Being a democracy battling a dictatorship earns you little or no special credit.The first weeks of the Iraq war should give us an unforgettable lesson in how the world works in terms of information battles, elite opinion, and media behavior. The experience should shatter some decades-old assumptions.
Simply put: Things thought to apply only to Israel have now been shown to work almost equally against the United States. Problems attributed to an Israeli hasbara weakness also hold true for the mighty and competent American public relations system. Attitudes attributable to anti-Semitism are paralleled by the effects of anti-Americanism.
In short, Israel’s situation is by no means unique. Deeper, systemic, problems about how governments, media, and intellectuals function and how they view the world can work against anyone, or at least anyone who deals with the Middle East.
Here are some key aspects:
Being a democracy battling a dictatorship earns you little or no special credit, and can be an outright disadvantage. The assumption of the dominant sector in the intellectual class which runs much of academia, the media, and all verbal, opinion-forming sectors of society is that democracies lie about as much as dictatorships, especially if the dictatorship claims “progressive” credentials.
Forcing its own intellectuals and media to voice a single line makes the dictatorship sound popular abroad. Since all Iraqis or Palestinians say the same thing, it must be true. In contrast, a democracy’s dissenting voices about its real or imagined shortcomings can be used to undermine its assertions.
To make matters worse, you have the claims of a “people” versus those of a “government.” (You can imagine which one the opinion-making class is more likely to believe.)
In addition, since no critical information comes out of a dictatorship, the only way we know it does anything wrong is from its enemies’ assertions. All the data, no matter how well-documented, from Israel on Yasser Arafat’s backing of terrorism, or from the US on Saddam Hussein’s repression and concealment of weapons can be dismissed as partisan.
Then there is the fair-minded “neutrality” of those who shape opinion in the media, academia, and elsewhere. “Patriotism” is identified as a right-wing belief and replaced by its opposite. To doubt, criticize, slander, or at least avoid agreeing with your country’s position seems politically courageous and morally noble.
“Why should we assume the US is telling the truth? Let’s give equal weight to Saddam Hussein’s version.”
As a result, if soldiers of a democratic state make a mistake an Israeli or US attack that inadvertently kills civilians they are denounced as something close to war criminals. But if their adversaries torture people to death, employ terrorism or do a dozen other heinous things, the response is, “How do we know it really happened?”
The democratic states must meet a higher standard. Their mistakes matter, and they are held accountable for each and every one.
Now consider some parallels:
** Both the US and Israel are headed by internationally unpopular leaders against whom virtually any slander can be launched.
** In both cases the bystanders ridicule the existence of very real threats. Thus the defensive actions can be judged as unnecessary and aggressive.
** Their enemies are judged with excessive apologetics. Even if the individual leaders of these parties are judged harshly, their actions are excused and those of the US and Israel held in contempt because of what is seen as sympathy for their peoples. Yet it is precisely their own leadership that so impoverishes and endangers those peoples.
** In talking about either the US and British armies or about the IDF, many people will not hesitate to tell any lie or make any exaggeration. And they will find more innocent, but quite willing, ears to hear them.
** The fact that their adversaries lose every battle is taken to prove that the US and Israel are bullies. The differences between the two sides’ casualty figures are viewed not as showing the foolhardiness of the provocations offered by the weaker side, but as proof of its victimization.
** In the Arab world, though, the losers are simultaneously victims and heroes, whose victory is proclaimed up to the moment of total, undeniable defeat.
** In Europe there are many who wrongly believe that hating the US and Israel will make the Arabs love them and pay them, and not kill them.
The information/hasbara battle is unwinnable not because of ineptness but because Arab and many European governments, all of the Arab and much of the European media, and a large part of the world’s intellectual class will not give you a fair chance. They will quickly declare your intentions bad, your leaders dishonorable, your plans unworkable, and your efforts unsuccessful.
It is dreadful that the world’s fortunes in the 21st century must still be determined by war. But given this sad fact, it is fortunate that its outcome will be determined not by the war of words but on the battlefield, or at least in the material sphere of achievement.
(Reprinted with permission from the author and The Jerusalem Post).