Public Diplomacy as Apology

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President Obama addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Photo: White House.

Judging by President Obama’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly yesterday, U.S. public diplomacy messaging on the Middle East crisis is stuck perpetually on a setting of “apology.”It has been this way since the much-criticized September 11 statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which apologized to the threatening mob outside its gates for any hurt to Muslims’ “religious feelings.”

In the National Interest yesterday, Heritage’s James Jay Carafano analyzes the implications and the lessons for U.S. public diplomacy in “Department of Babel”:

In part, Obama has the wrong message. Rather than selling what America has to offer, all too often the president makes it sound like the United States is in withdrawal and retreat. That just invites aggression.

But in part it is also because we have a State Department that looks more and more like a Tower of Babel that cannot effectively speak to the world.

Even if the world were willing to change and Washington tailored its policies accordingly, this would not be enough. Unless we get our megaphone right, the U.S. government will remain a confusing voice among the chaos.

The Cairo statement could be described as an act of desperation and bore every sign thereof, even lacking punctuation. As the U.S. embassy was being threatened by a violent mob outside its walls, the embassy website hosted a denunciation not of violence but of an offensive 14-minute YouTube video. It remained the official U.S. position for nine hours before it was removed under pressure from protests at home. On September 12, it was denounced by both the President and the Secretary of State.

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The State Department has embraced social media with a vengeance as a public diplomacy tool, also known as Public Diplomacy 2.0. In the first hours of the crisis on September 11, the embassy Twitter feed defended the statement against incredulous comments from other tweeters. Those tweets were later deleted.

The stated policy of the U.S. government is “Internet freedom.” Yet, when it came to the YouTube video, the White House asked Google to “review” it, and it was subsequently taken down in several Muslim countries. There is a clear double standard at work, which countries engaging in Internet censorship will not have failed to notice.

Starting with his Cairo speech in 2009, President Obama promised to combat any perceived insult to Islam. From supporting U.N. “anti-blasphemy” Resolution 12/16 to the Administration’s ceaseless denunciations of the offensive video, the U.S. public diplomacy stance has been accommodation of irrational rage. Yet as a recent Pew Center poll has demonstrated, in many Muslim countries, the view of the United States has actually declined during the Obama Administration.

The after-action review of U.S. public diplomacy in the aftermath of the current crisis will be a copious exercise. Learning the lessons of what has gone wrong is the critical first step.

Source material can be found at this site.

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