The Public Diplomacy Debate; Again

One day in mid-January, President George W. Bush made a surprise visit to the grave of the slain civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr. That very same day, Bush announced the controversial appointment of a federal judge who had been vigorously opposed by civil rights leaders. They were concerned by what they described as the appointee’s long record of hostility and insensitivity to civil rights issues.

While some analysts initially attempted to portray Bush’s visit to the King Memorial as an effort to court African American support, the controversial judicial appointment caused many to rethink their assessment of the White House’s intentions. Was it, they asked, a "bait and switch" tactic, that is, a symbolic gesture to one community while making a substantial appointment designed to appeal to his own conservative supporters?

In any case, at the end of the day, the net gain to the White House resulting from both efforts was probably "zero". Bush had kept his own supporters happy but had gained no new friends.

I mention this interplay between symbolic gestures, moving in one direction only to be canceled by concrete action in the opposite direction, as a prelude to a discussion of the continuing U.S. debate over the need to improve what is called "public diplomacy" in the Arab world.

We are, once again, about to reengage this discussion by advocates who sincerely believe that the United States’ problem in the Middle East is its failure to effectively communicate with the Arab people. Most of these advocates are thoughtful and very sincere in their desire to improve relations. But as useful or valuable as their proposed efforts might be, they tragically miss the mark.

The problem between the United States and the Arab world is not that we have failed to communicate our values, it is that we have failed to project our values in our policies toward the Arab peoples.

More than one year ago, I wrote an article entitled "It’s the policy, stupid", noting that in polling Arab public opinion we found, at the time, that Arabs liked almost everything about America (its values, its democracy and freedom, its education, science and technology, its products and its people). What deeply offended Arabs, on the other hand, was American policy, in particular, toward Palestine, but also toward the Arab region, in general.

The Arabs’ criticism of an American double standard is not an unsubstantiated perception of which they need to be disabused, it is a reality and they live it and daily see it manifested.

To be fair, the most thoughtful advocates of American public diplomacy initiatives understand this problem, but acknowledge that changing U.S. policy is unfortunately beyond the scope of their mission. This may be true, but doesn’t cancel out the importance of the contradiction. Actions always trump messages.

The President, for example, made a compelling effort to persuade both Americans and Arabs that the U.S. war on terror was not a war on Islam. But the behavior of the Department of Justice toward Muslim immigrants and the unrestrained anti-Muslim comments by some Administrative appointees and religious conservatives close to the White House, all have served to contradict the President’s message.

Similarly, the President’s vision of a Palestinian state remains but a vision contradicted daily by Israeli behavior, which most Arabs believe is, at best, tolerated, if not supported, by the Administration. And the U.S. commitment to pursue, or at least support the democratic transformation in the Arab world, is not viewed as credible given U.S. policy in Palestine and the current imbroglio in Iraq.

It saddens me to note that in our most recent polling, Arab attitudes toward the United States have been even further eroded by U.S. policy. The last two years of U.S. actions or inactions in the region have driven the United States’ favorable ratings in most Arab countries down to single digits. At the same time those strong negatives have served to drag down Arab public opinion of the other manifestations of the United States. As a result, Arab attitudes toward "American" anything (whether "values", "freedom", "products", etc.) have also dropped considerably.

This situation will not be turned around with new TV networks, magazines or new exchange programs (no matter how beneficial those efforts might be).

What just might work would be for the President to simply say "Mr. Sharon, take down the settlements now and stop the wall or, if you insist, build it on your own territory." To be sure, such an action might cost the President some domestic political support, and it would most probably cause internal upheaval within Israel (that would, in the end, produce a positive debate).

What such an action most certainly would do is improve Arab perceptions of the United States. It would open the door for Arabs to be more receptive to all of the other well-meaning public diplomacy efforts now being proposed. By restoring some degree of U.S. credibility, Arab opinion might be more open to greater understanding and appreciation of the U.S. That would be public diplomacy at its best.

In the end, I believe, there is no other choice.