Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Sorry State of Public Diplomacy

The WSJ has a piece today by Bret Stephens on the sorry state of our public diplomacy.

Take the case of career diplomat Francis Riccardione, currently the U.S. ambassador to Egypt. In interviews with the Egyptian media, Mr. Riccardione has said that American officials have "no right to comment" on the case of Ayman Nour, the former opposition leader imprisoned on trumped-up charges; that faith in Egypt's judiciary is "well-placed," and that president Hosni Mubarak--now in his 26th year in office-- "is loved in the U.S." and "could win elections [in America] as a leader who is a giant on the world stage." Mr. Riccardione also admits he "enjoyed" a recent film by Egyptian artist Shaaban Abdel Rahim, best known for his hit song "I Hate Israel."

Or take the Voice of America's Persian Service. According to a Farsi-speaking source who tracks the broadcasts, during last year's war between Hezbollah and Israel, VOA reporter Nazi Beglari opined that "Hezbollah ended the Israeli occupation in the past and is doing it again." Camera shots lingered over toys scattered near bomb sites and a burnt page of the Quran--evidence, presumably, of Israel's intent to destroy Islam and murder Muslim children.

Then there is Ms. Hughes herself. During one of her first overseas ventures as public diplomacy czarina, Ms. Hughes visited Indonesia--the world's largest Muslim country--where she met its very own Bono, rock star Ahmad Dhani. Mr. Dhani had recently released his album "Laskar Cinta," or "Warriors of Love," a deliberate and political response to the terrorist atrocities perpetrated by Laskar Jihad. Ms. Hughes seemed enthralled by both the message and the messenger.

"Hughes met Dhani, praised him to the skies, and said 'people like you are exactly what we need,'" recalls C. Holland Taylor, an American who runs the LibForAll foundation with which Mr. Dhani is associated. "She then asked us whether he would be willing to work with the State Department, whether he'd be willing to travel and whether there was anything she could do for him. We answered all three questions affirmatively. Since then there's been a vast silence."

This is exactly why back in 2005 I started thinking that the best solution to this problem is not governmental, but rather private and entrepreneurial. After all why waste time, resources, and energy lobbying gov't to reform our public diplomacy, when we can invest the same time, resources, and energy in doing public diplomacy on our own? To me it's a no brainer. Fortunately there are at least a few others who have taken the initiative on this.

LibForAll is itself a model of what a competent public diplomacy effort in the Muslim world should look like. Mr. Taylor, a former telecom executive who moved to Jakarta in the 1990s and speaks fluent Indonesian, has engaged influential and genuinely reform-minded Muslims--as opposed to the faux "moderates" on whom Mr. Bush lavished praise at the Islamic Center--to articulate and defend a progressive and tolerant version of Islam.

In its brief life, LibForAll has helped turn back an attempted Islamist takeover of the country's second-largest Muslim social organization (with 30 million members), translated anti-Wahhabist books into Indonesian, sponsored a recent multidenominational conference to denounce Holocaust-denial, brought Mr. Dhani to Colorado to speak to U.S. military brass, and launched a well-researched "extremist exposé" in order, Mr. Taylor says, "to get Indonesian society to consciously acknowledge that there is an infiltration occurring of radical ideology, financed by Arab petrodollars, that is intent on destroying Indonesian Islam."

For his efforts, Mr. Taylor has been cold-shouldered by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta--more proof that when it comes to public diplomacy the U.S. government functions with its usual genius and efficiency. But there's more at work here than a bumbling and insipid bureaucracy.

This is a story we are all familiar with; it is all too common in our time. A big, bloated outdated bureaucracy, that is stagnant and resistant to change comes up against the decentralized, nimble entrepreneurial newcomer. We see it in business, media, education etc. This is characteristic of our era as we transition from the industrial age to the information age.

But unlike the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age, we have a more serious underlying problem that is a real threat to the survival of our country.

As the scholar Carnes Lord notes in his useful book on public diplomacy, "Losing Hearts and Minds," America's public diplomatists "are today no longer as convinced as they once were that America's story is after all fundamentally a good one, or believe an alternative, negative story is at least equally plausible." Hence someone like Mr. Riccardione can say, when asked about discrimination in Egypt (where a Coptic population amounting to about 10% of the population has one member in the 444-seat parliament) that it "happens everywhere, even in the U.S."

The part that I emphasized above is the most important internal challenge that we face as a society. These diplomats who are "no longer as convinced as they once were that America's story is after all fundamentally a good one," are the direct product of 40 years of the post-modern left's cultural relativism and hostility to America. We must step onto the field and compete against the left's vision of America. This effort will not be "conservative". The conservative movement is as outdated and inappropriate for our time as the left's ideology and the massive industrial age institutions that continue to lumber along. We need to be willing to break out of old cognitive habits and think new thoughts. The sorry state of our public diplomacy is just a symptom of the real, underlying problem. And we have to address that underlying problem in order to reform our public diplomacy.

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