Wars of Misinformation

The presidents of Turkey and America are using the oldest trick in the book to offset their personal insecurity. And it is probably working.

pinocchio-970x545.jpg

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.” Sun Tzu

We all recall the infamous Irqai information minister Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who blatantly and hilariously continued to deny that Saddam Hussein’s regime was coming to an end.

“There are no American infidels in Baghdad. Never!” he said. And on another occasion: “The American press is all about lies! All they tell is lies, lies and more lies!”

Fake news

Something you would expect from an enemy – but what about the sitting president in a democratic country?

Donald Trump’s attacks on the press are more than just shouting. They are a very effective example of deflating your opponents’ arguments. Fake news is a real problem, and the phenomenon might have been a contributing factor to his election. But by labelling real news as fake news, the incentive to attack fake news is diminished, because he is muddling the picture.

Who’s the terrorist now?

In Turkey, President Erdogan has just won a huge victory in securing power to himself, and limiting democratic restraints. But this has only increased his tendency to rebuke any criticism. His Nazi comparisons and name-callings have not ended. Rather he stooped as low as branding Nikolaj Villumsen, a Danish MP monitoring the election, a ‘terrorist’.

Danish PM Lars Løkke Rasmussen was quick to call out the accusation, adding to the international pressure rightfully placed on Turkey these days.

This is not child’s play

Name-calling your enemies is a classic strategy, and something informed and well-educated citizens ought to see through. Heck, it even features in children’s literature. I’ll give you two examples:

In C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle, the final instalment in the Chronicles of Narnia, a monkey conspires to present a fake Aslan (the creator-Deity lion) who issues orders that destroy the nation. Our heroes discover that the fake Aslan is in fact a donkey in disguise, but before they have the chance to call the bluff, the monkey himself announces that an impostor has been found, and the real Aslan will show himself no more. Thus they have nothing to gain by showing the impostor. “She understood the devilish cunning of the enemies’ plan. By mixing a little truth with it they had made their lie far stronger.”

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge is faced with the news that He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has returned. In denial and/or out of fear, however, he instead launches a smear campaign against the sources, Harry Potter and Albus Dumbledore, branding them as nutters and liars.

We should not fall for this. More importantly, leaders in free societies should not stoop to this level. It is a sign of weakness and fear not worthy of a leaders.

One might add: “If you want to know what a terrorist looks like, Mr. Erdogan, you should look in a mirror.”

Picking the right dictator friend

The current debacle between Saudi Arabia and Iran raises more questions than it answers, not only for the Middle East but also for the West.

It all began with the Saudis executing a Shiite cleric, spurring the ire of Iran, where protesters attacked the Saudi Arabian embassy, drawing further international condemnation.

This is a complex matter, and this NY Times story does a decent job of explaining some of it. In a region that we as outsiders may see as one whole, these two countries hate each other’s guts in their competition for regional power.

While Saudi Arabia is a friend of the United States, and effectively the Western world, Iran has been on the black list for years. Why is that? Is it because we favour Sunnis over Shiites? Not likely; most westerners couldn’t tell the difference. Because of the impressive Saudi record on democracy and human rights? Wrong again. Because of the massive reserves of oil? Getting closer – but Iran also has lots of oil.

More randomly, it seems to be not a conscious choice of the West, but the result of differing strategies in the Middle East. The Saudis actively pamper the Americans, wanting to be their friends, wanting to sell them their oil. So they make a show of helping in the war on terror, while at the same time fuelling extreme ideologies through their ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam.

The Iranians, on the other hand, brand the U.S. as the big Satan, kick out their embassy, and wave the big stick of nuclear proliferation. As a result they’re shunned by the world, although their society and values should arguably be closer to ours.

The fact that Iran is very close to closing a deal with the West may be one reason the Saudis are picking a fight – their position as the trusted Middle Eastern ally is threatened. (And with oil prices plummeting, so is their source of income.)

Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia are what we would call free countries. They both randomly persecute their populations, and respect of the law is not a given. This only serves to debunk the belief that democracies ally with democracies. George W. Bush wanted to spread democracy in the Middle East. Recently, however, leading Republicans are advocating support for dictators in the name of ‘stability’.

In 1979, when the U.S. changed their allegiance from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic (mainland China), it was not because of democracy or human rights records. Neither country was a democracy at the time. Rather, it was probably the result of a dedicated effort in public relations by the Chinese, more so than the Americans.

The same could happen in the Middle East. We might just as well be friends with Iran, despite their human rights offences (just look at China), if that’s what they really want. Whether this is good for the spread of democracy is a different matter altogether.