A disaster of epic proportions
Published June 1, 2004

Perception is a vital part of how we understand the world. Everyone looks at the events of the day with a background made up of their own experiences, prejudices, and preconceptions. When we tailor a message for a certain audience, we try to take into account the perspective of that audience, in order to get our message across. This is true in lectures, in business and in politics, and it's a truth that's being blatantly ignored by the Bush administration.

When the Mercedes Benz corporation unveiled its new A Class compact sedan, it was hoping to break into a lower-cost market that its luxury vehicles had so far been unable to dominate. The car seemed perfectly tailored for that segment, and response to its initial release was positive. Then, the car faced the infamous Swedish Moose test. Despite its colorful name, this is simply a collision avoidance/roll-over test. The A Class failed, and Mercedes was faced with a potential image nightmare.

There were a few different things the leaders and engineers at Mercedes could have done. They could have blamed the test, called it a poor representation of their vehicle's abilities, and ignored the results, hoping that everyone else would do the same. They could have blamed the lower ranks, dismissed the whole incident as an unfortunate, but isolated problem, and went on selling the car. Or they could have given up on the whole thing and scrapped the vehicle.

Mercedes did none of these things. Instead, they installed an expensive stability control system normally used on their higher-end vehicles that electronically controlled the car's position and kept the A Class from rolling over during the moose test. They didn't pass the cost on to anyone, not even the customer, because that would have killed the product. They admitted a mistake, and took drastic measures to fix it. Why? To protect the brand. If there was ever a car with the Mercedes star that fell short of the high standard of engineering the company is known for, the whole brand would suffer; that was an unacceptable outcome for Mercedes.

Bush and his cronies in office have forgotten that the most important part of American foreign policy is protecting the brand. In the case of the United States, the brand is represented by our laws, our people, our history of standing up for the little guy, of doing what is right, of fighting the good fight no matter the cost. That brand is why we were respected and envied by most of the people in the world, and is the source of the pride you and I feel when we think about our country. That feeling is our Mercedes star, and it's tarnished now.

It's not tarnished because of the abuses at the Abu Ghraib, though those will certainly go down as one of the less stellar moments in our military history. It is our response to those abuses that has tarnished the image of America in the world. It is only through the persistence of the media that this scandal has been brought to light. Our elected and appointed leaders continue to shrug it off, paying minimal lip-service to the ideas of apology and contrition. I get the feeling that Bush is a lot angrier at Rumsfeld for the latter's inability to keep this incident out of the press rather than his inaction in the face of damning reports issued as far back as January of this year. Nowhere is anyone of note taking full responsibility for these acts, as they should.

Wait, you say; Rumsfeld and Bush didn't torture anyone. It's not their fault! This is true; it's not their fault, but it is their responsibility. One of the duties of the President is to take responsibility for these kinds of incidents. That doesn't mean that Bush should be prosecuted for the crimes in question, but it does mean that he should be both contrite for what was done and resolved that it will never be done again. The President has shown no indication that he thinks either of these things.

Disavowing these crimes is not the way to change the opinion of the world who has seen these pictures and reacted in outrage and horror. We are dealing with world opinion now, not just American, and even many Americans are horrified that this sort of abuse took place under the aegis of "their" army. When we simply dismiss it as the activity of a few ill-trained, misguided souls, we do further damage to our reputation. Even if responsibility for the abuses could be easily limited to a few people, world opinion demands a greater response. For us, this may involve a sense of injustice or humiliation, but it's better than the alternative.

The alternative is a world of America-haters. The alternative is the unthinkable, us against all of them, and an un-winnable war. For a quick example, look no further than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel has the benefit, like the U.S., of overwhelming military might, but no matter how much they use force, they don't seem to be winning the fight.

Many have argued that force is the only language that the Middle East understands. I'd like a good example of when force has accomplished a good in that region. Those who point to our recent invasion would do well to remember that we have yet to accomplish the goals we are supposedly aiming for; we may never succeed in leaving the Iraqis a peaceful, democratic society. If we do, it won't be through the use of guns and bombs. Those are necessary evils, not democratic ideals.

Killing the bad guys isn't good enough to win this war. In this case we're better off following the golden rule; if we expect our people to be treated with respect, then we will ha.ve to treat our enemies with respect, no matter how deplorable they are. It'll be tough in the short term, but it's the only solution that will yield peace in the long term.