Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Should We Shoot the Confused Messenger?

I participated in a panel last night organized by the Canada Afghanistan Solidarity Committee.  This group is lobbying for Canada to stick around past the 2011 deadline and invited me due to my stance as espoused in a recent op-ed.  Much frustration was vented at the failure of the Canadian media to portray the Afghanistan situation  more positively.  There is a sense that Canadians are confused, and would be less so with more information.

There is something to this, as I have posted several times about myths about the mission and the country (here, here and here).  However, the media faces some severe constraints:
  • The Canadian government: Prime Minister Harper has tried to keep the mission off of the front burners of Canadian public policy.  While the PM has not exerted, at least as far as I can tell, much control over the Canadian Forces in its operations on the ground, he has exerted much control over the CF's communications about the mission (I remember meeting with a DND PR person who was clearly heavily caveated the same day I interviewed General Hillier when he was still CDS--the contrast between the doing and the talking about the doing was striking).  
    • Related to this point, there is not much of a show for the media to cover in Ottawa as neither of the major parties wants to talk about Afghanistan.  The Conservatives have learned it does earn them votes, and the Liberals do not want to talk about it since they are divided on the mission between those that remember that the Liberals started it and those that have forgotten that inconvenient fact. If there is no debate (other than about detainees), then the media has little to cover.
    • Foreign Affairs seems to be tightly controlled by the PM's office.  The preceding Minister of Foreign Affairs was better known for leaving classified documents in the home of the women he was seeing, who happened to have been a former gangster's moll.  And given her taste in dresses (which Hillier noted in his autobiography) compared to his dubious leadership skills, perhaps this is where the media's attention should have been.
    • The Canadian International Development Agency is pretty hopeless when it comes to selling itself.  When CIDA heard there were a bunch of academics meeting a senior roundtable of military officials, they invited the scholars on over.  We thought we would be talking about their efforts, but instead they asked us how they should publicize their mission, how to get their message across.  Talking to political science profs was not the right way to go.  They should have brought in PR people. 
  • Studies show that misconceptions are very hard to change.  The big myth in Canada is that it is a peacekeeping country and that peacekeeping is not violent.  Tell that to the folks who are to be "peacekept."  Somalia and Rwanda have taught spoilers that shooting at the outsiders is a good strategy, so any new peace operation will involve killing and being killed. Even in the UNPROFOR days of Bosnia, Canadians were in harm's way, shooting and getting shot at.  Darfur would be like Afghanistan in a few ways, except there would be no NATO to help with medical evacuation or other necessary logistics.
  • The Realities of Afghanistan.  The media may not have a clear message to deliver about Afghanistan because the place is pretty hard to understand.  My ten days on the ground just made me more confused.  Progress is hard to measure, battles in a counter-insurgency do not demonstrate anything that is lasting.  Karzai is, well, confounding to say the least.
So, we ought not to blaming the messenger too much, even if they are pre-occupied with the bloodier side of things.  The Canadian public is not the only one with mixed opinions about the effort.  It is hard to find a public that is not confused about this mission.  Obama took all fall to figure it out and he had heaps and heaps of information.  Indeed, the more you know about this situation, the more confusing it may actually be.  So, getting more media attention on Afghanistan may not actually help out the CASC in their lobbying efforts.

Instead, the best option may be to take advantage of the frozen status quo in CA politics.  Harper cannot win a majority, but he is unlikely to lose his status as PM of a minority government given how inept the Liberals have been.  So, ironically, Harper may have more room to maneuver now.  What he does with that room?  Probably not much.

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