Being Invisible 2.0
In a major speech at the beginning of December outlining his vision for "Public Diplomacy 2.0", Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman argued that "in the war of ideas, our core task… is to create an environment hostile to violent extremism." Israel’s war on Gaza has done quite the opposite. It has unleashed ...
In a major speech at the beginning of December outlining his vision for "Public Diplomacy 2.0", Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman argued that "in the war of ideas, our core task... is to create an environment hostile to violent extremism."
In a major speech at the beginning of December outlining his vision for "Public Diplomacy 2.0", Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy James Glassman argued that "in the war of ideas, our core task… is to create an environment hostile to violent extremism."
Israel’s war on Gaza has done quite the opposite. It has unleashed a tsunami of outrage in the Arab world, with every Arab and Islamist trend jockeying for position in the rapidly reshaping landscape. Al-Jazeera has dominated the media landscape, not just over the satellite TV airwaves but across the new media spectrum. Al-Qaeda has made an aggressive bid to frame the crisis as part of the general war between the West and Islam. The Saudis, Egyptians, and other forces aligned on the anti-Hamas side of Arab politics have struggled with limited success to blame Hamas for the carnage. The center of political gravity in the region has shifted palpably away from so-called "moderates."
This is the "war of ideas" at its most intense, its most urgent, and its most visceral. So surely the United States has been fully engaged, since everyone agrees that the "war of ideas" is the "central front" in the "war on terror"?
Um, no. To my eye, at least, American public diplomacy has been virtually invisible in this crisis. I suppose that Alhurra [sic], the hugely expensive but little-watched American Arabic-language TV station, is still broadcasting (just as trees continue to fall in empty forests). "DipNote", the State Department’s blog, has barely registered: it posed an open question about how to "resume a path toward Israeli-Palestinian peace" on December 29 and on January 7 posted the text of Secretary of State Rice’s statement on a ceasefire (ditto for the Twitter feed). There’s no evidence of senior officials speaking to the Arab media (I don’t recall seeing any on al-Jazeera, and couldn’t find any transcripts on al-Arabiya, the usual preference for such appearances, though I could easily have missed something). There are no recorded statements from Glassman’s office since December 1. Perhaps there is activity in the much-hyped "Public Diplomacy 2.0" realm — Facebook pages, engagement with youth groups or whatnot (the sort of stuff Israel and supporters of the Palestinians are doing aggressively)– but if so it has singularly failed to catch my eye in my daily tracking of Arab media old and new. (UPDATE — see State Department adviser Jared Cohen’s take on the impact of online media on the debate over Gaza… and try to spot the U.S. in his account.)
This isn’t simply an indictment of public diplomacy — the problem starts at the top. For all of Barack Obama’s repeating the mantra of "one President at a time", in this crisis the U.S. seems to have no President at the worst time. The absence of public diplomacy and effective engagement in the evolving arguments in the Arab and Islamic worlds over Gaza is only a symptom of that larger problem. Policy comes first, and throughout most of the crisis the U.S. has had no evident policy to defend before Arab and Muslim publics.
But that is the problem, not an excuse. For public diplomacy ever to be effective, it needs to be integrated into the policy formation process from the outset — not tacked on at the end to sell a policy made in complete isolation from its likely reception by relevant audiences. This is one of those moments that shines a cruel light on the failure to translate into effective action the emerging consensus about the centrality of soft power, and the need to integrate communications and policy. I fear that the United States will be paying the costs of this failure for years to come, and that the legacy of this month could prove crippling to the incoming administration’s hopes to start a new relationship with the Muslim world.
For those interested in such questions, allow me to extend an invitation to a talk being given next week by Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Jim Glassman next week at George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications (on the 6th floor of the Elliott School of International Affairs, Wednesday, January 14 at 10:00). He will be laying out his vision for the future of public diplomacy, I will be moderating, and I expect a lively discussion.
Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies and of the Project on Middle East Political Science. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He is the author of The Arab Uprising (March 2012, PublicAffairs).
He publishes frequently on the politics of the Middle East, with a particular focus on the Arab media and information technology, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and Islamist movements. Twitter: @abuaardvark
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