Tuesday, April 19, 2005

Losing Our Voice

Soft On Soft Power

There was an interesting internecine nit-pick between left-leaning bloggers recently over the issue of public diplomacy and its efficacy. First, Brad Plumer was slightly underwhelmed by the news, reported by the
Washington Post, that our diplomatic efforts in the Middle East have been lagging behind schedule, generally unfocused, and lacking in results. As the Post put it:

The delay comes as a Government Accountability Office report released this month criticized the administration for failing to develop a strategy to improve the image of the United States as "recent polling data show that anti-Americanism is spreading and deepening around the world."

"Such anti-American sentiments can increase foreign public support for terrorism directed at Americans, impact the cost and effectiveness of military operations, weaken the United States' ability to align with other nations in pursuit of common policy objectives, and dampen foreign publics' enthusiasm for U.S. business services and products," the report warned.

Plumer chimes in:

Well, okay. Frankly, I don't much care, because I'm deeply skeptical of this whole "we need better public diplomacy" approach. Certainly, there's room to improve around the margins - for instance, it would be great if more State Department officials could get on Al-Jazeerah and debate and defend (in Arabic) U.S. policies. But that's hard to do so long as many U.S. policies are all but indefensible in the Muslim world. American support for Israel, for instance, is going to piss people in the Middle East off, and there's no way to sugarcoat this. Likewise, if the U.S. really is building long-term bases in Iraq, then it's going to be awfully hard to get State Department folks on TV and convince everyone that no, no, we have no long-term designs on Iraq. And no one's going to believe that the U.S. is sincere about democracy-promotion unless the Bush administration actually does stuff, like speaking out about King Abdullah's crackdowns in Jordan.
Matthew Yglesias responded to Plumer's more unequivocal skepticism:

There seems to me to be a major underappreciate [sic] of the fact that American policy often looks hypocritical, incoherent, and ill-conceived simply because it is hypocritical, incoherent, and at times ill-conceived. What it isn't -- and what I think good public diplomacy would help make it clear that it isn't -- is a vast, masterfully orchestrated conspiracy with some master planner sitting in the AIPAC basement chuckling "heh, heh, heh" à la Mr. Burns. I think that's a reasonable hope for public diplomacy. It could cordon off disputes so that even if Arabs and Americans don't see eye-to-eye about the West Bank or Falluja these disagreements don't need to be the be-all and end-all of US-Arab relations.
I tend to come down on the side of Yglesias in this disagreement - to the extent that there is one. I think Plumer's general thesis is correct, that the policies almost always trump the message or marketing of those positions, and that the policies represent the true source of our image problem in the Middle East and elsewhere. But I lean toward Yglesias in believing that there is some merit to at least presenting our ideas as the product of a debate and not as some malicious conspiracy. Still, pace Plumer, even the most successful execution of this strategy would not translate into a magic bullet to cure our woes in this area (maybe not even a magic spitball), but presenting more reasonable rhetoric and image to the world is so easy that it would be foolish to go out of our way to concede points that should be a given.

It's also important to remember that we are not merely trying to repair our image in the Muslim world. After four years of the Bush administration, there is a greater urgency to address our plummeting approval ratings in every corner of the globe. In many of these regions, such as Europe, disputes over actual policies are not as pronounced or intractable as they are in the Middle East. In these settings, an improvement in tone and tenor could actually make up some ground, or at least halt the freefall.

The problem is that at a time when the Bush administration is attempting such a bold, transformative foreign policy, the rhetoric being employed by administration officials and their ideological brethren is one that shows disdain, contempt, and outright hostility for other nations and international organizations - even traditional allies (occasionally even the targets of our "humanitarian" spread of democracy). This rhetoric is born out of a philosophical skepticism of alliances and international organizations - which are viewed as vehicles to constrain our power - and favors ad hoc coalitions of the willing. Unfortunately, this abrasive posture, and disregard for notions of legitimacy and consensus, have hampered our
political interests, economic interests, and cultural hegemony. At this time, as in the era of the Cold War, cooperation and goodwill are at a premium. That said, the Bush administration has, often gratuitously, trampled on that spirit.

Even staunch Bush supporter
John Lewis Gaddis admonished the administration for its excessive hubris.

It is always a bad idea to confuse power with wisdom: muscles are not brains. It is never a good idea to insult potential allies, however outrageous their behavior may have been. Nor is it wise to regard consultation as the endorsement of a course already set. The Bush administration was hardly the first to commit these errors. It was the first, however, to commit so many so often in a situation in which help from friends could have been so useful.

Another lesson relates to language. The president and his advisers preferred flaunting U.S. power to explaining its purpose. To boast that one possesses and plans to maintain "strengths beyond challenge" may well be accurate, but it mixes arrogance with vagueness, an unsettling combination. Strengths for what purpose? Challenges from what source? Cold War presidents were careful to answer such questions. Bush, during his first term, too often left it to others to guess the answers. In his second, he will have to provide them.
In terms of diplomacy, at the very least the Bush team should rein in its brashest voices (not appoint them as ambassadors to the UN) and employ a set of policies that shows regard for the input of others. Concrete measures on issues like global warming and the International Criminal Court would perhaps do more to right the ship, but those move require real compromises whereas the shift in rhetoric and a willingness to consult allies is just about as easy said as done.

The Truth Shall Set Us Free

The current approach (or lack thereof) to repairing the damage done to our image has also been flawed - marked by an underlying attitude to the manipulation of information that undermines these efforts. The Bush team has become so addicted to rigid discipline and staying on message, that this unyielding group-think is interfering with the mission of improved diplomacy. Further, the belief that a better image can be imposed by us on others (as if in a hierarchy of nations with us at the top), rather than working with others to mend relations, has hindered efficacy.

This strategy is exemplified by the selection of Madison Avenue advertising executives like Charlotte Beers to "sell" America to the Muslim world, at the same time that the State Department has no Muslims currently in its employ to build bridges. From the Post article:

Despite the administration's repeated pledges of outreach, the State Department's main program directed at the Islamic world has no Muslim staff, U.S. officials say. "There's a dearth of Muslims in the State Department generally," a senior State Department official said....

But analysts say media exposure is not enough. "There's deep confusion within the administration about what public diplomacy means. For some, it's simply selling America's image in the world," Carothers said. "For others, it's something deeper that has to do with creating a partnership between America and Muslim countries to replace the current antagonism."
This wrongheaded approach can also be seen in recent changes to the Voice Of America (VOA) radio program which has been a trusted weapon in the arsenal of US diplomacy for the past sixty-plus years. In an article in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs, the program's former director, Sanford Ungar, tells of this unique platform's history and utility - as well as its recent fall from favor. Over the past several decades, VOA radio programs have been dispatched to even the most remote areas of the globe, on the front lines of conflict and obscurity, from the Cold War to African independence movements. These radio wave based ambassadors of goodwill offer foreigners a glimpse into the real America, as well as some usefull English lessons. The programs have also been immensely popular, and the secret to their success has been a commitment to truth and accuracy in reporting, no matter what the political impact of such information.

As a government agency with a journalistic mission, the VOA has always been a somewhat peculiar institution. Launched in New York soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it was created to counter propaganda from the Axis powers. Still, its first words, broadcast in German on February 25, 1942, made a grand commitment to honesty: "Daily, at this time, we shall speak to you about America and the war. The news may be good or bad. We shall tell you the truth"....

In response to the threat of political influence and partisan manipulation, in 1976 an unlikely bipartisan measure outlining an official charter for the network was tacked onto an appropriations bill. The charter declared, among other things, that the "VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news"; that "VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive"; and that the network will "present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions." Once the charter took effect, efforts by U.S. embassies to interfere with VOA broadcasts declined, and the network's credibility and audience grew dramatically....

President John F. Kennedy famously said on its 20th anniversary, "The Voice of America ... carries a heavy responsibility. ... It must explain to a curious and suspicious world what we are. It must tell them of our basic beliefs." Edward R. Murrow, then the director of the USIA, declared, "To be persuasive, we must be believable. To be believable, we must be truthful." [emphasis added]
Those words from Edward Murrow, as well as the VOA's charter, represent a lesson that the Bush administration has been slow to learn. With projects such as these, it is better to remove partisan interests from the process, and better to be seen as an honest broker. The opposite approach was taken with efforts like Al Hurra (the ill-conceived television station set up by the US government to counter Al Jazeera). As opposed to an unbiased recounting of news and events as put forth by VOA, vehicles like Al Hurra are heavily steeped in administration talking points and thus, predictably, are dismissed as propaganda by the very target audience.

In the meantime, the same people pushing for more slanted coverage in these media outlets are diverting funds from successful models like VOA toward dubious private ventures. They have been aided in this cause by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), a new agency which has taken control of VOA.

Some members of Congress have suggested that the VOA's job might best be left to the free market and cable services such as Fox and CNN, which have extensive networks of correspondents....

With funds originally intended for the VOA, Pattiz launched Radio Sawa (sawa is Arabic for "coming together"), a 24-hour-a-day channel that features popular Western and Arabic music with just a few minutes of news every hour and is broadcast primarily to Arab countries with pro-Western governments. In 2004, the BBG spent another $62 million of its federal appropriations to create an Arabic-language television network called al Hurra ("the free one") as an alternative to the popular al Jazeera satellite network based in Qatar. Al Hurra, which principally targets audiences in Iraq and Kuwait, focuses heavily on events related to the transformation of Iraq under U.S. occupation. Similarly, to broadcast in Iran the BBG has established Radio Farda, which uses the commercial-style approach of Radio Sawa to compete with the Farsi service of the VOA. The latter is not expected to survive.
As Ungar reports, there is evidence of the lack of results from these new efforts:

These initiatives, none of which is carried out under the VOA name or staffed with government employees, have been the subject of fierce debate. Although Pattiz claims great success for al Hurra, a survey by Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has found that it has a minimal audience and enjoys little credibility. Edward Djerejian, a retired diplomat who led a well-publicized study of U.S. public diplomacy needs in 2003, argues that the $62 million spent on al Hurra would have been better used purchasing "quality American content" for indigenous Arab satellite networks. (Djerejian also suggests that the BBG is skewing surveys to make Radio Sawa look more successful than it really is.) Rami Khouri, the executive editor of The Daily Star in Beirut, has accused the U.S. government of "a fatal combination of political blindness and cultural misperception," calling the creation of al Hurra and Radio Sawa "an entertaining, expensive, and irrelevant hoax." Undaunted, the BBG has now announced the launch of a separate Arabic-language television channel for Europe, one more part of its strategy to support the war on terrorism in the post-September 11 world.
Unfortunately, the funding of alternatives to an unbiased reporting of the news is not where the story ends. The Bush administration has also trespassed on the non-partisan character of the VOA - inserting a propagandistic approach to the news where none previously existed. Apparently, the compulsion to disseminate propaganda is not limited to the domestic market.

Meanwhile, employees in the VOA's battered newsroom have tried to fend off directives from VOA director David Jackson and other political appointees, who have suggested that the network report more favorably on the actions of the Bush administration in Iraq and the Middle East and more deliberately try to enhance the United States' reputation around the world. Editors have repeatedly been asked to develop "positive stories" emphasizing U.S. successes in Iraq, rather than report car bombings and terrorist attacks, and they were instructed to remove from the VOA Web site photographs of abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison, even though they were already widely available elsewhere. On several occasions since 2002, VOA management has objected to stories quoting Democratic politicians or newspaper editorials critical of the Bush administration's foreign policy. In July 2004, Jackson demoted and reassigned the VOA's news director, Andre de Nesnera, a veteran correspondent, purportedly as part of a move to bolster the role of a television production unit recently incorporated into the VOA. Colleagues insisted, however, that de Nesnera was being punished for refusing to make the daily news report more overtly sympathetic to President George W. Bush. Yet when nearly half of the VOA's staff of 1,000 signed a petition protesting this and other changes -- a gesture that received much attention in the outside media -- the relevant committees in Congress asked only the BBG about the legitimacy of the complaints. The employee rebellion, dismissed as a mere nuisance organized by pesky, spoiled bureaucrats, was quickly squelched, dashing any residual hope that the BBG could in fact serve as a firewall against political interference.
This devotion to propaganda and manipulation of the media is counterproductive and futile. By pushing too pro-Bush an agenda, the credibility of these voices are tarnished beyond repair, and without credibility, they are nothing but shouting into a void. The irony is, though, that even presenting an unbiased accounting of the news warts and all in many parts of the world, such as the Middle East, would be, and has been, a big time net positive for the US. These regions are generally beset by media interests that are highly biased against the US and infused with locally themed propaganda. As such, if we can merely discuss the issues in an open way, we can establish a credibility and show the process and rationale for our policies and actions. In many ways we can sell ourselves in such a manner, more organically, without hitting the listener over the head with a litany of pro-US slogans that illicit resistance where rapport is sought. This would, at the very least, go a certain distance toward convincing people that our policies are not the product of a "vast, masterfully orchestrated conspiracy with some master planner sitting in the AIPAC basement." But to do this, we must be believed and to be believed, we must be honest. It's not the end game, but it is a start.

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