I’ve written it before, but yesterday I saw it to a degree I thought impossible, even in the mainstream media. The political press created a feeding frenzy over nothing, actually building an entire narrative on its own ignorance. The topic was the connection between culture and prosperity. The media en masse decided this was either racist or radical.
It’s neither. In fact since 1961, USAID has been promoting “civil society” with the hope that this will help build more prosperous, freer societies. Its Web site states: “As the Arab Spring powerfully reminded the world in 2011, democratic governance and human rights are critical components of sustainable development and lasting peace. Countries that have ineffective government institutions, rampant corruption and weak rule of law have a 30-to-45 percent higher risk of civil war and higher risk of extreme criminal violence than other developing countries.”
Our State Department is filled with public servants working on the culture-economy connection. Take MEPI, the Middle East Partnership Initiative. (“Through its Local Grants Program, MEPI enables American Foreign Service Officers at U.S. embassies in the Middle East and North Africa to identify and support key projects that promote civil society and the rule of law, increase political participation, empower women and youth, create civic educational opportunities, support independent media, and foster economic growth and opportunity.”)
In May Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attended the Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society 2012 Summit along with Tomicah Tillemann, the State Department’s senior adviser for Civil Society in Emerging Democracies. She attends scores of these things. They talk about developing the rule of law, promoting free enterprise and such. Just like Mitt Romney was talking about .
So to suggest that it was a “gaffe” to make the culture-economy connection, as a slew of pundits and reporters did yesterday, is daft. And embarrassing. To treat Romney as an oddball for making common-sense observations that decades of development agencies, NGOs and diplomats have made says that Romney is reasonably well-informed and that few in the political press are.
How does 90 percent of the coverage go so badly off-kilter from reality? I’d like to say the Obama people put out a talking point and the media all jumped. But I have to believe this was such a wrong-headed notion that no one in the Obama team would have had the nerve to suggest there’s something wrong with what Romney said. President Obama has said much the same in many settings.
Think tanks on the right and left (“a virtuous circle based on good governance, economic growth, and enforcing security”) subscribe to the culture-prosperity linkage. The Post’s Jackson Diehl wrote in September, 2008 that while the “peace process” was stalled at a diplomatic level the U.S. should pursue “a different approach to an intractable problem, one that focuses on building a foundation for peace from the ground up, rather than pushing fickle and fragile leaders to dictate a settlement from above.” Jackson, echoing Natan Sharansky and Salam Fayyad’s focus on civil society, urged that attention be given to “the construction of a healthy and vibrant Palestinian civil society -- that is, independent media, courts, political parties and nongovernmental organizations that could stand behind a settlement with Israel.”
Romney in Israel wasn’t even making the much more pointed observation that Palestinians who suffer under a corrupt Palestinian Authority that doesn’t extend full rights to women, are steeped in media that glorify violence and have been treated by the United Nations as helpless “refugees” for generations are not going to enjoy prosperity. He could have. And many informed observers made the connection for him before he laid it out in black and white for the media.
Romney’s style has tended toward universal values that are not continent- or region-specific. Hence, he used South American countries to illustrate his point in the donor gathering in Israel. (In his column for National Review Online he writes: “The linkage between freedom and economic development has a universal applicability. One only has to look at the contrast between East and West Germany, and between North and South Korea for the starkest demonstrations of the meaning of freedom and the absence of freedom.”) It is clear to me he has read and thought a lot about the topic. He and his team didn’t appreciate that the press corps had not.
The coverage yesterday, I think, was the perfect storm: reporters out to find “gaffes,” zilch foreign policy knowledge and — this is key — a Romney team that still has not learned to deal effectively with the media. It explains too little and engages not enough. It frustrates and evades the press too frequently. It is not an excuse for bad and mindless coverage, but if the Romney team wants to win this race it had better do a better job of dealing with a press corps that is far more interested in getting it first and getting “clicks” than getting it right. That’s the current media environment, and the Romney team is going to sink or swim in it until Election Day.