Thursday, June 08, 2006

the face

i got out of the shower this morning to the sound of president bush's voice. (not something i want to do every day) he was speaking about the death of al-zarqawi. it was an interesting statement, lacking the bravado that used to be the hallmark of bush's speeches.

i'm still working out what this death will mean. obviously, not the end of violence in iraq. i'm not even sure if it will reduce the violence all that much.

since 9/11 the president has made an effort to personalize the war against terrorism. first it was osama bin laden. then, when attention shifted to iraq, it became saddam hussein and, to a lesser extent, his sons. when the sons were killed and saddam was captured, the face of the badguy in iraq became abu musab al-zarqawi.

there's some advantages to personalizing a conflict. it makes the enemy less abstract. it give it a face. it also gives the impression that we have concrete goals (e.g. getting osama bin laden "dead or alive").

the press also tends to like it. it paints a fairly simple picture, instead of complicated factors that lead people to commit horrible acts, we got this evil dude pulling strings in the background. it also helps portray the struggle in epic terms: bush vs. bin laden saddam hussein al-zarqawi. it also plugs into the familiar concept of the "epic struggle", a concept we're all familiar with from books and film. where battles between nations or other large groups of people are reduced to the struggle between their leaders. the leaders give speeches which define the conflict, while the footsoldiers and individual actors are a mass of CGI marching past.

those factors make it easy for the public to buy into a personalized conflict narrative. but it's also easy to sell for another reason: the enemy usually cooperates in creating the narrative. what terrorist leader doesn't want to be the face of all terrorism? leading a cell must be lonely business; you leave rambling diatribes on your web site about how you want to change the world and no one reads them. but when you become the face of terrorism, then suddenly everything you write becomes the top story worldwide.

as easy as it is to personalize the conflict, there are some pretty serious disadvantages to doing it. just as a personalized conflict makes it seem like you have concrete goals, if the bad guy stays free for too long it makes it seem like you're not making any progress. bin laden is the obvious example of that. the fact that he is around is a lingering thorn in the side of the bush administration, a thorn they've dealt with mostly by trying to pretend he doesn't exist. the sense that no progress is being made can linger even if you have done some things right. reducing a problem to a personality makes other important things seem more marginal.

another problem is what happens when you do get the bad guy. personalization lets you blame everything on him. but when he's captured or killed, often the problems that had been attributed to him don't go away. for a brief moment the public notices that we're trying to change the behavior of thousands of people, not just one. that raises complicated questions. so rather than address the real issues, there's a tendency to find a new personality to be the embodiment of the problem. zarqawi himself, though in the news, was not the face of the insurgency until after saddam was captured and the "dead enders" couldn't all be blamed on him anymore.

despite zarqawi's death, the violence in iraq will continue. none of the analysts on the radio this morning believed otherwise, though some thought there might be a temporary dip in attacks. regardless, when public sees that the violence continues there will be a temptation to find another face to put on the problem. but personalizing a conflict really avoids the real issues. it would be better if we could all avoid the temptation and make sure the conflict doesn't get a new face.