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Minister of Information

04/11/2003

Just how slavishly does the American news media follow cues provided by national authority figures in this season of war? Among alert watchers of cable TV news, skepticism has long since yielded to cynicism. Now the major newspapers, too, after just a few days' flirtation with probing questions, not only have adopted en masse the Pentagon's narrative of ineluctable triumph (in a remarkably rapid transition to Part 4 of the Shafer Cycle), but much of its preferred terminology as well. Just as embedded TV cameras now serve as the nation's eyes, the Secretary of Defense molds its vocabulary. Yesterday's example was "tipping point."

This instant cliche spread broadly across the April 10, 2003 mediasphere (see here, here, and here for just a few examples). Superficially in keeping with the concept it is meant to illustrate, the tipping meme has gradually built up over the last week or so, only to burst dramatically onto Thursday's scene. In the major American newspapers archived in the Lexis-Nexis database, "tipping point" turned up once Monday, four times Tuesday, another four times Wednesday, and 11 times yesterday.

Whence did it come? The most important underlying factor is probably the publication in January 2002 of Malcolm Gladwell's book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, which popularized the notion. The most important immediate development was the televised fall of a statue of Saddam from its pedestal in central Baghdad's al-Firdous Square, dragged down by a Marine tank amidst a throng of exultant Baghdadi men.

These gripping visuals inspired the following from the Washington Post's David Ignatius:

Like the giant statue of Saddam Hussein that slowly tumbled to the ground in central Baghdad yesterday, the war in Iraq has been determined by a series of tipping points that mean the collapse of the regime.

The Marines gave the metaphor a boost, but as the numbers above indicate, it was a metaphor already on its way to some success, and the reason is not hard to find: the Bush Administration's most effective communicator, chief Pentagon spokesman and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. His use of the term has not gone unnoticed by reporters.

Rumsfeld's recent press conferences are peppered with the catchphrase (most recently on Monday and his post-statue comments on Wednesday). Central Command's General Vincent Brooks has also delivered himself of it, suggesting the presence of talking points.

As the toppling of Saddam's statue shows, Don Rumsfeld has either the good sense or good fortune to have some approximation of consensus reality on his side (in sharp distinction to Iraqi Minister of Information Muhammad Said al-Sahhaf, whose title and recent performance brought to mind the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell's 1984).

But some deeper probing suggests that the ubiquitous use of "tipping point" in reference to events in Iraq may be misleading. As Chicago Tribune television critic Steve Johnson pointed out, the image did not match the actual situation:

By the end of the day's TV coverage, the symbol's power had overtaken the hard facts. The tenor of American coverage proclaimed, as MSNBC's on-screen label had it, the "liberation of Baghdad," overwhelming more cautious reporters who pointed out that the U.S. forces did not yet control a majority of the capital and much more fighting was likely.

For the Baghdadis who had already poured into Firdous Square or the streets of Saddam City, the shattering of the statue followed a psychological breakthrough that had actually taken place at the moment that American ground forces entered the center of the city. For television viewers across the Arab world, the imagery of jubilant anti-Saddam Iraqis and U.S. Marines both attacking the statue came as a shock. These events followed a still-unknown turning point, apparently sometime the night before, when Iraq's leadership decided to evacuate central Baghdad.

But for Don Rumsfeld, a "tipping point" boils down to capitulation:

I think a tipping point involves a single human being that makes a conscious judgment that the guy's going to be gone, that regime's going to be over, and I want to be a part of something new and fresh going forward and not a part of that. And it may happen to an individual. It may happen to a cluster of individuals. It may happen to an army unit. It may happen to a village, the bulk of a village. It's unlikely to happen, you know, instantaneously across a country, because the facts on the ground are so different in different parts of that country today that I think it would be unlikely.

I do think the concept of a tipping point is correct, and at some point, the aggregation of all of those individual tipping points having been reached, it will be, in effect, the country will have tipped. But it will be cumulative rather than at one moment.

All the same, "tipping point" conveys an idea that "capitulation" does not -- specifically, a false impression of dominos rapidly falling. By this logic, implied by choice and connotation of words, but never laid out overtly and without caveats and qualifications -- once the people are in the streets and the statues come down, the game is over.

Rumsfeld is characteristically having it both ways, constantly trying to evoke an idea of a revolutionized, pain-free warfare that defeats the enemy without having to fight his forces, but never quite saying that. It's the rhetorical equivalent of plausible deniability. To use Clausewitz's vague term, Rumsfeld dreams of locating the enemy's center of gravity somewhere other than his military establishment, and disrupting it without unduly involving men in uniform -- ours or theirs. The Secretary is wise to hedge his bets. As continued street fighting in Baghdad and bombing in Tikrit indicates, the bloody game goes on for at least a little while longer.

The Rumsfeldian use of "tipping point" misleads conceptually as well. The idea is most closely associated with the work of economist and strategic thinker Thomas Schelling, who described it his 1978 volume Micromotives and Macrobehavior as a family of special cases of the critical mass phenomenon -- a situation where a quantitative change at the margin triggers a systemwide effect. Think of the falling dominoes, but not necessarily with suddenness. The idea originally was used to describe the moment when the number of black families in an American neighborhood reaches the point where the white families start moving out, leading slowly but inexorably to an all-black neighborhood. If the Iraq war had a tipping point, therefore, it probably occured in the Administration's innermost recesses many months ago.

A more appropriate concept to explain what the world witnessed in al-Firdous Square comes from an earlier part of the Schelling oeuvre, his 1960 book The Strategy of Conflict, which introduced the focal point. Iraqis understood that if Saddam could not defend the heart of Baghdad, it was essentially proven that there was no place in Iraq he could defend. The regime's supporters fight on, but Baghdadis now can be reasonably confident that Saddam is gone and won't be back. That's nice for them, but so far it has done more to create chaos in the streets than hasten the end of the war.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000053.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

by Analyst @ 09:55 AM CST [Link]

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Replies: 6 comments

I wonder if Iraqis would rather have a few days of chaos, or saddam and his cronies back?

Posted by Fred @ 04/12/2003 01:22 AM CST

The American media are less slavish than the Arabs in the streets of the Middle East.

Posted by Jim Banks @ 04/15/2003 05:16 PM CST

Good grief, skip some of the annotation links and ALL of the Itlalics. You've made the article practically unreadable. If we found your page, we certainly can find a dictionary if one is needed.

Posted by Rick O. @ 04/23/2003 10:49 AM CST

The idea of a 'Tipping Point' is quite clear: people realize they are fighting a lost cause and cease to give support to that cause, in this case a government, and ceasing to give support, wanting to be part of 'something new and fresh' is inherent in this idea of a tipping point, a la Rumsfeld, and so the above author's final analysis, evidently trying to show how Rumsfeld is wrong (of course, given his own definition!), doesn't work: many people probably knew the regime was going to crumble, but did they stop giving support.

If ceasing to give support is clearly a part of this concept of a 'tipping point', then we can also say, contra the above author's second last paragraph, that the dominoes did fall very quickly. The sun rose, and the information minister, the media minders, etc., all didn't show up for work. This isn't sudden?
Also, while the above author seems to think that Rumsfeld is trying to put the war as far away from men fighting in uniforms, there are many things to the contrary. Firstly, there is the obvious example of embedded reporters - which I am sure Rumsfeld had something to do with. Also, anyone would be stupid to think that military action did not precipitate the 'tipping point'. Why else would senior officials run away and armies throw down their arms, especially within a short period of time? If the real tipping point has been reached before the war, why didn't they throw down their weapons then?
Some serious problems are clearly present in the article. As mentioned above, the italics don't help either.

Posted by Kyle Menken @ 05/06/2003 11:34 PM CST

What the hell is wrong with using a single term from Don Rumsfeld anyway? Is the concept and term 'tipping point' untouchable because the evil Rumsfeld used it?

Also, the point is to show that Rumsfeld is as bad as al-Sahaf, I assume, given the title. This is not proven what so ever. Firsly Rumsfeld does not use the same inflamatory language. Also, he is not trying to control our thoughts or anything like that 'out in left feild' - he was merely telling us what was actually happening - the Iraqi regime falling, and he used an appropriate term to describe the current situation.

I think this guy has an obvious bias towards Rumsfeld, and he has a lot of convincing to do before I accept that bias.

Posted by Some Dude @ 05/06/2003 11:47 PM CST

The various reader comments appear to be accusing the author of being anti-American, or at least anti-Rumsfeld. I don't believe that was the case. The real issue is whether we, the public, are best served by a media all too keen to pump out government rhetoric without question, or whether the media should earn their money by providing insight and analysis of their own. The Iraqi media recited the words and propaganda of their leader because the alternative was death; the American media appears to be doing the same entirely of their own free will! If, after analysis, the media reaches the same views as their government then that's fine, but none of us should just accept what we're told without question.

Posted by Chris H (U.K.) @ 06/03/2003 03:17 PM CST


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