Of Propaganda And Policy
John Brown, a former Foreign Service officer who practiced public diplomacy for more than 20 years, now compiles the "Public Diplomacy Press Review," which can be obtained free by e-mail by clicking at http://www.uscpublicdiplomacy.org/index.php?/newsroom/johnbrown_main
President Bush's recent trip to Asia, which received mixed reviews, is another indication that his administration, sensitive to criticisms at home about its lack of concern regarding foreign public opinion, is now awkwardly trying to do something about anti-Americanism abroad.
Other recent steps to offset America's negative image include the nomination last fall of an energetic and influential Bush confidante, Karen Hughes, as under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's newly proclaimed "transformational diplomacy," which includes strong elements of public diplomacy; and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's statements about the need to pro-actively combat jihadist propaganda.
But the administration's new public diplomacy and propaganda efforts thus far have had little success. Polls continue to show America's prestige abroad remains abysmally low. The foreign media are merciless in their criticisms of U.S. policies—and since the reelection of George W. Bush, of the American people themselves.
There are three main reasons for the administration's continuing failure to win hearts and minds abroad.
The first reason lies in the senior officials in charge of presenting and representing us overseas. They may be clever inside-the-beltway tacticians, but they have parochial minds. Ms. Hughes, a former television reporter and political campaign spinstress, has little experience in foreign policy.
Mr. Rumsfeld, for all his declarations about improving the Pentagon’s global information strategies, has demonstrated a total lack of sensitivity to what non-Americans think, referring to our closest allies as “Old Europe.”
Dr. Rice travels more than her predecessor and gives foreigners the impression that she, unlike her boss, is relatively well brought up—but she has failed to convince audiences overseas that American foreign policy is headed in an internationally acceptable direction. Her academic credentials, supposedly an indication of a subtle mind, were strongly criticized in the academic review of her first book—the only tome she has composed by herself.
A recent statement by Rami G. Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star , eloquently sums up how Bush administration representatives repeatedly fail to persuade the outside world: “Islamist leaders have more legitimacy in the Middle East,” he writes “than all of Rice's and Hughes' copious democratic rhetoric and all the Marines in Mesopotamia put together.”
A second failure of the administration’s public diplomacy and propaganda is based on their inadequate methods.
Among the many examples of these unsatisfactory tools is the U.S. government-funded Al Hurra television, which, since its launch on Valentine’s Day 2004, has had little impact on audiences in the Middle East—except as an illustration to persons in the region that Americans are incapable of communicating with them in non-propagandistic ways.
Radio Sawa, established in March 2002, may be reaching young people thanks to its pop-aganda (a musical program consisting of U.S. and Middle Eastern record hits), but observers rightly point out that peddling Britney Spears will not necessarily turn the Muslim world in America’s favor. One publication aimed at young Arab readers, Hi , has been discontinued in print form (give Ms. Hughes credit for that decision).
The military, after Rumsfeld’s order that it win hearts and minds worldwide, has clumsily become involved in heavy-handed propaganda efforts that have been universally ridiculed.
One of its recently revealed programs—paid-for-news placed in Iraqi newspapers by a contractor, the Lincoln Group—has backfired, leading audiences abroad to ask how the United States can preach the virtues of a free press while, at the same time, bribing foreign editors to publish pro-American stories.
Personnel and programs matter in foreign policy, but what counts most is policy itself. And here we find the third and most important reason for the failure of the administration’s to make its cases abroad.
This policy, no matter how public diplomacy or propaganda “explains” it, cannot possibly win the world over because of its appalling consequences, shocking and sickening to non-Americans if not to Americans as well: senseless killing of innocent civilians by the U.S. military in impoverished countries; torture at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo; deplorable conditions at the U.S.-run “screening center” at Bagram, Afghanistan; secret CIA-run interrogation prisons in Eastern Europe; rendition of suspected terrorists to countries with despicable human rights records. And all this is carried out in the name of a so-called “war on terror” that is so vague the administration has had to rename it twice—first as the “global struggle against violent extremism” and now as the “long war.”
Thanks to the mass media and the Internet, the abominations of a terror-obsessed U.S. policy have become the new American “brand” worldwide, with the administration’s calls for planetary democratization—so selectively implemented—widely seen as fake packaging, hypocrisy at its worst.
The Statue of Liberty as a symbol of America may be gone forever—unless we drastically change our foreign policy to be more in tune with the needs and aspirations of the rest of the world, enabling us to make a convincing case for our country before the opinions of mankind.