Marc Lynch, a professor at George Washington University, has some advice for the Obama Administration about the American image in the Muslim world:
The most important starting point is to recognise that American policy is the most critical issue. No amount of public diplomacy will convince Arabs or Muslims to embrace American actions they detest. The Bush administration’s conception of public diplomacy generally involved putting lipstick on a pig – attempting to sell policies formulated in isolation from their likely reception. Even when public diplomacy officials had a seat at the table, they have had little influence on shaping decisions.
This has to change. It has always been ludicrous to believe that effective foreign policy could be made without understanding and anticipating the responses of the other parties.
That starts with listening. The US needs to do a far better job of listening to what Arabs and Muslims are saying and taking their views seriously. This must include listening to voices beyond the usual circle of friends and like-minded officials. The educated middle classes have grown ever more vocal and expressive in the last five years, and talking only with the small minority of pro-American voices makes little sense. The US needs to address and interact with the Arab world as it actually is – to listen to representative voices and be willing to engage in tough, frank and respectful arguments that it might well lose.
In practice, this means that American officials should watch and appear on Al Jazeera, no matter uncomfortable they find it. How can they possibly hope to understand how Arabs feel about Gaza if they don’t engage with the TV station most influential in shaping those views? Public opinion surveys, which are presently considered the benchmark for American progress in this arena, are a blunt instrument for the measurement of Arab responses to American policies, and more precise means must be devised to evaluate shifts in the Arab public sphere….
Talking helps, too. Rather than pour endless money into its own television station that few watch [Alhurra], American officials should follow Obama’s example and appear regularly on Arab networks – not only to advance American arguments, but to hear the objections and be ready to take them into account. The troubled satellite television station Alhurra should not be shut down, given the vast resources already spent on its launch, but it could be radically overhauled: new management, a new focus on American society and politics, and a new name – why not Al Amrikiya?
But all this talking and listening will be wasted if the feedback is not incorporated into policy. As one wit put it at the Reinventing Public Diplomacy conference, you can’t improve your marriage merely by listening to your wife when she says it’s time to take out the trash – at some point you had better actually do it. Some will complain that this amounts to giving Muslim audiences a veto over American policies, but this is hardly the case; those will always be formed based on American national interests, which will sometimes clash with Arab or Muslim preferences. But better listening should give American officials more ideas about where and how policies could be adjusted, identifying points of common interest in a more subtle and nuanced way.
I’m no expert in this area, but I found the article’s discussion of public diplomacy in the Cold War and the War on Terror quite interesting. Lynch wasn’t too impressed with the Bush Administration’s efforts in persuading the Muslim world about American policies, but I imagine that there is a case to be made for Bush’s approach as well.
I think that Lynch’s approach makes sense if we believe that we can or should have an influence in the Middle East. If you’re worried (as I often am) that our pursuit of world power and influence is harmful, then Lynch’s suggested means won’t be too compelling because they serve that harmful end. I’m still trying to figure out exactly where I fall on this question.
One point seems clear to me: If you want world power and influence, you have to understand the people that you want to influence, rather than assuming that they want the same things that you do. Lynch argues that the Bush Administration did not do this well. He refers to “speeches intended for domestic audiences” that cannot avoid global scrutiny. The first thing that this reminded me of was Bush’s 2004 campaign line that we were fighting the terrorists “over there” so we don’t have to fight them here. I always thought that must have sounded rather strange in other countries, even though it makes a certain amount of sense. But if we were trying to influence the Middle East, I can’t imagine that was the best way for Bush to be saying it. A more limited foreign policy can justify itself that way in public, I think, but one that seeks to export American values has to express itself much more cautiously.
Filed under: America as a World Power, Middle East and Islamic World | Tagged: American foreign policy, American history, Middle East | 3 Comments »