It started off as a joke and has now become vaguely serious: the idea that Bono might be named president of the World Bank. US Treasury Secretary John Snow recently described Bono as “a rock star of the development world,” adding, “He’s somebody I admire.”
The job will almost certainly go to a US citizen, one with even weaker credentials, like Paul Wolfowitz. But there is a reason Bono is so admired in the Administration that the White House might just choose an Irishman. As frontman of one of the world’s most enduring rock brands, Bono talks to Republicans as they like to see themselves: not as administrators of a diminishing public sphere they despise but as CEOs of a powerful private corporation called America. “Brand USA is in trouble…it’s a problem for business,” Bono warned at the World Economic Forum in Davos. The solution is “to re-describe ourselves to a world that is unsure of our values.”
The Bush Administration wholeheartedly agrees, as evidenced by the orgy of redescription that now passes for American foreign policy. Faced with an Arab world enraged by its occupation of Iraq and its blind support for Israel, the US solution is not to change these brutal policies; it is, in the pseudo-academic language of corporate branding, to “change the story.”
Brand USA’s latest story was launched on January 30, the day of the Iraqi elections, complete with a catchy tag line (“purple power”), instantly iconic imagery (purple fingers) and, of course, a new narrative about America’s role in the world, helpfully told and retold by the White House’s unofficial brand manager, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. “Iraq has been reframed from a story about Iraqi ‘insurgents’ trying to liberate their country from American occupiers and their Iraqi ‘stooges’ to a story of the overwhelming Iraqi majority trying to build a democracy, with U.S. help, against the wishes of Iraqi Baathist-fascists and jihadists.” This new story is so contagious, we are told, that it has set off a domino effect akin to the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse of Communism. (Although in the “Arabian Spring,” the only wall in sight–Israel’s apartheid wall–pointedly stays up.)
As with all branding campaigns, the power is in the repetition, not in the details. Obvious non sequiturs (is Bush taking credit for Arafat’s death?) and screeching hypocrisies (occupiers against occupation!) just mean it’s time to tell the story again, only louder and more slowly, obnoxious tourist-style. Even so, with Bush now claiming that “Iran and other nations have an example in Iraq,” it seems worth focusing at least briefly on the reality of the Iraqi example. The state of emergency was just renewed for its fifth month, and the United Iraqi Alliance, despite winning a clear majority, still can’t form a government. The problem is not that Iraqis have lost faith in the democracy for which they risked their lives on January 30; it’s that the electoral system imposed on them by Washington is profoundly undemocratic.