Filmed on Friday July 14, 02006

John Rendon

Long-term Policy to Make the War on Terror Short

John Rendon is CEO and president of The Rendon Group, which provides communications consulting and projects for the White House and Department of Defense, among other clients. He has served every administration since President Carter’s, often in a behind-the-scenes history-making role.

John Rendon, head of The Rendon Group, is a senior communications consultant to the White House and Department of Defense. His subject in this talk is how to replace tactical, reactive response to terror with long-term strategic initiative.

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John Rendon, head of The Rendon Group, is a senior communications consultant to the White Houses and Departments of Defense. His subject in this talk is how to replace tactical, reactive response to terror with long-term strategic initative.

I think that people were expecting a silver-tongued devil, an accomplished spin-meister, arrogant but charming, who would dance them into some new nuanced state of understanding.

What they got instead from John Rendon was an earnest, soft-spoken message of such directness and scope that it apparently came across to some in the audience as dissembling.

Polarization rules in Washington these days, Rendon said, and in the country. Moderates are made voiceless. Civilized discourse is nearly impossible. And everyone is consumed with the pace of the news cycle, displacing any sense of the long view.

Meanwhile in the world the US has a severe “credibility deficit,” especially with the people in other nations. He said that his organization, The Rendon Group, has done detailed research on how the United States is perceived in Islamic countries. The universal message from Muslims was, “You look at us but you do not see us.” As for whether they felt positive or negative about the US, three groups emerged. Those who had some direct or even indirect contact with American people felt largely positive about the US. Those with more distant contact thought of the US only in terms of its corporations, such as McDonald’s, and had a more negative view. Those with no contact at all thought of the US strictly in terms of its government, and had the most negative view of all.

“This is the key,” Rendon said. “The strength and credibility of the American people must be reflected in our government.”

“There are really two campaigns against terror,” Rendon said (he doesn’t like the term “war on terror”). The one being conducted against existing terrorists by the military and intelligence people, and by 76 countries, is going pretty well. But a second campaign, against potential terrorists, terrorists that we are creating, is barely understood. “When we say that our war is with ‘Islamic fundamentalists,’ 1.2 billion people think we mean them.”

“We need to turn Islamic street into an active ally, not a passive observer.” He gave an example of the kind of advice he gives US policy makers. When we focussed all our public attention on terrorist individuals, such as Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, we made just heroes of them. Focussing on the various named groups of terrorists has the same effect. But focus on specific terrorist tactics— such stopping a bus and then shooting everyone with a certain kind of name (as happened in Iraq)— puts world attention on something that might lead to changes of mind.

Rendon’s greatest fear is that the US could go isolationist at the very time we need most to engage the rest of the world, when we need for people everywhere “to feel that we care more about them than their own governments do.” For that strategic-level approach to policy he had a number of specific proposals:

  • Let the third year of high school be mandatory overseas.
  • US newspapers should partner out to the world, swapping journalists.
  • College alumni programs should emphasize international students.
  • Humanitarian assistance needs to be more enduring, as with Peace Corps programs.
  • There should be a global endowment for education, and a global endowment for health care.
  • Getting a visa to visit the US should be made welcoming instead of humiliating, as it is now.
  • The US government needs to engage overseas “more as an enabler than as an actor.”
  • We need to be a better example of democracy by encouraging a convergent rather than divisive public discourse here at home.

It comes down to “networks and narratives,” Rendon concluded. Five years from now what will be the narrative about the current five years taught in schools throughout the Islamic world and elsewhere? “The nature of that narrative will determine whether the conflict winds down in seven years or so, or it goes on for a hundred years.”

I’ll add one thing that emerged from the long and sometimes contentious questioning from the audience (download the audio this week for the full exercise). One question was, “Since weapons of mass destruction turned out to be nonexistent in Iraq, what is America’s REAL agenda there and in the so-called war on terror? Is it oil, wealth, power, or what?” Rendon had nothing very satisfactory to offer in reply. At dinner after the talk, Danny Hillis suggested to Rendon what might be the root cause of the mutual bafflement. “People see a lot of seemingly irrational behavior and they assume there must be some hidden agenda driving it. What they don’t realize is that having an agenda requires long-term thinking, and there isn’t any going on.”

That is pretty much John Rendon’s point. When US policy consists mainly of a sequence of short-term reactions, the aggregate result is massive frustration.

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