- Real War News, Real War Games: The Hekmati Case and the Problems of Soft Power
When Barack Obama was elected to the presidency in 2008, he promised to implement a “smarter” foreign policy strategy that balanced the use of hard and soft power assets on a situational basis. As if to affirm the demotion of hard power, he jettisoned the name “Global War on Terror” and adopted “Overseas Contingency Operation.”1 To speak of “visual culture and the war on terrorism,” then, is something of an anachronism. Yet, arguably, visual media play an even more important role now that soft power has been embraced as a complement to war. And, make no mistake, Obama’s “smart power” strategy is not a campaign to end war or replace it with diplomacy. As former CIA chief Michael Hayden recently declared, Obama’s foreign policy is the same as Bush’s, “but with more killing.”2 Like its forerunners, the Obama administration seeks to perpetuate American power and influence; it is just willing to do so by any means necessary. Thus smart power is less a departure from hard power than an extension of it into new realms.
The case of Amir Mirzaei Hekmati, a US citizen recently arrested in Iran, convicted of spying for the CIA, and condemned to death, all for his association with the online gaming company Kuma Games, provides some insight into the shifting terrain of geopolitics in the information age. Specifically, it illustrates a change in the conceptions of hard and soft power, such that the two have become virtually indistinguishable. This change both derives from and perpetuates a broader move toward the militarization of the social field, which has important consequences for our capacity to imagine a condition of peace. Popular media have certainly played a role in this process by glorifying military institutions and exploits and celebrating soldier-subjects and their behaviors. As I argued in Terrorism TV, films, video games, and television shows have helped position militarism at the center of public policy and social life in the United States, and this process has been going on for decades.3 Kuma Games, which makes the online gaming series Kuma/War, figured prominently in that discussion. Following Roger Stahl, I argued that such games work like [End Page 177] advertisements for the military lifestyle, interpellating players into a military mind-set and turning them into “virtual citizen-soldiers,” ready to accept the legitimacy of hard power and willing to apply it to virtually any social problem. What I failed to ask at the time was how militarization might affect other populations: as a tool of soft power, how might such games help shape the field of geopolitical engagement? How might the militarization of social life, pursued in and through US popular culture, influence others in the global mediascape?
The Hekmati case brings such questions to the fore and begs us to think more deeply about the nature of soft power in the contemporary context. Hekmati’s arrest should be situated in relation to two recent and troubling trends in US foreign policy. The first is the militarization of public diplomacy under the aegis of the war on terror. As State Department budgets have atrophied, military budgets have exploded, leaving the military as the only government entity with the operational capacity to engage foreign populations on behalf of the state. But military information operations tend to be short-term and highly instrumental, targeting populations to achieve a strategic advantage. Militarized public diplomacy treats information as a weapon and, thus, makes cross-cultural dialogue hard to sustain. The second trend multiplies and extends the first, for the privatization of militarism enables all sorts of independent actors to carry the banner for the US Armed Forces. Video games are an important example of this trend, for the most popular games are still the military-themed first-person shooters, which reduce geopolitics to a conflict structure and invite players to duke it out for supremacy. Diplomacy and compromise are not even options.
Together these trends raise the following questions: What happens when soft power resources are used like weapons, “to create, strengthen, or preserve conditions favorable for...