In the aftermath of September 11, the United States government, the media, and the American public were taken aback by Muslim and Arab expressions of support for Usama bin Ladin and by the intensity of anti-American incitement in the Middle East and South Asia. "Why do they hate us?" many asked. Perhaps the United States had failed to put its message persuasively before the Muslim world.
In U.S. government parlance, the information effort to explain America's case is called "public diplomacy." After September 11, many voices called for a massive augmentation of American "public diplomacy," which critics argued had been neglected and under-funded. The State Department sought to demonstrate the importance of the issue when it named Charlotte Beers, a renowned advertising executive, as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.She was sworn in on October 2.
Enter the Council on Foreign Relations, the New York-based clearinghouse for international affairs and U.S. foreign policy and publisher of Foreign Affairs. The council moved immediately after 9/11 to establish an "Independent Task Force on America's Response to Terrorism," which began deliberations on American "public diplomacy." The task force included what the council described as "a bipartisan group of individuals with experience at the highest levels of national security policy." On November 6, 2001, the task force issued a report entitled "Improving the U.S. Public Diplomacy Campaign in the War against Terrorism."
The document is an important statement of conventional thinking in the American policy elite at a moment of crisis. Its recommendations were based on what the report described as a "strong and meaningful consensus" of task force members. Yet despite its august auspices, it is a profoundly controversial statement. Most notably, the recommendations argue for partial privatization of the "public diplomacy" campaign in the hands of highly interested domestic constituencies and urge entrusting the implementation of U.S. efforts to foreign "proxies"—including America's critics.
The debate over the direction of "public diplomacy" is not an academic one. In mid-March, House International Affairs Committee chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) and committee member Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) introduced the "Freedom Promotion Act 2002" (H.R. 3969), which would build a budgetary firewall around the State Department's "public diplomacy" activities and fund them at a level of $497 million. The Bush administration has already expressed serious reservations about aspects of the bill.The content and control of "public diplomacy" is becoming a matter of widening debate.
Below are excerpts from the task force's report, followed by comments by several of the Middle East Quarterly's editors and editorial board members (in italics). As the comments suggest, the issues surrounding "public diplomacy" remain contentious. The "consensus" of the task force represents only one point on the spectrum of informed ideas about how the United States should explain itself and its actions to the world.
Task Force: Our ongoing struggle against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks has many critical elements. The military campaign in Afghanistan is one; however, another campaign of potentially decisive significance is winning the battle for public support among Muslims around the world. Indeed, if we are unable to win the battle for hearts and minds, it may prove impossible to carry our military operations through to completion.
MEQ: In fact, the best way to win the battle for hearts and minds is to carry our military operations through to completion. When the people of Afghanistan welcomed their liberators, it became hard to maintain the image of the Taliban as valiant warriors against American oppression. Winning hearts and minds is a long-term struggle that cannot end decisively. In contrast, military engagements can be short and decisive. Winning them will have more effect on hearts and minds, than vice versa.
Task Force: Our goal in the public diplomacy campaign must be to demonstrate that the United States has a just cause for our actions. We are taking action against those who murdered our people and as well as to prevent them from threatening us again.
MEQ: The message has to go far beyond our determination to avenge and deter murderers. To prevent more terrorist attacks, we seek to dismantle entire terrorist networks and take on the governments and charities that have sheltered and financed them. This is the part the Muslim world has trouble understanding. It is the essence of the war on terrorism. And it needs to be explained.
Task Force: Launch a comprehensive effort to ascertain how best to wage a public diplomacy campaign in the Middle East and South Asia employing modern public relations research and polling techniques. The U.S. government needs to develop a better grasp of our target audiences, what they respond to, and how best to reach them. We should employ the most sophisticated tools that modern marketing (and political campaigns) have developed in pursuit of this crucial objective.
MEQ: Beware of pollsters bearing gifts from the Middle East. This is a place where the "most sophisticated tools" cannot be applied, because no questions can be asked of public opinion without government approval. Surveys can elicit information useful for marketing soda or movies. But these countries lack experience with free and open elections, or even free and open media. Poll results can be misleading even in open societies; know that in the information war, you will be fighting in the dark.
Task Force: Provide adequate resources to allow for a massive augmentation of public diplomacy assets. The need to be opportunistic and responsive, and the demands of polling and research, will especially require large numbers of people and funds. Also, agencies need to start staffing the public diplomacy effort with top-caliber personnel.
MEQ: All well and good, but these very same resources may be needed first and foremost to beef up American intelligence capabilities in waging the war on terrorism. This is particularly true of "top-caliber personnel," whose linguistic and analytical abilities are needed in the intelligence war. These needs should still receive top priority.
Task Force: To a certain extent, in this case, the messenger may be more important than the message. The wrong messenger will kill the message, no matter how good it may be. The regional populace is far more likely to find Muslim and Arab interlocutors credible on these issues. The most important tactic we can take is to find credible proxies who can speak on our behalf rather than shouldering the entire public diplomacy burden ourselves.
MEQ: In fact, the regional populace is often skeptical of the motives of Muslim and Arab interlocutors. People are very keen to hear the American case made by Americans. The United States government certainly should not be shy about encouraging Americans to defend U.S. policies. By all means, work with allies in the information war. But such an important component of the war on terrorism should not be delegated to "proxies."
Task Force: The Administration must be willing to work with independent interlocutors. It is precisely this willingness to disagree at times with the USG [United States Government] that makes such people important interlocutors. Our very willingness to engage our critics demonstrates our willingness to take their grievances seriously.
MEQ: Why focus on working with those who disagree with us, many of whom are ideologues with no respect for the facts? The USGshould engage serious professional journalists and scholars, who seek the facts and don't simply twist them to fit their political prejudices.
Task Force: Create a Public Diplomacy Advisory Board, including, among others, prominent Arab- and Muslim-Americans, university professors who work on the Muslim world, well-known business people who do business in the region, and advertising and marketing executives with experience in the region. This group should advise the USG on its public diplomacy campaign and act as a resource and a sounding board. Its members should also serve as goodwill ambassadors in the region. Of greatest importance, the administration's effort should be bipartisan and should include people who do not necessarily agree with all their policies. Moreover, members of this board should be encouraged to continue to speak their minds freely. (This is not to argue that we should seek out those who radically oppose the administration's policy or who promote hatred, but that the USG should be looking to engage those who can genuinely be considered independent because they are known to have differing views.)
MEQ: It is a mistake to promote a diversity of views in a campaign to promote a message. The emphasis should be on a board that broadly supports the goals of U.S. policy in the region. Membership on the board should be roughly in line with the policy debates inside the United States, rather than being weighted towards critics of U.S. policy. In particular, it would be a serious mistake to rely on leaders of advocacy groups, the traditional "blame America first" circles in academe, and those who put business interests first and foremost. And it would be inappropriate to include those who consistently oppose U.S. policy, even if not "radically." Membership on a Public Diplomacy Advisory Board will be a powerful legitimizing force. The views it legitimizes should be within the parameters of mainstream U.S. debate, untainted by obvious conflicts of interest.
Task Force: Inaugurate one or more "listening tours" whereby U.S. officials would travel to the region to meet with government officials, elites, and average people alike. The people of the region need to see that we are interested in their concerns. Ideally, the members of the Public Diplomacy Advisory Board (proposed above) could be part of such an effort.
MEQ: It is naive to think that a "listening tour" will demonstrate U.S. interest in the region's concerns. The United States needs to send to the region those who articulate U.S. policy concerns and U.S. interests, and it should encourage those people to engage fully with their counterparts. This kind of exchange of views will show that the United States takes the region seriously.
Task Force: Launch an aggressive recruiting campaign to bring Arab-Americans, Afghan-Americans, and other Muslim-Americans—as well as Arabic speakers, Pashto speakers, Dari speakers, Farsi speakers, etc.—into the U.S. government. Encourage USG officials at all levels to learn these regional languages. In the past, one problem in such efforts has been misplaced security concerns, such as preventing Americans of Middle Eastern origin from obtaining security clearances because they traveled frequently to the Middle East. Such Catch-22s need to be scrutinized to determine effective compromises.
MEQ: The ability of Americans to make speeches and write articles in the local languages will do much more to get out the USG's viewpoints than any of the recommendations made in this report. The United States must train a broad array of Americans in the languages needed to put forward the U.S. message. Congress should require by law that a significant number of U.S. diplomats be trained in the relevant languages to a level at which they can write op-eds, deliver speeches, and answer questions at press conferences.
Task Force: Insist that U.S. officials regularly and frequently engage regional media and public groups. It should be routine for regional media to have U.S. officials available to talk on the record whenever news concerning the United States comes up. In particular, we need to make the large number of journalists from Middle Eastern and South Asian states in both Washington and New York a focus of our attention. They should be briefed regularly and their requests given the same level of priority as The New York Times and other key domestic media outlets.
MEQ: Good idea as a start, but a more discriminating strategy is needed. There is no point in concentrating on the hostile regional media and public groups, such as Al-Jazira television. Instead, the focus should be on the respected, sober voices—the most professional newspapers, the most serious television shows, and the most prestigious public groups. Access to high U.S. government officials should be offered first and foremost to those media and groups which are open to U.S. ideas, not to those whose opinion columns are full of hate for America and its values.
Task Force: Begin a "Radio Free Afghanistan" as soon as possible.
MEQ: Too late. It was a better idea just to win in Afghanistan as soon as possible. Arabs and Muslims have every cause to regard such stations as substitutes for real commitment. For example, there is a "Radio Free Iraq"—and Iraq isn't free, yet.
Task Force: Bulk up Voice of America's broadcasting capabilities throughout the region.
MEQ: This recommendation skirts two main problems. First, VoA insists on giving as much airtime to America's enemies as its friends. VoA should be mandated to replicate the spectrum and relative weight of views in the American public debate. Second, VoA does not cover local politics in the countries to which it is broadcasting, for obscure reasons related to its origins and mandate. To gain credibility and listeners, the VoA should present full coverage of local developments in the countries to which it broadcasts.
Task Force: Consider establishing a high-quality Arabic-language satellite TV network that would function like the BBC as an authoritative source of news in the region.
MEQ: This would be expensive and difficult. Even the BBC could not put together such a service when it tried some years back. Before leaping into such a venture, the United States should improve radio service, as it began to do in March, with a network of FM radio stations aimed at youth. It should also produce television shows for broadcast on existing outlets, including satellite TV.
Task Force: Establish a U.S.-Muslim Policy Engagement Commission that would bring together public and private sector experts on Islam and the Middle East, coordinate outreach programs, and possibly also fund various intercultural activities. The members of the group could help speak to constituencies in the region and also help advise the U.S. government on public diplomacy efforts.
MEQ: Why not Christian and Jewish panels as well? Even the title contradicts a basic norm of U.S. policy: not to approach any person or any issue on the basis of creed.
Task Force: Seek means to increase economic growth and political openness in the Muslim states. The people of the region need to see that the U.S. cares about their plight and is taking concrete steps to improve it. At a cruder level, they need to see that there are tangible benefits to siding with the U.S.
MEQ: The absence of economic growth and political openness has its origins within these societies, and the United States can do little more than provide a model. What the people of the region need to see, on an even cruder level, is that there are tangible penalties for opposing the United States.
Task Force: Disseminate stories of particular victims to convey the range of people killed in the 9/11 attacks—stress range of religions, races, income levels, etc. (Stress that bin Ladin has killed co-religionists by showing Muslims killed, counteract myth that Mossad was behind the attacks by showing Jews killed, etc.)
MEQ: Careful: if you emphasize that Jews were killed, you may wind up creating even more sympathy for the acts. And they might still believe the Mossad did it. This line of argument is problem-ridden and should be avoided.
Task Force: Underline that Islam does not condone the killing of innocents. (This message in particular must come from Islamic scholars and clerics. In fact, it is generally counterproductive coming from Western Christians and Jews.)
MEQ: The emphasis should be on Muslim scholars and clerics prepared to actually condemn the killing of innocents and specific groups and persons responsible for it. That said, the recommendation to leave it to Muslims to speak about what Islam teaches is entirely appropriate. It is condescending for Christians and Jews to lecture Muslims on what their religion teaches. Too many American "experts" and officials have done just that since 9/11.
Task Force: Stress that the U.S. is not waging a war on Muslims generally; it is waging war on those who attacked the United States and indiscriminately killed Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
MEQ: Stress that the U.S. is not waging a war on Muslims generally; it is waging war on those who attacked the United States and indiscriminately killed Americans. Stress that the United States will defend against and avenge all attacks on its citizens, regardless of their creed.
Task Force: Co-Chairs: Carla A. Hills, Richard C. Holbrooke. Project Director: Charles C. Boyd. Signatory Task Force Members: Stanley S. Arkin, Reginald Bartholomew, C. Fred Bergsten, Harold Brown, Edward P. Djerejian, Thomas E. Donilon, Kenneth M. Duberstein, Stuart E. Eizenstat, Martin S. Feldstein, Richard N. Foster, Orit B. Gadiesh, Newton L. Gingrich, Jamie S. Gorelick, Morton H. Halperin, Jerome Hauer, James A. Johnson, Elaine C. Kamarck, Andrew Kohut, Marie-Josée Kravis, Jessica T. Mathews, M. Ishaq Nadiri, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Philip A. Odeen, Peter G. Peterson, Arthur Ross, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Brent Scowcroft, John M. Shalikashvili, George Soros, Jessica E. Stern, Dick Thornburgh, Laura D'Andrea Tyson, Harold E. Varmus, William H. Webster, William F. Wechsler, Frank G. Wisner II, R. James Woolsey, Mona Yacoubian, James J. Zogby.For the full text of the Task Force's report, see http://www.cfr.org/public/PubDiplom_TF.html.