Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Beacon No. 9: Problems with Both Talk and Walk


U.S. Fails to Explain Policies to Muslim World, Panel Says

The New York Times today reports on a Defense Science Board report that signals debates in the Defense Department about two facets of U.S. public diplomacy. The first centers on how a story is told:

The debate centers on how far the United States can and should go in managing, even manipulating, information to deter enemies and persuade allies or neutral nations.

... There is great concern among public affairs officials in the military at proposals for regional or even global information operations, especially if those efforts include falsehoods.

The rub is that in an environment of 24-hour news and the Internet, overseas information operations easily become known to the American people, and any specific government-sponsored information campaign not based on fact risks damaging the nation's overall credibility.

To no one's surprise, lies blow back much more quickly and severely now than ever before.

The second problem centers on what is being told. The DSB paper reportedly warns that an oversimplified, Cold War-style message of democratic liberation to Muslim populations clashes with U.S. support for undemocratic or simply irreligious Middle Eastern regimes:

"Today we reflexively compare Muslim 'masses' to those oppressed under Soviet rule," the report adds. "This is a strategic mistake. There is no yearning-to-be-liberated-by-the-U.S. groundswell among Muslim societies - except to be liberated perhaps from what they see as apostate tyrannies that the U.S. so determinedly promotes and defends."

The report says that "Muslims do not 'hate our freedom,' but rather they hate our policies," adding that "when American public diplomacy talks about bringing democracy to Islamic societies, this is seen as no more than self-serving hypocrisy."

True, the Arab world's press has not exactly trumpeted the relatively successful, remarkably peaceful elections that recently took place in Afghanistan. But there is a Cold War parallel here. The U.S. preached democratic liberation to the citizens of Soviet satellite nations for decades. It did so while opposing the Soviet Union in nearly every other arena, leading to long-term soft power for the U.S. among those satellites' peoples when they became independent nations.

The U.S. could follow this example of consistency to its eventual profit, even if the short-term costs of alienating some undemocratic regimes are high. What non-military measures can the U.S. take to promote democracy in undemocratic Middle Eastern countries?

Although this is traditionally State Department turf, perhaps the DoD can devise ways to improve U.S. friendships with the ruled instead of the rulers. Befriending states may be easier and quicker, but befriending populations may pay off more in the long run, particularly when hostile non-state actors are a major defense concern.

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