here lay down their own for the sake of others. Coming here to Syria is the greatest thing I have ever done, and it is the greatest feeling of my life."

"And look, if you still don't get it, go read Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. That book explains it all better than I ever could."

Both the kidnapping and Tice's words reverberate in my memory, and in my soul. I well remember -- and shall never forget -- the fear of being powerless in the hands of those who hate you, the helplessness of being blindfolded and blind, pushed and dragged as Tice was in that video. I also remember the self-doubt, the anger at myself for being careless, for not paying enough attention to my own security -- emotions  that Tice has undoubtedly felt. Little credit, now, the bravado of that manifesto. Little satisfaction, knowing the pain and helplessness his family is suffering because of his risk-taking.

I hope and pray that Tice is released, as I was. There is a consensus among journalists and intelligence experts that he is actually being held by forces belonging to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is trying to place the blame on anti-government rebels. Discrepancies in the videotape released by his kidnappers cast serious doubt on their claim to be Islamists allied with al Qaeda and similar groups. Even the U.S. government has officially endorsed the deception theory. Anyone who has had dealings with the Syrians in the past 20 or 30 years would consider that not just believable, but likely, especially given the revealing blunders in dress and language in the tape. Assad's troops are known to be often vicious, but not particularly bright.

Does that make his eventual release more or less likely? I don't know. I hope that a government has more constraints, more reasons to keep him alive, than a band of fanatics. I hope that Assad and his cohorts do not carry this masquerade too far, though their past targeting and jailing of journalists doesn't make me optimistic.

I do know that Tice was right in his conviction that what he was doing was important enough to take risks. Many others have taken similar risks, for similar reasons. Many have paid the price. Forty-six journalists have paid the ultimate price so far this year, and nearly 1,000 in the past 20 years, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, an international organization that monitors attacks on the press, and of which I am honorary chairman. Thousands of others have been kidnapped, beaten, jailed, or forced to flee their countries.

One of the most frequent questions I got after my release was this: Was it worth it? Would you do it again? Of course not. Don't be silly. Nothing is worth getting kidnapped, or killed. And no, I would not go through that again.

But I'm not sorry for taking the chances. It was important to be there, to witness the violence and the horrors that war brings,  to tell the stories of people facing terrible things. To explain the world and help let others understand. To find and tell the truth, as best we could, when many were telling lies.

Tice, and all those others who took risks, and had to pay for them, would say the same, I believe.

How could we say this? Which of the stories that Tice wrote, that I wrote, or any of the others, could be worth this kind of price? God knows it is difficult to find anything in my journalistic career that I can point to and say, I helped this person. Or that I contributed to this solution for that problem. Many times, I felt that the world simply ignored my reporting.

And in those years of imprisonment, I thought often about my life, and whether it was worthwhile; whether it had made any difference to anyone.

I grew up believing certain things: That America is a democracy, and in a democracy, freedom of speech and of the press are central to the free flow of information that makes a democracy work. That the proper way to fight wrong is with truth and honesty. That the best disinfectant is sunlight, as the journalistic cliché goes.

Despite the disdain that many express for journalists these days, I learned in my career that most journalists are idealists, that they really believe in what they are doing. And in more than 20 years with the Committee to Protect Journalists, I have met and heard of thousands of journalists around the world who truly believe that you cannot have a free society without a free press. They believe it so strongly they are willing to risk their lives and their freedom every day to find and tell the truth.

I have tried to instill those beliefs in another generation, in more than 10 years of teaching journalism in several of our best universities.

I certainly succeeded with my youngest daughter, Sulome, who works for this publication and is well launched on a journalistic career that has already taken her back to Lebanon. Do I fear for her? Damn right I do. I worried for the entire time she was in Beirut, reporting for the Daily Star. I worry every time she begins interviews and research for the stories on the homeless, and the addicted and the neglected she seems to gravitate to, that have led her to terrible neighborhoods at all hours. (And she's probably very tired of hearing the lectures on the phone, as I try to pass on decades of hard lessons to keep her from paying the terrible prices this profession can exact.)

But I am proud of her, as I am of Tice -- whom I've never met -- and other young people who understand what this calling is all about.

Forget the whining about Americans who don't care about news, who don't know about or understand the world, or want to. It is our job to make them care, to help them understand.

Ernest Hemingway is not much admired these days. He is mocked as a macho chauvinist, with an easily caricatured writing style. But I understand why Tice recommended him. He wrote about character, about honor and truth. That is what we do -- find and tell the truth, as best we can. It is often dangerous. It is always important.

Christy Wilcox/AFP/GettyImages