Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Kardashian Factor:

How Kim Kardashian's Meeting with a US Ambassador Undermines National Security

Kim Kardashian kame to Kuwait. That may not seem like an event worth mentioning on a blog about national security policy. We know that the Kardashians aren’t exactly the best representatives of the United States abroad. They are universally emblematic of consumerist excess, moral decay, shallow Hollywood culture, and desperation for fame and wealth whatever the cost. Nevertheless, they are private individuals allowed to come and go as they please. The problem is that Kardashian met publicly with the US ambassador to Kuwait.

Kardashian chats with Ambassador Tueller.
Kim Kardashian’s jaunt through the Middle East – she visited Bahrain, too—was ostensibly to open a couple of milkshake stands and promote her “Kardashian Kollection.” Reactions spanned the spectrum. Fans excitedly cheered the stilettoed pop culture princess everywhere she went. Meanwhile, in Bahrain, conservative lawmakers attempted to bar her from the country. In both Bahrain and Kuwait, clerics joined the chorus of conservative lay-people gave speeches, declaring Kardashian’s morally corrosive presence “could help spread vice among our youth.”

The United States justifiably defends itself, explaining the Kardashian klan and its koterie of konceited imitators as an unfortunate side effect of an otherwise overwhelmingly positive free and open society. Most Americans would agree that this is true: many of them don’t like what the Kardashians stand for much more than conservatives in the Middle East. Regardless, they should be free to go where they want. It’s not the right or duty of the American government to police national image on an individual basis.

In any case, Kim Kardashian is not entirely detrimental to American interests. She is also part of America’s considerable “soft power.” Despite many negative perceptions, she is also an example of America’s ability to produce celebrities known the world-over. To some, she even stands as a symbol of American wealth, opportunity, glamor, and style.

Kardashian, normally a pesky PR problem abroad, only becomes a real danger when she is directly identified with the American state. As soon as any of her ilk are given a semblance of official recognition, the argument that they aren’t representative of American values begins to ring a bit hollow.

And that is exactly what happened when Kim Kardashian met publicly with the US Ambassador to Kuwait, Matthew Tueller. There was no reason for the Ambassador to meet the starlet. She wasn’t there on official government business. She didn’t come as a private citizen to support a government venture or to pursue a political cause. It would have been very easy to let Kardashian splash across the headlines and let the visit quickly fade from memory.

Instead, the ambassador chose to meet with Kardashian, giving her the sheen of official recognition. Pictures of her, visible bra, cleavage and all, sitting next to Tueller appeared all over the web. Hours before, police disbursed dozens of protesters with tear gas.

America is a relatively tolerant country. Imagine how dramatically public opinion could change in America if the Saudi Arabian ambassador met publicly with a burqa-swathed Saudi Arabian holocaust denier. That one action would confirm a skeptical public’s worst suspicions about the shady monarchy’s real beliefs.

In relatively absolutist countries the tendency to identify media figures with the government is even stronger. To an individual who grew up in an absolutist state, Kim Kardashian would require at least tacit government approval simply to exist, much less to travel abroad. Put this symbol of American excess and sacrilege in the same room as the ambassador, and those with pre-existing anti-American tendencies’ worst suspicions are confirmed. Just as intolerant Americans immediately assume Saudi Arabia is a country made entirely of woman-hating holocaust deniers, intolerant groups and individuals in the Middle East reflexively see confirmation of their view of America as a shallow moral cesspit intent on exporting its easy virtue elsewhere. It isn’t a rational response, but the heuristics of bias-confirmation aren’t easily countervailed.

This is not to say that Kim Kardashian is singly responsible for suicide bombs in Jerusalem. But every time American officials positively acknowledge individuals like the Kardashians, those with extremist tendencies are given more reason to believe their delusions are justified. Conservative popular opinion may turn further against the United States, but worse still, the tiny portion of the population inclined towards acting violently against the United States gets a nudge further in that direction. Those meetings give extremist groups propaganda on a plate. Fanatics already use individuals like Kim Kardashian, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton to feed moralistic hatred of America in those with deeper-seated reasons for loathing our country. There is no reason for government officials to fan the flames.

America’s policy should simply be not to engage with private individuals of any variety not visiting for official or political reasons in regions where anti-American extremism is a significant risk factor. Kardashian’s visit should have been allowed to proceed without acknowledgment by American officials. Whatever soft power she may have earned for the United States would still have accrued, but without adding another official photo-op to the heap for anti-America propagandists.

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