Bridging the PD Discourse Gap: The Survey Group

Bridging the PD Discourse Gap: The Survey Group

Few dispute that America has an image problem in the Middle East.  And most agree that a revamped Public Diplomacy campaign is going to be at the heart of the Obama administration’s strategy of repairing our reputation.   MediaShack, hoping to make a contribution, will be focusing closely on this topic in the future and offering some ideas of its own. 

As part of this new focus, I recently attended a very impressive  conference  organized by Matt Armstrong of  Mountain_Runner.   The conference featured five highly informative panels and  if the phrase  ” hearing it from the horses mouth” ever applied this was one of those occasions because in attendance was a literal ‘who’s who” of the US Government’s Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communications field.  I certainly came out with a much better understanding of what this actually entails. 

Yet, at the same time,  this experience reinforced some lingering perceptions of what I consider weaknesses in the US PD approach; it seems to be dominated by  insular  assumptions about the audience we want to influence.   While listening to the panels and audience questions, for example, I did not get the impression that many of the people involved are making a strong effort to try and see things from the perspective of the other side.  Armstrong brought in about 250 people but the discussion seemed monolithic.  I saw lots of uniforms from the Pentagon but I don’t recall any foreigners or voices from outside the PD community and the impression I got was that the Pentagon  approach to PD consists of guys sitting at a cubicle in Northern Virginia trying to come up with a magic formula — much like they would if they were designing a missile–  of how to develop the means of getting the message across.   Less clear, however,  is that they are asking the question “how are we being perceived?”   After all, how the message is being delivered is irrelevant if the message itself is going in one ear and out the other on the receiving side.

Secondly, I think there is a tendency in the US media and blogosphere to exaggerate the influence that Barack Obama’s individual personality is going to have on foreign — or at least Arab — audiences.  There is no doubt that he is very likeable, “cool” and America’s first “global” President.    But an uninformed  observer of the region might get the impression from US media that improving  our  image in the Middle East, the one place where it’s really bad,  is as simple as replacing the “bad” Bush with the “good” Obama.  But in reality, its about  Policies_and_Not_Personalities.  

Essentially,  there’s a discourse gap between how the US PD community sees things and how those same things are seen by Ahmed Cafe Chair on the Arab street. For us to do better at PD we have to bridge this gap.  I was in the Middle East for most of the Presidential campaign and I saw little evidence to suggest that the “street” was leaning towards a particular candidate.  Or put it this way — that the victory of a specific candidate in itself was going to have a big difference on perceptions of the US in the Middle East.   Moreover, last fall I interviewed many of the top Egyptian intellectuals and their perceptions, discourse,  and expectations of the new US foreign policy dramatically differ from what I read in the blogosphere and heard at Armstrong’s conference.  Therefore, if  our Public Diplomacy is to be more effective, we have to do a better job of bridging this gap.   And its on us, as the initiators of the campaign, to do the bridging, not the other side. 

This is why I am creating the Public Diplomacy Survey Group.   People at the Pentagon and State have to know exactly how their message is being perceived at the “street level.”   The best way to do this is by looking at what the top Arab intelectuals are saying so I have chosen five extremely influential Arab intelectuals whose views should be followed by PD-makers.

Thanks to the many reader suggestions (and also Marc Lynch here)  about who to include.  Here’s why I chose who I did:  First, all have region-wide followings, meaning from Morocco to Iraq, people are likely to base their own opinions about the US on what they hear or read from these guys.   Secondly, they represent the different intellectual and ideological trends in the Arab world.  Sure, there are others who could have been included but I think this group gives us an adequate PD snapshot.  In the future, whenever there is a need to get a reading on how certain US foreign policy events ( something like Obama’s Al-Arabiya interview) are being perceived by the target audience, I will be blogging about their reactions.   

1) Mohamed Hussaneyn Heikal.     Egyptian.    See his bio  here.   Heikal might be described as the Arab world’s foreign policy “guru.”   How else to describe someone who has their own  show on Al-Jazeera called “With Heikal” which consists of nothing but him talking for 45 minutes about Egyptian and Arab foreign policy?   Its true, as one reader commented, that he isn’t as influential as he used to be (after all he is in his mid-80s and has been influential for 40 years), but people from across the region still turn to him for his views on foreign policy.   For example, immediately after Obama won the elections, Al-Jazeera did a two part interview with Heikal on his expectations of the new administration.   Heikal believes that US interests are and has already expressed skepticism about Obama. 

2) Fahmy Howedi. Egyptian Islamist-leaning intellectual.  Read an excellent English-language profile here.   Howedi is probably the most influential Egyptian intellectual which alone qualifies one to be on a list of the top 5 people US PD campaigns should take note of.  Currently, he writes six op-eds per week for Cairo’s Al-Dostor newspaper which can be found  here.    Howedi, like Heikal, believes US interests are fixed and can’t be changed by any individual US President, so he’s very skeptical about Obama but convince him otherwise and PD would be making progress…..

3) Abdel Bari Atwan.  Palestinian.    See  biography here.  Editor , Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper.  Al-Quds is a London based pan-regional newspaper which is very anti-US foreign policy.  Bari is widely cited and influential so his views on the new USFP will have weight.  He has shown some cautious optimisim about the new approach so PD should be watching his views. 

4)  Faysal Al-Kasim.   Syrian.   Read biography here.    Faysal is the host of what is probably the Arab world’s most watched political talk show, Al-Jazeera’s  Al-Itijah Al-Muakis (The Opposite Direction).  Faysal is objective and always open to seeing all sides of the story as he demonstrates on his show.  Although he doesn’t give his own views on the show, he writes columns for Gulf newspapers, which can be found on his website.  Dr.  Faysal is definitely someone PD campaigns need to listen to and I include him as a represenative of the Al-Jazeera/ Al-Hayat  populist trend in Arabic media. 

5) Tariq Al-Homayed.  Editor.  Asharq Al-Awsat.  Read bio here.   Al-Homayed makes the list as a representative of the conservative pro-Saudi media (Asharq Al-Awsat/ Al-Arabiya)  counterweight to Al-Jazeera.  Someone commented that his views are predictable and they may be but we have to take into account the pro-Saudi media. 

So that’s the survey group.   Convince them and we ”win over” the Arab street.  Its as simple as that.