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July 6, 2003 Opinion

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This week: Bush, Berlusconi and the New Diplomacy
Sigh.  Let's see. 
This last week President Bush, on Wednesday, delivered a taunt to militants who have been attacking U.S. troops in Iraq, saying "bring 'em on" and asserting that the forces in Iraq are "plenty tough" to deal with the threat.  I think the intended message was something like, "Go ahead, kill as many of our young troops as you think you can - we don't care - but understand we're not leaving and we'll get you back but good.
Paul Bremer, our "administrator" in Iraq, this last week said this: "When you make an enemy of the United States, you'd better watch outSooner or later we will get you."  And Bremer went on to say we would deal with those Iraqi folks who were unhappy and "bend them to our will." 
The press this last week was full of our warnings to NGO folks, those non-governmental organizations, aid agencies like Medecins Sans Frontieres.  The message was that we will not tolerate any criticism of our foreign policies from them, or we will shut them down any way we can.
Last week too we halted all military aid to thirty-five countries that decided not to sign unique agreements with us, agreements that they would ignore the newly formed International Tribunal and never pursue any war crimes charges against any American soldier or citizen, regardless of what they did about any other country's soldiers or citizens.  They didn't make an exception for Americans?  They lost their aid.  And also we got the UK to agree to send us anyone we thought might be a terrorist without question, without any investigation or comment or hearing - this includes their own citizens - while agreeing that the UK would never extradite any US citizen without due process.  There are a few folks in the UK who have been suggesting this is a bit of a one-sided extradition arrangement.  In short, we are asking for exceptions for us, and punishing those who will not make these exceptions for us.  We're playing hardball here.  Jack Straw and Tony Blair are no dummies.  You do not want to get on the wrong side of the big guy.
And last Thursday we threatened to end all trade talks with Egypt.  They get more aid from us than any country other than Israel.  Why were we going to walk away from all trade negotiations with them?  We told them they we're going to lose everything unless they stopped saying the European Union may be right in being wary of the genetically modified food we produce and export.  They changed their tune real quick.  They also did not want to get on the wrong side of the big guy.
So we're getting our way in the world.

It does pay to play tough, I suppose.  Silvio Berlusconi, perhaps the most pro-American, pro-Bush leader in Europe, is trying out the same behaviors. 
In Strasbourg this week, where he stared his six-month term as president of the European Union, his remarks likening a German lawmaker to a Nazi camp guard stirred a bit of a diplomatic crisis.  Seems Silvio thought the guy was making fun of him.  So he sort of called the guy a Nazi.  Silvio was at the time all of three hours into his term in office.  For some reason this comment offended the Germans, and a lot of other Europeans - off the cuff jokes calling another leader a Nazi seemed a bit crude, so Silvio said he regretted the remark.  But Friday, Berlusconi played host to the European Commission in Rome and said, "I have not made any apology" about his Nazi remarks at the European Parliament, adding that he had only expressed regret his joke was misunderstood.

By the way, a few folks in Italy were a tad upset with Silvio, but since he controls almost ninety percent of the media in Italy - media consolidation (television, radio and newspapers) has made him quite rich - there wasn't that much said, publicly.  And he may have bribed a few judges in the eighties to get rich, but the Italian parliament granted him immunity from all charges a few hours before he left of Strasbourg and these trails were immediately abandoned.  His supporters' votes bailed him out, his guys in the National Alliance (what used to be the Fascist Party in the thirties) and others like that.  The FCC here argues that the media consolidation it is now permitting in this country is a good thing - things are more efficient with only a very few owners of all the television, radio and newspapers.  Ask Silvio.  He knows.

Anyway, this was an interesting week for the "new diplomacy" as I like to call it. 
As far as diplomacy is concerned, the old school used as its method "working on agreement," on getting the most one could for each side so no one feels they lost that much and everyone is willing to move forward.  Diplomats are, well, diplomatic.  They do not resort to taunts like "Bring 'em on!" or to calling the other guy a Nazi fool.  And sometimes apologies are used.  The objective is agreement and letting everyone feel as if they got at least something in all the negotiations.  In the old diplomacy, how you say something is as important as what you do, if not more so.
The "new school" in Washington is more "behavioral" in its approach.  The objective is to change the behavior of individuals and governments.  Thus threats (Syria, Iran) and withholding (boycott French goods and services) and rewards (big grants for Turkey, which should have worked but seemed not to this time) will cause a change in behavior if managed carefully.  Motivation is not important. 
The question is this - as the result of what you have done or said, has the behavior changed?  If so, what folks think and feel are mildly interesting, but not very important.  You have obtained the result you sought.  And thus history, also, is of interest but doesn't matter much.  France did help us win our independence, and we did arrive a bit late for the two world wars.  So what?  Have the French modified their current behavior based on our "inputs" - or have they yet?  A bit.  We'll keep it up, I'm sure.
It comes down to punishment or reward (reinforcing desired behaviors).  It really doesn't matter if you're offended by what is said.  Do you change your behavior to avoid punishment or to get the reward?
Curiously even the father of behavior modification science, B.F. Skinner, recanted this approach - intermittent reinforcement - saying it may work for pigeons learning to peck the correct button, and for mice in a maze selecting the right path, but humans have this emotional layer that messes things up.  Well, does that layer matter?  It seems to me resentful people can do lots of damage.  Oh well, if they do, they can be punished.
So our official positions are blunt.  You're with us or against us.  We can demand anything we damn well please, and it's the other party's problem to choose what Skinner would call reinforcement or punishment.
Reactions?  In his July 4th column Richard Reeves visiting Europe writes -
So, as we celebrate the anniversary of our independence from Great Britain, the ideas behind Bremer's words are resonating throughout Europe in an odd way: Many people, the vast majority of them pro-American, are persuaded that the United States wants enemies more than it wants friends. On issue after issue, large and small, they think we are looking for a fight - seeking out confrontations with new enemies and with old friends, too.
Iraq.  Iran.  Genetically modified foods.  Treaties.  International courts.  The United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the role of private relief agencies.  Across the board and across continents, the United States seems to be confronting, contradicting and quibbling.
And Reeves concludes -
The most influential French newspaper, Le Monde, published a 12-page insert last week under the headline, "The New American Order." The articles, one after another, argued that the United States is deliberately ending a 50-year era of multilateral cooperation -- "the international community" in Le Monde's phrasing -- to impose our will on the rest of the world.  The French, it seems, are taking literally President Bush's threat that other nations are either for the United States and all its works, zigs and zags, or they are against us.  And one possibility you see here is that the new Bush order could collapse into civil wars and anarchy because the rest of the world just might decide they are against us.
Is that alarmist?  And does it matter?
How does it play here in the States?
Mike Littwin in the Rocky Mountain Times this week asks this:
OK. When President Bush says, "Bring 'em on," and he has that look in his eye and that steel in his voice, do you swoon or do you swear?

Meaning, do you run out to buy Ann Coulter's new book or do you write a check to Howard Dean?

It's not just a test, it's a gut check. And it says as much about you as it does about Bush.

Bush takes the question from a reporter this week about continuing attacks on American soldiers in Iraq and he tosses it back like it's a live grenade: Bring 'em on.

Once again, he's calling somebody out.

Do you see it as empty machismo, Bush at his olive-suited, flight-decked, helmet-tucked-under- the-arm worst?

Or do you see it as a president finally willing to stand up for America, Bush at his it's-time-to- put-those-cards-on-the-table best?
Good questions. 
Interestingly in the New York Times today (July 6th) James Traub suggests that this divides the Republicans, the conservatives, from the Democrats, the liberals.  "The difference between the two parties is not simply ideological.  It is also temperamental..."
Maybe Democrats are just nicer, but a more philosophical view is that liberals are committed to, are in fact bedeviled by, ideals about process that do not much preoccupy conservatives, at least contemporary ones. Liberals put their faith in such content-neutral principles as free speech, due process, participatory democracy. Is that too lofty? Then maybe we should say that today's liberals, unlike today's conservatives, don't believe in any particular set of ends ardently enough to blind themselves to the means they are using to achieve them."
Liberals do not make good behavioral modification enthusiasts.  They think about what the other party might think and want.  They don't get it - and the "it" is the new diplomacy. 

And Americans like blunt, straight talk.  As Traub says, "Maybe voters like politicians who know what they stand for even if they don't agree with what they stand for.  (Or maybe they just like George Bush.)"
So this was the week for George and Silvio to be blunt.  That wins votes.

By the way, since I'm writing from Hollywood, I have to mention a funny, minor movie, Matilda, directed by Danny DeVito.  I'm reminded of the father's line in the film, disciplining his grade school daughter -   "I'm smart; you're dumb.  I'm big; you're little.  And there's nothing you can do about it."  The new diplomacy.

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6 July 2003

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