Wednesday, October 20, 2010


by Philip J Cunningham

It's not easy being a propaganda chief these days. What with all the new-fangled technology, and talk of democracy, the spectre of yesterday's suppressed news keeps coming back to haunt you.

You shred a story and throw it down the memory hole and it bounces back with a vengeance - a hundred stories where there was once just one.

Your job is to serve the party, and the secretary-general of the party most of all. All sorts of people, inside and outside the party resent your influence; some even challenge your right to exist.

When you do your job skilfully, nobody notices. When you screw up, it's there for all the world to see.

Take the case of Liu Xiaobo.

You were under the impression it was your job to make the story go away, a mission impossible in PR terms. So, instead, you make yourself look foolish. Failing to suppress the news of a dissident getting the Nobel Peace Prize, you double down and go into over-drive. You attack the poor, imprisoned convicted criminal Liu, of course, but also castigate the arrogant award-givers. Then you attack the small Western country that is home to the handful of old, white men sitting on the committee that made the "blasphemous" award decision. Then you attack the Western world in general.

As was frequently the case during the Mao years, a vilification campaign is as hurtful as it is absurd, but ultimately it makes a mockery of its advocates and legends of those sorry souls it targets.

Those not destroyed by vilification often come back stronger than ever, emerging as influential figures in their own right, thanks to the initial drop-kick that made their name a political football in the first place.

The Maoist vilification of Liu Shaoqi and Peng Dehuai drove both men to early graves, but it turned them into the stuff of legend. Getting whacked by an endless stream of words ultimately enhanced the reputation of two hard-core communist operatives who were, until the moment of their fall, loyal henchmen of the party and Chairman Mao.

Deng Xiaoping, who was dislodged from power three times, and each time duly vilified in the propaganda organs of the day, not only emerged with a "name" but with a body of sayings. Even off-the-cuff quotes such as: "It doesn't matter if it's a white cat or a black cat..." that were once bandied about as supposed proof of Deng's perfidy, have been memorialised and become part of the legend of the man.

Zhao Ziyang was cut from the same cloth as his tough communist colleagues at the pinnacle of state power until his fall from grace, after which he assumed a largely undeserved democratic halo.

The way the Beijing authorities have fumbled the Liu Xiaobo case is enough to ensure that this mild-mannered academic, who was but one of many comparable dissidents, will now stand head and shoulders against the rest, eclipsing rebel elders such as Wei Jingsheng, who endured even greater suffering with even greater equanimity and resolve.

The Nobel Prize committee chose to turn the spotlight on just one man in a collective cause, casting a disproportionately large shadow, but it is China's flummoxed media czars, who, by overplaying their hand, are assuring that Liu Xiaobo will be seen as larger than life.

The Chinese Department of Propaganda hasn't always been so clumsy, nor has it always been on the wrong side of history.

It has played a role in maintaining civility in public discourse, especially in advance of, and in the aftermath of, the poisonous reign of "free" speech known as the Cultural Revolution.

In the early 1960's, one of the main functions of the central propaganda apparatus was to keep the doddering old Mao, and his increasingly insane ideas, in check.

Mao, hungry for some vengeful political action, famously complained that he couldn't get a word in edgewise in Beijing, so he had proxies such as Yao Wenyuan and Zhang Chunqiao publish in Shanghai the first of a long series of veiled vilifications and outright ad hominem attacks that launched the Cultural Revolution.

A wave of suicides, vigilante roundups, public humiliations, torture and extrajudicial killings convulsed the nation for years to come, bringing the life of individuals, and the nation as a whole, to a virtual standstill. Millions died, hundreds of millions were traumatised.

It's enough to make one wish that Beijing's mayor Peng Zhen and the propaganda chiefs had constrained Mao's "right" to free speech, and thus stemmed the tide of invective, winning the day for the silent majority.

While human rights organisations understandably see censorship as a unique threat to them and theirs, an idealistic egotism causes them to miss the point inasmuch as it's really not about them. At least half of the function of the propaganda department is to keep inner-party conflict out of the news, to keep Politburo rivals and wannabes from each other's throats and to prevent insider coups and political campaigns from ripping the country apart at the seams.

In more recent times, the much-maligned department served a stabilising role when the reigns of power were reluctantly handed to Hu Jintao by the ambitious and not-quite-yet-ready-to-retire Jiang Zemin.

By controlling access to the public megaphone, the propaganda department effectively reined in yesterday's leaders, thus enabling the changing of the guard. It's China's equivalent to term limits in US politics.

Were Hu Jintao to completely dismantle the party's propaganda apparatus tomorrow, we would probably learn more about Hu than we know now, but it would likely prove a hollow victory for the free press. Were it not for the restraining hand of the propaganda department, Jiang Zemin and Li Peng would still be in the news, and in the game, using prestige media to advance their coteries and causes.

Other powerful actors, who, by virtue of wealth and position, would come to hog the limelight, making an easy transition to a freewheeling press system that would allow them to exercise power by buying newspapers, TV stations and advertising influence.

But if the opening of the floodgates were so unregulated as to lead to an "anything goes" neglect of media standards, then the vilification, mud-slinging and poisonous hate speech that hurt China so much in the past, would return with a vengeance.

The ensuing chaos would give foreign reporters and local scribes much to report on and write about, but little security or social stability in which to enjoy the fruits of free expression.

Philip J Cunningham is a freelance writer and political commentator. Read more on this article...

Friday, October 1, 2010

A new Israel-Lebanon war?

A variety of intellectuals and scholars comment on the possibility and logic for new Israel-Lebanon war centering on the prospect that Israel will launch a new war.  Contributors include Rashid Khalidi, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finklestein, Helena Cobban, John Meirsheimer, Mu'in Rabani, Michael Desch, 'Ashaf Kafuri,  and me.  The war would be a punitive campaign that enacts great punishment on Lebanon, but would be likely to strengthen not weaken Hezbollah, as well fomenting much anti-U.S. sentiment. There is also doubt expressed, notably by Meirsheimer, that the Obama administration would behave very much differently than the recent Bush administration in terms of preventing or ending the war.

Here is my contribution:

We can construct a very rational argument for Israel to maintain the status quo vis-à-vis Lebanon rather than attacking for the ostensible purpose of disarming Hezbollah.  Notwithstanding the tree incident in early August, the border has been very quiet since the 2006 war ended.  With the exception of contested areas of the occupied Golan Heights, notably the Shiba’ farms, the border area was also quiet from the Israeli withdrawal in 2000 until the July 2006.  Since the 1990s the Hezbollah-Israel rules-of-the-game have been well understood and both belligerents have been generally measured in their actions (as opposed to their rhetoric) and reactions.  July-August 2006 was an exception, of course.  
Roiling inter-sectarian tensions, particularly between Shi’is and Sunnis, have erupted in deadly clashes, as they did this week between Hezbollahis and Ahbashis.  Even so, Hezbollah’s resistance narrative is widely supported in the Shi’i community, even if it is derided in some other Lebanese quarters.  The November 2009 ministerial statement that launched the current government embraced the right of “resistance”, while simultaneously and incongruously committing the government to the enforcement of UN Security Council Resolution 1701.  Although naïve commentary in the U.S. focuses on the need for the Lebanese Army to disarm Hezbollah, it is obvious that resistance to Israel is popular in the ranks and in the officer corps, and the prospects for Hezbollah being disarmed by the army are zilch.  
If Israel were to attack Lebanon with the objective of weakening, if not defeating Hezbollah and destroying a significant proportion of the group’s arsenal of rockets and missiles, it runs the risk of falling short.  If so, Hezbollah’s resistance narrative would not be undermined but validated, again.  Israeli military sources have argued recently that Hezbollah has “bases” in  more than 100 villages in the South.  This suggests an Israeli campaign that would wreak even wider destruction than the 2006 war.  A landscape of smoldering ruins across southern Lebanon is more likely to inspire not dampen support for Hezbollah.
In addition, Israel would not be unscathed.  Withering rocket fire in northern Israel would cause the displacement of a million or more Israelis.  If Hezbollah makes good on the promise to retaliate-in-kind for Israeli strikes on Lebanese cities then the dangers will cascade for Israel.
This adds up to a rational case for not attacking Lebanon.  
Perhaps, but there is good reason for concern that the Israelis will not be deterred.
Israel—with very generous U.S. support—is committed to maintaining its military superiority over any combination of regional foes.  In addition, Israeli strategic culture emphasizes the need for Israel to “maintain its deterrence”.  This means that Israel’s foes will not seriously contemplate attacking Israel because their defeat is certain and Israel will inflict disproportionate military power should they try.  The punitive campaign against Gaza in December 2008-December 2009 is an example of the latter.  
Particularly in the case of Hezbollah, Israel faces a re-armed foe that flaunts its contempt for Israeli hegemony.  Given a pretext or a miscalculation, it is not far-fetched to imagine an Israeli war plan premised on a fierce and rapid ground attack and an accompanying devastating air campaign designed to overcome Lebanese resistance in a matter of weeks.  Israel would ostensibly demonstrate that it will not be deterred by Hezbollah.  
If Israel launches an air campaign on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, it is axiomatic that a pre-emptive attack on Lebanon would be on the menu because it is assumed that the first wave of Iranian retaliation would come in the form of Hezbollahi rockets. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations have firmly counseled Israel against bombing Iran, and there is little enthusiasm in the Pentagon for starting a war with Iran.  
Given Israel’s strategic culture and its fixation on “maintaining its deterrence”, an Israeli onslaught into Lebanon would also be justified as thwarting Iran’s hegemonial ambitions while reducing the threat posed to Israel by Hezbollah.  In the Bush White House, Senior National Security Council officials actively encouraged the Gaza War.  The Obama White House is far more likely to urge restraint on Israel, but this will not stop Israel from starting a new war if it elects to do so.
Prudent counsel may prevail, and the tense conditions along the Israel-Lebanon border may persist for some time to come.  Unfortunately, unwise and counter-productive decisions by Israel have become increasingly common. Plus, Israeli officials have often succumbed to the fallacy that inflicting pain on Lebanon reduces support for Hezbollah.  This usually does not work, and often has the opposite effect. 

Crossposted with "From the the Field".
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