The conversation

The conversation

On January 27, Barack Obama chose the Saudi-backed Arabic television station Al Arabiya for his first official interview as president. Emphasising themes of mutual respect and the value of dialogue, Obama assured Arab viewers that “what you’ll see is someone who’s listening”. This early outreach – and emphasis on listening – suggested a dramatic departure from George W Bush. But despite Obama’s personal breakthrough, there are mounting challenges to improving American relations with the Arab world, and no clear solutions. When Obama’s personal magic fades, how will the new administration’s engagement with Arab and Muslim publics differ from the overwhelming failures of the Bush administration?
The question has never been more urgent. The Bush administration has left behind an American image in tatters. Public opinion surveys show catastrophic levels of hostility towards American foreign policy – and that anger may be spilling over into deeper negative judgements about America itself. American support for the Israeli attack on Gaza during the presidential transition poisoned the honeymoon for the new president, with many Arabs and Muslims who had been excited about Obama expressing outrage over his silence as the fighting raged. A recent poll, unsurprisingly, found that only 2.8 per cent of Palestinians – essentially zero, given the margin of error – approved of American policy during the recent war in Gaza.
Obama is exceptionally well-placed to change the terrain, because of his unique background as well as his orientation toward a foreign policy that engages adversaries and bridges divisions. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has spoken in favour of “smart power”, which relies heavily on global engagement and public diplomacy. And Obama has signalled his seriousness by appointing one of his most trusted foreign-policy advisers, Denis McDonough, as director of strategic communications at the National Security Council, where he is expected to play a new and major role in directing US outreach to the world. But there are no guarantees.
Many Arabs and Muslims yearn for a fresh start after the Bush years. But very few agree with the dominant conceit in Washington: that the problem is a failure to properly “sell” American policies. The problem, they feel, is the policies themselves. Arabs are certainly watching keenly for signs of serious changes in US policy. But the dichotomy between words and deeds is a false one: if the US hopes to change its relations with the world, it must build an ongoing dialogue that takes seriously the concerns and interests of both Americans and foreign audiences. The move to close Guantanamo was a good start – and a response to widespread global concerns – but it will only have its full effects if it becomes the beginning of a sustained, ongoing campaign to demonstrate, in both words and deeds, America’s renewed commitment to international law and norms.
Words do matter. The wrong ones (such as Bush’s ill-considered reference to a “crusade” after September 11) can do permanent damage. Tone-deaf rhetoric aimed more at Americans than at the Arab arena can infuriate and alienate even potentially sympathetic audiences. Condescension and crude manipulation – too often the hallmark of the Bush administration’s communications in the region – are virtually guaranteed to trigger intensely negative reactions. By the end of the Bush administration, virtually anything the United States did was – rightly or wrongly – understood in the worst possible light.
The Obama administration now has the opportunity and the ambition to dramatically transform America’s dialogue with the world. But doing so will require a new approach to engaging with the Arab and Muslim world that moves beyond the “war on terror”. American strategy must also transcend the rift that divides present outreach efforts between “strategic communications” and “public diplomacy”.

“Strategic communications” is the operational face of the military’s massive move into the so-called “war of ideas”. Since 2001 the Pentagon has devoted billions of dollars to combating al Qa’eda’s ideas and trying to generate support for America’s wars. The US has spent half a billion dollars on Arabic-language broadcasting, including the launch of Radio Sawa and the television station Alhurra, overshadowing traditional public diplomacy work, like exchange and cultural programmes.
But this is not just a battle over resources between the State Department and the Pentagon (though it is also that). It is a battle over concepts. Strategic communications is about control: dominating the information battlefield, shaping the message, defeating the enemy. Traditional public diplomacy is about relationships: building trust, creating networks, establishing credibility. This requires a longer-term outlook, where nurturing a free and independent media in which a variety of voices, friendly and hostile, can compete on an even playing field is more important than momentary tactical information dominance. If American public diplomacy wears combat boots, what does thatsay about America’s relationship with the world?
As Obama attempts to repair some of the damage wrought in the last eight years, neither strategic communications nor traditional public diplomacy will suffice. A new model for public diplomacy is required, and it should be based not on spinning or marketing bad policies to hostile audiences, but on helping to shape policies that genuinely take into account common ideas and interests.

Effective American engagement with the world needs new conceptual foundations. This new approach must include dialogue that extends beyond like-minded audiences and grapples with the convictions and interests of foreign publics on their own terms. The goal is not to “win” – it is to engage, and by so doing to create new kinds of relationships.
How can this be done? Earlier this month, I took part in an exceptional cross-government meeting on “Reinventing Public Diplomacy” organised by Doug Wilson of the Howard Gilman Foundation. Among the diverse group there was an immediate consensus on the need to unify the concepts of strategic communications and long-term trust and relationship building, rather than regarding them as being at cross-purposes.

But we need to rethink the foundations of public diplomacy for the new century, just as the American military was forced to rethink its approach in the face of the debacle in Iraq – a process that produced a much-heralded new counterinsurgency field manual for American troops. What would a new field manual for public diplomacy look like?

A first step should be to look to the past. The glory years of public diplomacy came during the Cold War. In those days, the great journalist Edward R Murrow led American foreign broadcasting efforts, the best American jazz musicians toured the world, the Fulbright programme brought tens of thousands of foreign students to America and sent an equal number of young Americans abroad. Alumni of the Voice of America radio station, which broadcast objective and reliable journalism, rather than propaganda, around the world, still speak proudly of their appeals to Eastern European dissidents who huddled around their radios to get real news about their own countries.

The American government waged a full-spectrum campaign to promote American values, attracting the best and brightest communications, policy, linguistic and foreign cultural experts to meaningful and productive public diplomacy careers. This was never as pure as it may now appear in hindsight, of course – the “cultural Cold War” used covert as well as open means in an intense war of ideas against Communism, which created its own share of controversy – and an outpouring of anger after revelations of hidden CIA funding for artists and literary journals. But the many flaws of that era should not obscure the history of serious, ongoing engagement with foreign publics, aimed at building common cause rather than merely exerting influence.
With the waning of the Cold War, the urgency of public diplomacy faded. The Clinton administration, under intense pressure from the conservative Republican senator Jesse Helms, eliminated the United States Information Agency, which oversaw these outreach efforts. Public diplomacy became an obscure, undesirable State Department posting.

The United States was quick to rediscover public diplomacy in the shadow of September 11, when al Qa’eda attacked America and global public opinion surveys revealed a massive spike in anti-American sentiment around the world. Suddenly American officials keenly felt the absence of tools for international engagement. An influential 2003 Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy chaired by former ambassador Edward Djerejian concluded that the United States had effectively conceded the war of ideas. The 9/11 Commission Report, issued in 2004, described a generational war of ideas with radical Islamism that demanded renewed engagement by the US. And dozens of subsequent reports and papers urged radical changes in public diplomacy – but all of them had little effect.
Some wounds were self-inflicted. No public diplomacy could have persuaded Arabs of the virtues of the Bush administration’s blank cheque to Ariel Sharon during the reoccupation of the West Bank in 2002, or of the need to invade Iraq in 2003. But the refusal of the United States to even attempt a serious explanation of its policies struck many Arabs and Muslims as a sign of contempt. The Bush administration’s de facto boycott of Al Jazeera – in protest over its coverage of Afghanistan and Iraq – removed American voices from the most influential platform for Arab public debate for several crucial years. American rhetoric about a “war on terror” was widely perceived in the Muslim world as a simply a “war on Islam”, which fed al Qa’eda’s clash-of-civilisations rhetoric. Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and Gaza became the symbols of America’s indifference to both Muslim lives and opinions. Meanwhile, tightened US border security and visa restrictions made it increasingly difficult for Muslims to visit or study in the United States.
Rather than deal with Arab and Muslim objections to these substantive policy issues, the Bush administration initially chose to define the problem as the result of purely irrational “anti-Americanism”. If Arab and Muslim hostility to America was about “hatred of who we are” rather than “what we do” – as influential conservatives argued – then there was consequently no need to listen to their opinions or arguments. Small wonder that Arabs and Muslims felt disrespected by the Bush administration and, worse, insulted by its faltering efforts at public diplomacy.
The Bush administration’s decision to define America’s problem with Arab and Muslim publics in cultural terms, as an “image problem” rather than as a “policy problem”, largely determined the fate of its early efforts at public diplomacy. Advertising guru Charlotte Beers was appointed to the position of Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and sought to tackle America’s “image problem” approach with the techniques of American advertising. Her “Shared Values” campaign, presenting happy American Muslims and promoting American tolerance, failed badly – not because of its execution, but because it began from these fundamentally misguided assumptions. Beers resigned after a year and a half.
Karen Hughes, a Bush confidante appointed to the position in 2005, began her tenure with a disastrous listening tour of the Middle East, but she succeeded in understanding that policy rather than culture lay at the heart of the problem. She improved American outreach to the Arab satellite TV media, establishing regional media engagement hubs and encouraging Arabic-speaking American public diplomats such as Alberto Fernandez to appear on Al Jazeera and other Arabic television stations. This had a very real, if marginal, effect on Arab political discourse, even if many came to see it too as a failure because it did not “move the needle” on global opinion polls.
The Bush administration’s last under-secretary, James Glassman, became an enthusiastic advocate of interactive, internet-based engagement, which he dubbed “Public Diplomacy 2.0”. He preached the gospel of new media, taking his public diplomacy efforts to Second Life, Twitter and Facebook. But Glassman’s real legacy is his adoption of the Pentagon’s national security focus – shifting the job toward “strategic communications”.
Following the lead of the military, Glassman defined his aim as “creating a hostile environment for violent extremism” rather than improving America’s image abroad. The goal was to damage the al Qa’eda “brand”, not to build up the American one. Glassman emerged as arguably the most effective of the Bush public diplomacy czars by narrowly defining his mission – and capitulating to the Pentagon’s conception of the problem.

Meanwhile, Radio Sawa and Alhurra were seen, in contradictory terms, as the inheritors of the Voice of America’s mission of independent journalism but also forceful champions for American policies in the Arab world. This identity crisis has never fully been resolved. Whether due to poor production values, management problems or a crowded television market, Alhurra has largely failed in its mission. Washington debates competing reports of its slim market share, but the broader truth is that Alhurra has had little discernible impact on Arab political discourse. When Barack Obama sought to reach Arab audiences, he – like Bush officials before him – wisely turned to Al Arabiya.
While conventional public diplomacy struggled to deal with these new challenges, the Pentagon embraced the “war of ideas” with a convert’s zeal. Ayman al Zawahiri’s remark that “half the battle takes place in the media” became a rallying cry for the Pentagon. Driven by urgent challenges in Iraq and the “global war on terror”, the American military devoted ever greater attention to strategic communications – incorporating public affairs and psychological and information operations. As Donald Rumsfeld mapped out a strategy for information dominance, spending and resources for countering al Qa’eda’s propaganda shot through the roof. By 2008, according to the Associated Press, the number of people working on public affairs for the Pentagon was almost as large as the entire State Department.
These strategic communications sought to play offence rather than defence. Rather than build favourable views of the United States, the new approach sought primarily to discredit al Qa’eda and to create a climate “hostile to violent extremism”. This was to be done through indirect as well as direct means, by empowering “credible third party messengers” to challenge al Qa’eda’s ideology. This might work, for instance, by facilitating the spread of Muslim outrage at al Qa’eda attacks that primarily killed Muslim innocents (such as the Amman hotel bombing in November 2005) or by helping to spread word about criticism of al Qa’eda by “recanting” jihadists.
Iraq also continually recast the military’s understanding of strategic communications. The US blamed the Arab media for many of its problems with the insurgency, and took great pains to attempt to shape a friendly media environment. In the early days, this manifested itself as hostility towards Al Jazeera and heavy-handed attempts at “fact-checking”. But American efforts at information dominance clashed with the more significant political goal of creating independent, credible and free Iraqi media outlets. The trade-off between short-term tactical achievements and wider strategic objectives became increasingly clear, as the newly forceful approach tended to undermine American credibility with Iraqis and other Arabs.
This strategy quickly veered in even more manipulative directions with the use of contractors – like the Lincoln Group – who were hired to shape public opinion in Iraq to make it more favourable to the United States. The Lincoln Group paid Iraqi newspapers and journalists to run pro-US articles, some of them written by American military “information operations” specialists and covertly placed in the media. But this programme backfired – when it was exposed, the effect was to discredit virtually everyone who had said positive things about the United States, whether or not they were actually on the American payroll.
As recently as last November, the Pentagon floated a contract which, according to the Washington Post, would “pay private US contractors in Iraq up to $300 million over the next three years to produce news stories, entertainment programs and public service advertisements for the Iraqi media in an effort to ‘engage and inspire’ the local population to support US objectives and the Iraqi government”. Many in the strategic communications camp had argued for building up the legitimacy of “third party messengers” as critics of Islamic extremism – but what could be more devastating to such third parties than the disclosure of American financial backing?
Recognition of these failings in Iraq opened the door to at least a partial rethinking of strategic communications. The new counterinsurgency doctrine applied in Iraq took the embrace of information operations to new levels, incorporating strategic communications ever more tightly into the core of military doctrine and practice. Indeed, a series of Pentagon publications described “the media as the battlefield”. Direct contact and dialogue with adversaries was a core part of General David Petraeus’s celebrated new Counter-Insurgency field manual. Over the course of 2007 and 2008, US forces in Iraq began to embrace the value of respectful dialogue across a broad swathe of Iraqi society – building relationships of trust that turned over time into information and co-operation against al Qa’eda in Iraq. Such engagements, along with a healthy amount of American cash and supportive Arab media outlets, many of them Saudi-owned, helped cement the Sunni turn against al Qa’eda.

This is the troubled history that the Obama administration has inherited. Even Secretary of Defense Robert Gates now recognises the dangers of an over-militarised foreign policy. But the problem will not be solved simply by throwing more money at the State Department. Neither the Pentagon’s strategic communications nor traditional public diplomacy is adequate to the task facing Obama. Nor will changing foreign policy alone be enough, since almost anything the US does today will be met with suspicion. Improving America’s relations with the Muslim world will require a dramatically new approach to engagement – but it is fortunately one that fits well with Obama’s own foreign policy vision.
This means asking some basic questions. Is the US primarily engaged in a “war of ideas” in which the primary mission is defeating the adversary? Or is it engaged in building long-term relationships of trust and support for broadly defined American foreign policy objectives? Are Arab and Muslim audiences objects to be manipulated or partners to be engaged respectfully? And will America’s engagement with the world be defined and managed by a security-orientated “strategic communications” doctrine directed by the Pentagon?
The most important starting point is to recognise that American policy is the most critical issue. No amount of public diplomacy will convince Arabs or Muslims to embrace American actions they detest. The Bush administration’s conception of public diplomacy generally involved putting lipstick on a pig – attempting to sell policies formulated in isolation from their likely reception. Even when public diplomacy officials had a seat at the table, they have had little influence on shaping decisions.
This has to change. It has always been ludicrous to believe that effective foreign policy could be made without understanding and anticipating the responses of the other parties.

That starts with listening. The US needs to do a far better job of listening to what Arabs and Muslims are saying and taking their views seriously. This must include listening to voices beyond the usual circle of friends and like-minded officials. The educated middle classes have grown ever more vocal and expressive in the last five years, and talking only with the small minority of pro-American voices makes little sense. The US needs to address and interact with the Arab world as it actually is – to listen to representative voices and be willing to engage in tough, frank and respectful arguments that it might well lose.
In practice, this means that American officials should watch and appear on Al Jazeera, no matter uncomfortable they find it. How can they possibly hope to understand how Arabs feel about Gaza if they don’t engage with the TV station most influential in shaping those views? Public opinion surveys, which are presently considered the benchmark for American progress in this arena, are a blunt instrument for the measurement of Arab responses to American policies, and more precise means must be devised to evaluate shifts in the Arab public sphere.
The explosion of internet participation – in forums, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and so forth – could be used to increase the points of view heard (preferably with a focus on those written in Arabic, Persian or other local languages). Public Affairs Officers could do more to get out of embassies, despite the security risks, and engage with as wide a segment of the public as possible. During the campaign, Obama proposed an “America’s Voice Corps”, modelled on the Peace Corps or Teach for America, which could bring thousands of young Americans with good language skills into regular contact with a wide range of Arabs and Muslims.
This listening needs smart filters, though. One of the largely undiscussed problems with increased American strategic communications operations is the issue of “blowback” – when policymakers start believing their own propaganda. Blowback happens, for instance, when the US military spreads “good news” stories in the Iraqi media that are then picked up by American journalists and reported in the United States. Blowback happens when the US facilitates the spread of rumours aimed at discrediting al Qa’eda which then enter the American media bloodstream. This is not necessarily intentional, but it may sometimes be so, when the military defines American public support as a crucial battlefield.
Talking helps, too. Rather than pour endless money into its own television station that few watch, American officials should follow Obama’s example and appear regularly on Arab networks – not only to advance American arguments, but to hear the objections and be ready to take them into account. The troubled satellite television station Alhurra should not be shut down, given the vast resources already spent on its launch, but it could be radically overhauled: new management, a new focus on American society and politics, and a new name – why not Al Amrikiya?
But all this talking and listening will be wasted if the feedback is not incorporated into policy. As one wit put it at the Reinventing Public Diplomacy conference, you can’t improve your marriage merely by listening to your wife when she says it’s time to take out the trash – at some point you had better actually do it. Some will complain that this amounts to giving Muslim audiences a veto over American policies, but this is hardly the case; those will always be formed based on American national interests, which will sometimes clash with Arab or Muslim preferences. But better listening should give American officials more ideas about where and how policies could be adjusted, identifying points of common interest in a more subtle and nuanced way.
Americans also need to recognise that the days of tailoring different messages to foreign and domestic audiences are long past. Today’s globalised media environment ensures that Arabs and Muslims can scrutinise every detail of the administration’s policies – from speeches intended for domestic audiences to seemingly obscure personnel decisions. It no longer makes sense to think in terms of a firewall separating “American” and “international” political discourse.
The traditional instruments of public diplomacy can and should be enhanced, particularly to reach millions of Arab and Muslim youth. Exchange programmes should be encouraged and visa problems dealt with more effectively, while more funding should go to support English-language instruction, libraries and speaker series in Muslim countries. An entire generation of Arab and Muslim elites learned about the United States first-hand through such programmes, which have helped embed them in personal relationships and networks which help to ease the friction caused by American policy. Post-September 11 restrictions and rising anti-American sentiment mean that the US risks losing an entire generation of elites who will not have such connections, understandings or relationships – a problem that will only become clear decades from now, and is consequently off the radar of those engaged in short-term security thinking.
There is an emerging consensus about the urgent importance of such a new public diplomacy for Obama’s foreign policy objectives. Arabs and Muslims should recognise their own stake in the realisation of this new vision for global engagement and a public diplomacy based on genuine dialogue – and give the new outreach a chance.

Undermining al Qa’eda and combating extremism are important. But they should only be one small part of America’s engagement with the Arab world. There is a vast majority of politically aware Arabs and Muslims whose fury at American policy has nothing to do with Islamic extremism. The new public diplomacy must reach out to that mainstream, with words and deeds alike.

Marc Lynch is associate professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs and the co-director of the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communications at George Washington University. He writes a blog on Arab politics and media for Foreign Policy, at