Saturday, November 10, 2007

America's Lousy Image: The Problem Is Not Karen Hughes

Robert Satloff's article, "How To Win the War of Ideas", in today's WaPo, is couched in the form of advice to the Bush administration as to how it should reshape its efforts to connect with people in the Muslim world in the wake of the Karen Hughes fiasco. In fact, however, it demonstrates why only a Democratic administration has any real hope of success in this arena.

Here is the heart of Satloff's argument:
Hughes's resignation gives Bush one last chance to get this right. This requires a conceptual revolution. Rather than expend effort on winning Muslim friendship for America, our engagement with Muslim publics--what we call "public diplomacy"--should focus on identifying, nurturing and supporting anti-Islamist Muslims, from secular liberals to pious believers, who fear the encroachment of radical Islamists and are willing to make a stand.

This strategy would involve overt and covert ways to assist anti-Islamist political parties, nongovernmental organizations, trade unions, media outlets, women's groups, educational institutions and youth movements as they compete with the radicals. It calls for marshaling government resources--our embassies, aid bureaucracies, international broadcasting units and intelligence agencies, as well as our commercial, educational and civic relationships--to give anti-Islamists the moral, political, financial, technological and material support they need.
Satloff's program is a reasonable one--and it is impossible for the Bush administration to follow. Why? Look at the list of groups Satloff urges the U.S. to work with: NGOs, unions, the media, women's and young people's organizations, etc. These are all key groups for developing liberalism within the Islamic world--and they are exactly the kinds of groups that the Bush administration and the radical conservatives they're aligned with regard as deadly enemies.

How can conservatives befriend labor unions, women's groups, human rights supporters, and other left-wing organizations abroad while undermining and attacking them at home? It can't be done. The conservatives have no friends, allies, or connections among the parallel groups in the U.S.; they don't speak their language or share their concerns; and so every word and action they offer in support of such groups abroad is open to the obvious and accurate charge of hypocrisy.

In his book The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis distinguishes "education" and "propaganda." Education, he says, is about passing along values in which you yourself believe and which you try to live by; propaganda, by contrast, is about trying to convince other people to believe in values that you don't actually share because it will benefit you if they do so. In Lewis's words, true education treats students "as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly," while propaganda "deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds--making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing."

For modern-day conservatives, advocating unionization, civil rights, feminism, and freedom of speech in the Arab world can never be anything more than hollow propaganda. The beliefs espoused are so obviously contrary to what the conservatives actually believe that they inevitably appear as mere cynical attempts to manipulate foreign audiences for the benefit of America--which in fact is what they are. No wonder public attitudes toward the U.S. continued to worsen during Karen Hughes's mission to Islam.

Only liberal Democrats can effectively defend such freedoms abroad, because those are the same freedoms they live by at home. (It's not a coincidence that the U.S. presidents who are generally admired in the countries of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East are Kennedy, Carter, and Clinton. Despite their flaws, and their overall support for the American imperialist enterprise, there was at least some connection between their domestic political values and the values they espoused overseas.)

That's why a mere shift in P.R. tactics can't make the Bush administration or any like-minded Republican successor truly effective at public diplomacy. The only real hope is an entirely new government with dramatically different values.

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