Marc Lynch

U.S. public diplomacy and the Arab uprisings

U.S. public diplomacy and the Arab uprisings

The empowerment of Arab publics through months of uprisings and popular protests is driving a structural change in the texture of regional politics which has only begun to unfold.  Whether or not regimes fall, or real democracy emerges, every political player in the region who hopes to remain competitive will have to be more responsive to the concerns and demands of the mobilized public.  Sometimes that will involve demands for democracy and reform, but it would be delusional to believe that those popular passions will not extend to foreign policy concerns, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the regional role of Iran. 

One implication of this is that the burden on U.S. public diplomacy has never been greater.  As the role of publics expands, it becomes ever more urgent that the U.S. better understand them and effectively engage with them across a far wider spectrum (it’s incomprehensible that Congress wants to slash funding for these functions at precisely the time they are most needed). The rapidly increasing urgency of public diplomacy made particularly interesting yesterday’s panel at the Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum, where  I commented on presentations by four top administration officials with responsibility for engagement with the Muslim communities of the world.  While their comments were off the record, I can outline some of my own thoughts about where we are and where we need to go.  The bottom line is that the administration can claim vindication for some of its early decisions about how to craft global engagement, but has a lot to do if it hopes to grapple effectively with the new challenges.   

It’s easy to point to the problems with American public diplomacy, and I’ll do that at the end of this post.  But first, I would point to three areas where the administration can claim some real vindication in its approach to engagement with the Muslim world.  

First, and largely unrecognized, its focus on building up networks around areas of common interest with Muslim youth, entrepreneurs, and technology (among others) meant that the administration had points of contact with key individuals in those groups outside the mainstream of political activists and traditional civil society.  Many people mocked the administration’s focus on youth, the internet, entrepreneurs, health, science and technology as missing the point.  But the composition of Tahrir Square’s revolutionaries demonstrates powerfully how forming those broader contacts and networks in the preceding years paid concrete dividends.  People who administration officials got to know in their capacity as health or technology innovators now prove to be just as important to the newly mobilized public as traditional political party leaders or newspaper editors. If the administration decided today to try to set up engagement networks with internet activists or youth leaders across the Muslim world they would be seen as hopelessly behind the curve.  They deserve some credit for being ahead of the curve. 

Second, the uprisings demonstrate the wisdom of the administration’s efforts to downgrade the "war of ideas" and to deal with the Muslim communities of the world through a lens not defined by terrorism and al-Qaeda. It isn’t entirely an accident that al-Qaeda has struggled to find a foothold in the Arab uprisings. It has become increasingly marginal to Arab political discourse (though that many not be the case in the Afghanistan-Pakistan zone, at least) and its narrative has little relevance to the events unfolding over the last few months.  That doesn’t mean it can’t come back.  If the revolutions stall or end in brutal violence, it may be able to claim vindication of its own and find new footing.  The distraction or collapse of hostile regimes, especially in Yemen and Libya, could give it more operating space.   And the domestic American politicization of Islam, from Quran-burning to anti-sharia campaigns (or, offshore, Sarkozy’s niqab ban), offers a lifeline to its "clash of civilizations" narrative.  Through all this,  the administration (notably recently through senior officials such as John Brennan and Denis McDonough) has consistently and bravely pushed back to defend the place of Islam in American life.  

Third, the administration got Libya, Egypt and Tunisia right.  While activists will always be disappointed that the U.S. isn’t completely and instantly on their side, and regimes will always be upset for the same reason, the administration did help significantly in pushing Ben Ali and Mubarak off their thrones, and in the case of Egypt played a pivotal role in restraining the military from using violence.  On Libya, the administration saw more clearly than even many Middle East experts the unprecedented focus and direction of Arab public opinion demanding Western action to save Libyans from Qaddafi’s slaughter.  These days, it’s all the rage among Realists to find reasons why Qaddafi really wouldn’t have harmed the people of Benghazi in spite of his history, his advancing military forces, and his public warnings of what he was about to do, but fortunately the administration’s wasn’t so trusting and didn’t wait for the mass graves to act.  And it’s all the rage on the left to see the US-NATO intervention as an act of imperialism, Iraq-redux, but fortunately the administration was able to see things as they were and not stand paralyzed by faulty historical analogies.  But at those decisive moments, thanks to al-Jazeera and the unfolding narrative of the Arab uprising, Arab public opinion was decisively on the side of intervention and would have held the U.S. responsible for the impending slaughter.  

That’s the good.  But there’s also a lot on the other side of the ledger.   While the engagement networks and activities described above offer some pockets of progress, overall U.S. public diplomacy in the region remains distressingly weak.  The retail-level, local engagement can only be one part of the overall strategy, and needs to be synched up with stronger macro-level engagement and communications.   I’m not sure why there has been so little progress after two years, but I see very little evidence of sustained, coherent, broad engagement with Arab publics.  The finely calibrated U.S. position on key issues such as its goals for Libya currently or its position on Mubarak’s departure a few months ago just are not being effectively communicated in a clear, consistent and credible way.  This has to get better.  

There are also obvious problems at the policy level, which are built in to the realities of America’s position in the region.  The administration’s acquiescence to the harsh Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain is understandable, given the intensity of Saudi preferences and the importance of the naval base for the Fifth Fleet, but it has crippled the administration’s efforts to paint itself as being guided by a clear set of universal principles. Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly continues to animate Arab perceptions of U.S. double-standards and hypocrisy, with few takers for the administration’s beleaguered defense that they have tried hard on those issues even if they have been frustrated.  Guantanamo remains open, despite the administration’s efforts.  

This phase –what I call the "Empire Strikes Back" period, following the "New Hope" of Cairo and Tunis — poses new challenges. The darker days of bloodshed from Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to Libya over the last month give an entirely different texture to the discourse. The initial Arab enthusiasm for Western intervention can not be sustained indefinitely, and will likely evaporate completely if there is an escalation to Western troops on the ground.  The battle in places like Egypt and Tunis has shifted to struggles over constitutional design and electoral strategy which don’t make for the kind of riveting TV which drove the protests, and the U.S. will need to work hard to keep frustrated revolutionaries engaged with the process.  The administration is going to have to figure out how to deal with Islamist groups who want to participate in democratic politics.   And the administration will constantly struggle to balance between its relationship with Arab regimes and its efforts to align itself with the empowered Arab public.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s speech last night  at the Forum represented one effort to lay out an American vision for dealing with these new regional realities.  President Obama will likely be doing more in the coming weeks and months.   Those are important beginnings, and demonstrate the extent to which the administration is actively grappling with the new realities posed by empowered publics and a rapidly changing region.  They’ve done better than many people realize.  But there’s a long way to go, and real problems at both the policy and communications levels to address in the coming days.