Winning Hearts and Minds

As I watched the new Chilean film “No,” I kept thinking about how its lessons seem obvious in retrospect, but how illusive common sense often seems in the present. The insight seized upon by director Pablo Larraín is that people are more likely to exert the minimal effort necessary to vote when they have an attractive ideal in mind rather than when they are merely protesting an evil. Of course, this has something to do with voter behavior and the outcome of the last American presidential election. But it also bears a great deal on American foreign policy.

Too often, American pundits and policymakers have expected that a foreign populace will rebel against a regime we cannot but see as evil—the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, Iran’s mullahs, or Bashar Assad. And some people do choose to resist, to fight the Taliban or Saddam or the mullocracy, or, now, to sacrifice their lives to oust Assad. But others do not, which often makes any US military effort far bloodier and more costly than it otherwise would be.

The movie “No” suggests a better way.

The film tells the story of Chile’s 1988 referendum in which then-dictator Augusto Pinochet offered the country’s voters a choice: “yes” to eight more years of his rule, or “no,” with free elections to follow. Since Pinochet had brought the country back from the brink of economic ruin after Salvador Allende’s socialist policies, he was confident that most people would vote “yes.” So he offered the opposition 15 minutes of free airtime on television late every night for the 27 nights leading up to the plebiscite. This was the first time other voices had been allowed on the country’s government-controlled television since Pinochet seized power 16 years earlier in a violent military coup.

Many in the opposition refused to believe the dictator would give up power, no matter what the vote; others thought he’d commit fraud. Some thought that even agreeing to participate in the referendum meant acknowledging Pinochet’s legitimacy. Many of those who did want to embrace the chance to campaign against Pinochet were more interested in airing their pain and educating the public about the torture and disappearances of the Pinochet regime than in seriously trying to defeat him.

Initially only René, played by the Mexican actor Gael García Bernal, understands the opportunity presented by the free TV time. A brilliant ad man from a family with impeccable lefty credentials, he’s no activist. The movie suggests he’s a bit of a physical coward besides. But he understands human nature.

The campaign he chooses is based on the premise that nothing sells better than happiness. So, “happiness is coming to Chile” becomes the theme. A rainbow—each color representing one of the opposition political parties—is the logo. And catchy, witty jingles attack Pinochet, although their lyrics discuss his tiresome aesthetics more than his crimes against humanity. They suggest, above all, that what’s wrong with him is that he’s not cool and not fun.

And the vote isn’t even close. Chileans voted 56 percent for “no” and 44 percent for “yes.” The country had elections three months later and has been a functioning democracy ever since.

“The film is a gross oversimplification that has nothing to do with reality,” Genaro Arriagada, director of the real No campaign, told the New York Times. But the point that interests me has nothing to do with Larraín’s accuracy. (He’s been attacked in Chile, the Times goes on to say, because his parents are both from right-wing dynasties.)

The point to draw from “No” is the need for a foreign policy that works with, not against, human nature.

“Give every Afghan man a Macintosh computer and unlimited Wi-Fi bandwidth, and they’d be too busy watching porn to even think about becoming insurgents,” one witty ex intel agent told me. And the numbers work. Instead of spending $12 billion a year training the Afghan police and army—about the annual budget of the Israel Defense Forces, including their air force and submarines—we could have bought a thousand-dollar computer for every adult Afghan (about twelve million people).

Of course this is facetious in a country where perhaps twenty percent of the population is sufficiently literate in a local language to use a computer. But it’s heading in the right direction. Lean in the direction people already want to go. If they’d rather watch porn than plant IEDs, make it easier for them to do so. If they’d rather learn computer engineering than watch porn, make that easier still. If “happiness” means blowing oneself up for the sake of the proverbial 72 virgins, you have to nudge and push and pull until “happiness” is redefined.

I don’t have any magical solutions here. But “No” made me think that we should find more imaginative ways to say “yes” to happiness in the Islamic world.


Photo Credit: Museo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos 

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