United States Department of Instigation
Washington, DC 20809
To: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
From: Michael Holtzman
Subject: Fixing Public Diplomacy
Date: May 1, 2007
Even as the sixth anniversary of the September 11 attacks approaches, the U.S. Government has failed significantly in its efforts to “understand, inform, engage and influence”, in the words of the October 2003 Djerejian report on public diplomacy, the people of the Arab and Muslim worlds. The U.S. Government can and must counter negative and biased news in the Arab and Muslim worlds, and it must continue to communicate unapologetically U.S. policy objectives. But at present the government lacks the credibility to engage and favorably influence public opinion on the so-called Arab street. More important, it still lacks the institutional resources to effectively address highly differentiated populations within the Arab and Muslim worlds, audiences which make distinctions between the U.S. Government, the American people and American values. One result of our institutional deficiencies has been that government efforts are forced to rely on boilerplate messages and programs that do not work well in such a variegated opinion environment.
We could wait until U.S. credibility revives, and in the meantime devote more resources to public diplomacy. But there is a better way to proceed, and it begins with the recognition that laying bare the facts of U.S. policy (informing) and winning hearts and minds (engaging and influencing) are different goals that require different implementing tools. It’s not just our messages that we need to get right, but also our messengers.
U.S. public diplomacy efforts in the Arab and Muslim world must therefore be guided by a radically new three-pronged strategy that leverages coordinated governmental and nongovernmental activities to address three distinct goals: providing accurate information, engaging and influencing opinion, and marginalizing radicals. We must reshape the organizational framework of U.S. public diplomacy, and we need to operate differently and better within that new framework.
The U.S. Government should concentrate on “information” to reverse the corrosive effect of biased media coverage of the United States in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Radio Sawa, Radio Farda, al-Hurra television and the White House’s Office of Global Communications are all directed toward this goal. But “setting the record straight” is solely a defensive strategy. The U.S. Government must also project a positive U.S. image that intellectually arms those who are not hostile to the United States, and tells the truth about how terrorists violate Islamic precepts.
For example, content on the al-Hurra satellite television network should do more than attempt to compete with al-Jazeera. It should actively promote a favorable image of America, albeit indirectly. An Arab-narrated documentary on U.S. actions in Bosnia and Kosovo, which saved hundreds of thousands of Muslim lives, would be an example of such programming. A news item on the UN Arab Development Reports, also delivered by credible local voices, would underscore U.S. values of freedom and democracy without making a direct and therefore counterproductive sales pitch. A profile linking al-Qaeda to ships seized in the Arabian Gulf which were involved in the international drug trade would call terrorist motives and tactics into question and show their inconsistency with Islamic law. A television spot on how (and how much) U.S. financial aid is being spent on the ground in the region would also be effective. It has been more than three years now since al-Hurra came into existence, yet no such positive image-projection programs have been created.
State Department public diplomacy professionals should also develop a “story bank” to identify timely news with credible content that promotes U.S. strategic interests. That “story bank” should meet the professional standards of both print and electronic journalism. Personnel descriptions within the Bureau of Public Affairs in the Department should be adjusted as necessary to hire and retain individuals with appropriate professional experience. Just as every major newspaper, news magazine and television news operation in the modern world has a sophisticated archive upon which it can call at any time, so should the Public Affairs Bureau of the U.S. Department of State. Stories should be collected in part from U.S. Foreign Service Officers posted around the world, especially but not only from those in Public Affairs slots, and pushed out to the region through embassy channels as well as other news outlets.
Engage and Influence
While the U.S. Government should be in the “information” business, it should not be directly in the “engage and influence” business. The main current reason for this is obvious: U.S. Government credibility is too low in the Arab world and most of the Muslim world for official public diplomacy efforts to be effective. But there is another reason, which applies no matter how much goodwill toward America exists: The process-oriented culture of the State Department, and of the government as a whole, is inconsistent with the kinds of outcome-oriented public relations skill sets that work.
If we are to take advantage of the distinction most Muslims make between the U.S. Government and its policies, on the one hand, and the American people and American values, on the other, we must create a new, extra-governmental platform to leverage the whole pulsating, energetic and highly contagious mélange of American civil society. We need our doctors, religious leaders, athletes, entertainers, educators, scientists and writers–as well as our own patriotic Muslim citizens–to engage in as many two-way conversations with the Arab and Muslim worlds as we can arrange. And we need to emphasize the importance of two-way conversations: No one can effectively influence others if they are not prepared to listen to them. We must seek to better understand the people of Muslim countries–their hopes, their fears and their aspirations–if we are ever to build a reservoir of good will toward America. Private citizens can and will do this as a natural facet of human interaction; busy U.S. Government employees cannot.
By far the best way to achieve these ends is to create a private, independent, nonprofit organization devoted to cultural and intellectual exchange. This organization, which should be set up as a foundation and funded from philanthropic and business sources, will have a consultative relationship with the U.S. Government (not unlike that of the Eurasia Foundation, for example). Called the Near East Foundation, this effort would:
• Bring together existing and new public diplomacy efforts in the areas of religion (aimed at promoting moderate Islam), sporting events, art exhibitions, concerts, educational exchange, English language, technological, business and medical training and other activities aimed at engaging ordinary people–particularly the young–in constructive dialogue and interaction. Many tried and true USIA programs may serve well as models for such activities.
• Direct its programming and resources in coordination with the U.S. Government’s public diplomacy efforts to maximize impact and reinforce messages.
• Provide ongoing news content for al-Hurra television, Radio Sawa, Radio Farda, and Arab and Muslim college and university news services, including online sources.
• Make grants to worthy private efforts consistent with the aims of the foundation.
A Near East Foundation would be overseen by a board comprised of public relations and advertising executives, business and cultural leaders, and former U.S. Government officials. This board would establish firm content and strategic guidelines for all programs. The Administration would support the foundation through tax abatements and other incentives to participating organizations, and through a call to all Americans to dedicate themselves to better understanding the peoples of the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Drain the Swamp
Almost six years after 9/11, there is still no coherent strategy for stemming the tide of men and women willing to perpetrate horrible, violent acts on innocents. We are trying to fight a War on Terror without effectively attacking the ideologies that drive and justify terror itself. Moreover, while promoting liberal institutions and good governance in the Muslim world can redound to the long-term benefit of the United States (and of course others), stigmatizing terrorism need not and must not wait until the fruits of such investments are ripe.
In tandem with efforts to neutralize the corrosive effects of biased news coverage and private efforts to promote engagement between the Western and Muslim worlds, the United States needs a definitive strategy to more effectively stigmatize terrorism. That strategy must have three essential parts.
First, within the State Department’s new story bank, special emphasis should be placed on news and information that, properly and deliberately disseminated, can delegitimate terrorism. As noted, the seizure in the Arabian Gulf of boats laden with heroin to fund terror is a case in point. Such behavior is squarely at odds with the values of ordinary Muslims. The U.S. Government should have been capable of amplifying that news item across the Arab and Muslim worlds. It was not. Similarly, the use of children in suicide attacks in Israel and elsewhere is broadly unpopular throughout the Muslim world. Whenever such an atrocity takes place, the U.S. Government should be capable of amplifying it to audiences that matter. These and related stories should be pounded through Arab and Muslim broadcast media by dedicated government communications teams. At the present time, no such teams exist.
Second, both the U.S. Government and the prospective Near East Foundation should encourage and help coordinate moderate Muslims willing to take a stand against Islamist ideology. In March 2005, Muslim clerics in Spain issued the world’s first fatwa against Osama bin Laden. The Islamic Commission of Spain accused bin Laden of abandoning his religion and urged others of their faith to denounce him. U.S. and allied governments should have been in a position to subtly assist that effort, but they were not. They still are not. We and our allies must do much more to encourage indigenous resistance to the distortions of Islam peddled by al-Qaeda and like-minded groups.
Third, the U.S. Government, in cooperation with the Near East Foundation, should encourage the development of a group of prominent Muslims from around the world that would receive funding to execute a massive and protracted advertising campaign throughout the Middle East. This campaign should appeal to all Muslims to denounce terrorism as inconsistent with Islam and suicide attacks as strictly forbidden by the Quran. Direct quotes from the Quran and the text of anti-terror fatwas issued by Muslim clerics should be included in the broadcast, billboard, Internet, print and mobile phone text message campaign. This campaign can also engage many parents and siblings of dead suicide bombers who now loathe those who connived to take their loved ones from them. Invoking the inviolability of family on behalf of an effort to stigmatize terrorism is perhaps the most powerful weapon we have to influence the Muslim world.
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This three-pronged strategy–providing accurate and positive information through government-sponsored channels, influencing public opinion through the work of a new Near East Foundation, and marginalizing terrorism as a tactic–will work if it is conducted simultaneously and in a coordinated way, if it is funded even to merely adequate levels, and if it is led by capable people. Despite the efforts of many dedicated staffers, what we are doing now isn’t working well enough, and it likely never will. Public diplomacy in an era of an ascending terrorist threat is too important to leave lying in its present condition. A better way is at hand. You, Madame Secretary, can put it into action.