The Reputation Frame

25 August 2006, 1934 EDT

For those that haven’t been paying attention, the Bush administration has launched its 2006 midterm-framing campaign for dealing with the Iraq debacle. Not surprisingly it’s a familiar riff, one that has been analyzed at length here at the Duck as well as more prominent outlets: ‘If you think things are bad now, just wait till the Democrats gain power—they will pull out of Iraq and show the world we lack resolve, which will embolden our enemies’.

When all is dark resort to reputational rhetoric and hope it resonates with your audience.

The argument fails for a number of reasons, not the least of which is due to the newly added twist—that the terrorists will ‘follow us home’ from Iraq if we display a lack of resolve. We have long known that the majority of militants in Iraq have nothing to do with global militant Islam and have everything to do with sectarian struggles for power within the country. And the idea that terrorists aren’t trying to attack continental targets, but would if we pulled out of Iraq is just plain moronic.

More importantly, the problem with signaling a reputation for resolve (and any other kind of signaling for that matter) is that your opponent will draw whatever conclusions (mostly favorable) they want from your actions. There is little one can do to ensure that the target of their signal gets the right message. The question I would ask the President and supporters of his policy is what outcome, short of utopian style democracy and stability in Iraq or staying forever, would ensure that our enemies do not draw negative conclusions about our resolve? It appears to me that a host of outcomes would leave much to interpretation. And if we know anything about terrorists groups (and any political actor for that matter) we know they thrive on and are schooled in the art of spin.

The more important implication–and the one Neocons seem incapable of understanding–is that while you may project a reputation for resolve you also gain a reputation for operational weakness, which arguably is what we are now stuck with because of Iraq (see my previous comments here and here).

I just hope this reputational rhetoric isn’t accompanied by any conspicuous conflicts (my term and the subject of my dissertation) in the lead up to the midterms. As Steve Clemons notes, “superpowers with swagger and considerable ego don’t usually acknowledge their failings. In desperation and attempting to show that their resolve is solid and military strength robust, big nations having a bad time strike out to prove a point”.

I’ll be able to tell everyone how much of an influence perceptions of vulnerability and weakness play in the initiation of conspicuous conflicts when I’m done dissertating (whenever that is), but in the meantime I hope the relationship is probabilistic rather than deterministic for the sake of our foreign policy.

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