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All Thumbs or al-Qaeda’s Public Diplomacy?

Nov 28, 2007


For all the seething scorn and vitriol Americans have hurled toward Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in recent years one would never suspect a kindly word of either uttered privately, let alone publicly. But when it comes to public diplomacy such inhibitions seem to disappear even amongst the highest ranking political leadership and in the most public fashion. In a speech on November 26 before an audience at Kansas State University, it was Defense Secretary Robert Gates' turn to wax profoundly on the subject. (Washington Post, 10/27/07) Gates declared al-Qaeda to be “better at communicating its message on the Internet than America”, a backhanded compliment to be sure considering the fact that the statement begins “It's just plain embarrassing that al-Qaeda is...” But a compliment to al-Qaeda it remains, and this just the latest in a series of bizarre commendations spotted in the public discourse.

Initially, the rush to congratulate al-Qaeda on a job well done came shrouded in bewilderment. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke was first to wonder how a “man in a cave” could outflank the communications superiority of the United States. In September 2003 the U.S. General Accounting Office (now the Government Accountability Office) issued its first grim appraisal of U.S. public diplomacy since the 9/11 attacks, confirming what the Pew Global Attitudes Project had already determined months earlier. The United States was not merely losing the global public trust, but some parts of the world were seen to trust even Osama bin Laden more, which caused Richard Lugar to wonder why America was “all thumbs” at communicating compared to its apparently more trustworthy nemesis.

Soon, however, a tone of acceptance took hold. George W. Bush readily conceded the new conventional wisdom to Barbara Walters on national television when he said, “Our public diplomacy efforts aren't . . . aren't very robust, and aren't very good” stacked against the al-Qaedas of the world. Donald Rumsfeld, stood before the American foreign policy intelligentsia at the Council on Foreign Relations and credited al-Qaeda with being more adaptable, organized and effective at manipulating public opinion, adding a note on their “modest resources” for good measure.

Gates, for his part, is thinking less like his predecessor and more like Colin Powell on the topic, suggesting the need for more “soft power” in ways that would vex Rumsfeld himself (as he is famous for not understanding it to begin with). The Pentagon seems to be making a genuine attempt at adopting public diplomacy apart from the information operations of which it is more renowned. An example of this is the establishment, just prior to Gates' arrival, of the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Support to Public Diplomacy (DSPD). There is growing evidence in some quarters of the military to suggest a rising preference for establishing credibility within a potentially friendly population – labeled with the unwieldy term “strategic communications” -- over the psychological operations of dismantling or discrediting an adversary's communications capabilities.

There is little doubt that credibility lies at the heart of ongoing public diplomacy woes for the United States, which is why the new mentality at the Pentagon is a good thing. However, the tendency to view such woes as a consequence of al-Qaeda's slicker schemes overshadows the credibility problem and perhaps overstates the organization's true communicating prowess. Content matters. Often an American debacle has indirectly caused a public diplomacy coup for al-Qaeda. Had Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and Blackwater not made such sensational copy, then maybe the propaganda arms of al-Qaeda and others would have less to feast on.


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What a well-written,

What a well-written, insightful description of this administration's every effort!

The government isn't the

The government isn't the appropriate institution to engage in public diplomacy. It was Hollywood and the nations journalists, not the State or War Deptartments, that won the 'information war' in WW II for example.

As far as I can tell, Hollywood has pretty much decided to sit this one out. Which may not be all bad; I would stop short of saying Hollywood wants the Islamists to win, but they won't seem to particularly want the West to win, either. I am generalizing; there are of course exceptions.

Today's journalists are participating, but they are too often fooled into uncritically repeating Islamist propeganda (e.g. Pallywood).

How unfortunate that the

How unfortunate that the world's greatest power and role-model, America, is loosing its 'people's connection' or public diplomacy campaigne, if not worldwide, at least in regions where it is heavily engaged since the 9/11. This is so not because the method adopted in its quest for effective public diplomacy is flawed; it is so because there is an inherent contradiction in the foreign policy goals and America's nervousness to improve its image through 'soft power' structure. Public diplomacy campaignes should be subservient to a mature, long-term, reality-based foreign policy, and not the other way round to win the hearts and minds of people.
Another missing link which constantly runs through the entire fabric of the American public diplomacy campaignes is the absence of what I sometime call the
"glocal intelligence"(understanding and harnessing what is the best of america with what is the best of indigenous target communities.
The articles are insightful but, in my opinion, suggest the half-wisdom to tackle the problem.


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