The Death of U.S. Public Diplomacy and Lessons on How to Resurrect It

Muslim demonstrators burn U.S. flags during a protest against the 'Innocence of Muslims' film
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Muslim demonstrators burn U.S. flags during a protest against the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ film

“The death of U.S. public diplomacy” was how one Twitter user last Tuesday described the now-infamous apology from the U.S. embassy in Cairo for the ill-conceived movie Innocence of Muslims.

Strong words, but there is no doubt about it: The need for American public diplomacy in the Middle East needs to be rebooted and rethought. But how?

Of particular relevance to the manipulated outrage that has gripped Muslim populations over the past week is the statement from President Ronald Reagan’s director of the United States Information Agency Charles Wick: “In responding to disinformation, the United States has the tremendous advantage that the truth is inherently more powerful than lies. But if the lies go unchallenged, then they can have a damaging effect.” As we face the Middle East today, these words have poignant meaning.

On Tuesday at 11 a.m., The Heritage Foundation will host a program on lessons learned from the Cold War, “Exploring a Comprehensive Approach to Public Diplomacy.” (Watch it streamed live here.) The program is focused around a new study from the National Defense University, “Deception, Disinformation, and Strategic Communications: How One Interagency Group Made a Major Difference,” by Christopher Lamb and Fletcher Schoen.

The major points of the study are:

  • No security challenge, or any challenge in general, can be resolved without the well-integrated use of multiple instruments of power.
  • The Active Measures Working Group (AMWG)—an unclassified interagency group located in the State Department including the CIA, the FBI, the U.S. Information Agency, the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the National Security Council—demonstrated the kind of leadership that breached the institutional and cultural gaps between State and the Defense Department.
  • Safeguarding the reputation of the United States is a whole-of-government endeavor that requires interagency coordination and collaboration.
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Reagan’s agenda proactively challenged Soviet power and global ambitions: “Here’s my strategy on the Cold War: We win, they lose.” Reagan’s persistence in highlighting Soviet deception made way for the founding of AMWG, even in the face of opposition from within his own government of those who didn’t believe that the Soviets would be either bold or clever enough to deceive the United States.

This small interagency group forced the Soviet Union to disavow a number of its most egregious lies, agree to face-to-face meetings on disinformation, and establish an early warning fax system where either side could lodge instant complaints about such activities. Grounded in an unimpeachable record of accuracy and trustworthiness, AMWG scrutinized documents with absolute thoroughness to prove falsities.

One of the group’s first successes was puncturing Soviet disinformation that the U.S. military was responsible for the spread of AIDS. By 1987, the story had been reprinted in over 80 countries in 30 languages and was highly damaging to the U.S. image. AMWG challenged the Soviets on the lie and forced the Kremlin to disavow it.

This proactive approach is one the U.S. government could well learn from today. Instead, the Obama Administration has actively adopted the line that the Innocence of Muslims trailer is the reason for the attacks on American interests. And in doing so, it has turned U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East on its head.

Watch this event at 11 a.m. Tuesday here.

Source material can be found at this site.

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