Saturday, July 26, 2008

What Rami Kouri Said

I made my weekly visit to Watching American, and I found pretty much what I expected: a line-up of world press articles on Barack Obama's Grand Tour. Several of the articles were quite enlightening, so I recommend clicking on over. One article, however, was not about Sen. Obama's trip. Instead, this article by Rami Kouri in Lebanon's Daily Star spoke to American public diplomacy and what has driven it for the last seven years. As usual, Mr. Kouri has provided some really insightful analysis.

The United States' public diplomacy program since 9/11 has been one of the great self-induced hoaxes of modern American public life, managed for the most part by a frightening combination of misguided lightweights and over-the-top ideological zealots. So when I heard the other day that a new man was put in charge - Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman - I read a speech he made to the Council on Foreign Relations in New York outlining his plans and principles.

I sensed for the first time in recent years that perhaps a new rational element was intruding into the legacy of intemperate arrogance that had been the defining hallmark of Washington's public diplomacy program since 2002. To test this hypothesis, I visited Glassman for a chat in his State Department office, and my conclusion is that there is good news and bad news to report.

First, the good news, which Mr. Kouri finds in a shift in emphasis in public diplomacy:

Glassman importantly acknowledges the need to address the sense among many in the Arab-Islamic world and other lands that "the US does not respect and listen to others, or take them seriously." The aim is not to persuade foreign audiences to admire or love the US, but rather "to ensure that negative sentiments and day-to-day grievances toward the US and its allies do not manifest themselves in the form of violent extremism."

Glassman importantly acknowledges the need to address the sense among many in the Arab-Islamic world and other lands that "the US does not respect and listen to others, or take them seriously."

That certainly is a dramatic shift in public foreign policy under the current administration, which up to this point was more into telling people what to do, say, and think or else.

Here, however, is the bad news Mr. Kouri found:

The bad news is that major aspects of the US public diplomacy program remain very thin in relevance, credibility and efficacy. The biggest problem is the program's focus on the small number of Al-Qaeda-type terrorists and their potential impact on others in Arab-Islamic societies, especially youth. Washington sees itself as helping moderate Muslims avoid falling into the Al-Qaeda camp. ...

Such an approach perpetuates in milder form the dreamy, diversionary strategy of former public diplomacy chiefs. It excessively focuses on Al-Qaeda rather than fostering stronger ties with the masses of ordinary Middle Eastern men and women who already like and perhaps even covet American values and offerings. It leaves as irresolvable the fact that pro-Israel and pro-Arab-autocrats American policies in the Middle East are core drivers of Arab radicalism and terrorism; and it exaggerates and bolsters the terrorists who exploit Islamic rhetoric by saying that the battle with Islamic extremists is "the most important ideological contest of our time."

That is exaggeration that is factually wrong and politically counter-productive, and it shows how the trauma of 9/11 in the US continues to generate political and intellectual distortions.

Exactly so, Mr. Kouri. Allow me to add that "the trauma of 9/11" continues to generate political and intellectual distortions in our domestic policy as well, as evidenced by the manipulation by fear of the American public in order to successfully remove our civil liberties without much effort. The Bush administration promised to create a new reality, one that might not match the consensual reality of the rest of the world but that would control at least this country. To a large extent, they have done just that.

And that is why the next election is so very important, from the top of the ticket right on down. Many of us long for the situation with which Mr. Kouri so perceptively concludes his column: that the sensible folks prevail and the wild men and women are mercifully retired to their ranches.

From you lips, Rami Kouri...

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