Wednesday, June 22, 2011

The Untouchables, Starring Ayman al-Zawahri as Eliot Ness

In its story on Al Qaeda’s appointment of Ayman al-Zawahri as successor to Osama bin Laden, the Times quoted Defense Secretary Gates as saying that Bin Laden “had a peculiar charisma that ... Zawahri does not have” (“Qaeda Selection ofIts Chief Is Said to Reflect Its Flaws,” NYT, 6/16/11). With regard to the seven weeks it took to pick Zawahri, Gates commented, “It’s probably tough to count votes when you’re in a cave.” Gates also said that Bin Laden was “more operationally engaged” than Zawahri. During the Second World War, psychoanalysts were brought in to do psychobiographies of Hitler and other leaders. Naturally, a legion of experts has now chimed in about Zawahri. “Independent specialists largely agree that Mr. Zawahri is not an inspiring model for young militants, noting his lack of combat experience, his long history of ideological squabbles and his abrasive behavior and pedantic speeches,” the Times noted. In a nutshell, Zawahri has to work on his image, and in this global world of value-free social media, there is no reason that Zawahri can’t undertake the contemporary equivalent of what Madison Avenue did for politicians and entrepreneurs in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He needs the kind of makeover Ronald Reagan achieved prior to his political triumphs. In 1954, General Electric employed him to host a dramatic T.V. hour in which he chimed, “At General Electric, progress is our most important product.” Upgraded from B-movie actor to mouthpiece for a better future, appearing in homes across the country, Reagan parlayed his feel-good charm all the way to the California governor’s seat. The rest is history, or silence, depending on how you view his presidency. On the other side of the ideological spectrum, recall the Che Guevara posters that hung in college dorm rooms in the ‘60s. It wouldn’t be surprising to find out that these were the creation of a young radical who went on to become CEO of Young and Rubicam. Zawahri needs to hook up with one of the utility companies in Waziristan, the Al Queeda stronghold or perhaps Abbottabad Power & Light. Instead of sending out pedantic messages, he should promote the clean energy produced by the company, which in reality probably builds components for Pakistan’s growing nuclear arsenal. With a little promotional spin, the utility company will be the vehicle to consolidate Zawahri’s following. He will never wear a beret like Che, but big PR companies all recognize the importance of signs, symbols and behaviors that we associate with public figures. Kennedy was a jogger, the captain of PT-109 and the lover of Marilyn Monroe. What will Zawahri’s mythology be?

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