A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

getting the message

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on March 8, 2008

The warden message issued by the US Embassy here on Tuesday afternoon has gotten more publicity than … I don’t know the proper analogy – Britney Spears, perhaps? I can’t look at my Google alerts without learning that yet another media outlet has picked it up – every agency, newspaper and television station from China to West Des Moines seems to have carried the story.

But there is no story – the warden message has no new news. The only news is the fact that one was issued – the content is nothing new. And I think the “message” was exactly that: to get a scare-mongering warden message about the situation in Lebanon on the front pages of Middle Eastern newspapers and in the news broadcasts of local US television channels.

Let me explain what I mean by going over the full text of the warden message, rather than the snippets that produced articles like the Daily Star’s US Embassy warns American citizens in Lebanon to watch their steps” or Reuters’ “US embassy fears attacks on citizens in Lebanon“. Trust me: neither the warning or the fear are anything new.

Here is the full text of the warden message, paragraph by paragraph:

March 4, 2008

The political impasse in Lebanon continues. International and domestic efforts to resolve the impasse have not yet succeeded. The uncertain political situation, the presence of extremist groups in Lebanon, and the series of car bombings over the past few months continue to concern the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. The Embassy has maintained travel limits over its personnel.

First paragraph: definitely no new news. Warden messages are intended to communicate updates to the American community in Lebanon. We all know that the political impasse here has not been resolved.

Here are sample opening lines from warden messages sent earlier this year – messages that did have news to convey: On Tuesday, February 12, a senior Hizballah operative, Imad Fayez Mugniyah, was killed in an explosion in Syria (February 13, 2008). Another explosion has occurred in Beirut (January 25, 2008). The U.S. Embassy has learned that extremist organizations may be plotting an attack against McDonald’s and Pizza Hut restaurant franchises in the area of Sidon in the near future (January 23, 2008).

Notice the difference? The first two begin by notifying American citizens of a major event that has occurred, and the second warns them about a specific event that might occur. None of them are reporting on the lack of change or the absence of major events.

Second paragraph:

Since February 28, there has been coverage in the Lebanese media of the presence of U.S. Navy vessels in international waters of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea. U.S. Navy ships in the Mediterranean are there in support of our commitment to regional stability.

The second paragraph is more interesting. Rather than using the warden message to report the arrival (and now departure) of the USS Cole – which would fit my definition of “news”, the warden message buries this information in the second paragraph, blaming mentions of the warships on “Lebanese media”.

Allow me to suggest that the deployment of US military ships to the eastern Mediterranean is news to the American community here, and that it does affect our safety. Many Lebanese have clear memories of being shelled by the USS New Jersey in the early 1980s, and they interpret last week’s deployment as an aggressive act. How about a warden message that started with: The February 28 deployment of the USS Cole off the coast of Lebanon marks the beginning of a new, more confrontational period for American citizens in Lebanon, and may lead to the resumption of 1980s-style attacks on American citizens.

Instead, having told us that 1) nothing is new 2) except for the “presence of US Navy vessels”, news about which is the fault of the Lebanese media, the warden message concludes by reiterating the same personal safety warnings it always gives:

There is a general concern that extremist groups may be planning to attack U.S. citizens and interests in Lebanon. The U.S. Embassy urges U.S. citizens who live, work, or are traveling in Lebanon to exercise responsible security practices. Those practices should include awareness of the environment and potentially threatening events such as demonstrations or other public gatherings. U.S. citizens should also take care that they maintain a low profile in public and avoid predictable or habitual behavior. U.S. citizens may contact the U.S. Embassy for updated security information and to report unusual or suspicious occurrences.

US citizens and interests in Lebanon are always advised that we may become the target of extremist attacks – especially since the high level of Embassy personnel security means that we hoi polloi are much easier targets. And we are always advised to avoid demonstrations and public gatherings.

As for the advice to maintain a low profile in public, well … is there any country in the world today where US citizens are advised to maintain a high profile?

Don’t get me wrong – I take my personal safety very seriously. But this warden message was not meant for me – or any other American citizen in Lebanon. This is a political message.

And with all the news coverage that it generated, I bet the Embassy staff are saying happily: message sent, and message received.

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