Editor’s note: This article was originally published by The National Interest.
A story from northwest Pakistan involves a discrepancy between reality and perception with regard to U.S. drone strikes. Last month two attacks in the tribal belt generated the kind of spreading news that has come to be routinely associated with the drones. A couple of al-Qaeda types are killed, but so are several villagers. The Pakistani foreign ministry lodges a protest with the U.S. embassy. According to American officials, however, the United States and U.S. drones were not involved at all in the attacks. “They were not ours,” said one official.
American speculation is that the Pakistani military conducted the attacks and attributed them to the United States to escape blame for the collateral damage. If so, this represents a reversal of a previous Pakistani practice of claiming responsibility for what really were U.S. drone strikes, to escape the embarrassment of allowing the Americans to conduct, or not preventing them from conducting, attacks on Pakistani territory. So a variable in this case is whatever public relations problem the Pakistani military and government most want to avoid in any given week.
There is a larger phenomenon at work, however, which helps to account for the believability of the Pakistani cover story. Once the United States gains a reputation for something, for good or for ill, the reputation not only becomes hard to shake but also gets applied by foreign populations in an exaggerated or overly expansive way. People are reacting to the reputation more than to individual events, because their perception of an event is heavily colored by the reputation.
This phenomenon can sometimes work to the advantage of the United States. It is involved in deterrence; a reputation for striking back can dissuade others from some transgression without actually having to strike them. But more often lately it has been a disadvantage. This applies particularly to the reputation the United States has acquired for Muslim-bashing. Americans tend not to understand the phenomenon fully because they see this reputation as a bum rap and know their intentions are better than that. They not only do not realize what is coloring other Muslims’ interpretation of American actions in their part of the world; they also miss how some of their actions are adding to the reputation and thereby coloring the interpretation of future events.
The policy lesson in this is to take full account of the reputation-based multiplier effect in weighing the costs and benefits of actions ranging from drone strikes to military deployments and much else. The policy-maker needs to realize how existing reputations will color how foreign publics and governments interpret whatever action is being contemplated. He also needs to realize how the action may in turn affect the reputation of the United States and thus affect how the United States will be either thanked or hated for future actions—maybe even actions the United States itself does not commit.