Beyond Public Diplomacy

Courtesy Reuters


"How can a man in a cave outcommunicate the world's leading communications society?" This question, plaintively posed by long-time U.S. diplomat Richard Holbrooke, has been puzzling many Americans. Osama bin Laden apparently still enjoys widespread public approval in the Muslim world (witness the skepticism in many Muslim countries toward the videotaped bin Laden "confession" released by the White House in December). Indeed, the world's superpower is losing the propaganda war.

"Winning the hearts and minds" of Arab and Muslim populations has quite understandably risen to the top of the Bush administration's agenda. Military operations abroad and new security measures at home do nothing to address the virulent anti-Americanism of government-supported media, mullahs, and madrassas (Islamic schools). Moreover, as the Israelis have discovered, terrorism thrives on a cruel paradox: The more force is used to retaliate, the more fuel is added to the terrorists' cause.

But slick marketing techniques and legions of U.S. spokespersons on satellite television will not be sufficient to stem the tide of xenophobia sweeping through the Islamic world. When antiterrorist ads produced by the U.S. government were shown recently to focus groups in Jordan, the majority of respondents were simply puzzled, protesting, "But bin Laden is a holy man." The widespread antagonism to U.S. regional policies themselves further limits what public diplomacy can achieve. Until these policies are addressed, argues American University's R. S. Zaharna, "American efforts to intensify its message are more likely to hurt than help."

As the United States adds weapons of mass communication to weapons of war, therefore, it must also take on the more important job of supporting indigenous open media, democracy, and civil society in the Muslim world. Even though many Muslims disagree with U.S. foreign policy, particularly toward the Middle East, they yearn for freedom of speech and access to information. U.S. national security is enhanced to the degree that other nations share these freedoms. And it is endangered by nations

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