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Why Does Everybody Have to Like Us?

September 3, 2009 - John Whittaker
Next week, we'll get back to some lighter subject matter, I promise.
But, this week, you're stuck with something that carries a little weight, kind of like my belly.
In some of my scant downtime, I ran across an article on foreignpolicy.com in which James Glassman, former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, said the U.S. simply needs to be the lesser of two evils when it comes to winning the public relations battle overseas.
In a nutshell, Glassman says the United States spends too much money on public diplomacy efforts overseas in attempts to make people, like the Pakistanis, like us. Rather than spending our time and money trying to get people to like us, Glassman argues that the U.S. needs to focus on achieving its strategic goals first and publicity goals second.
"Making people like us better is a perfectly decent U.S. goal, but is an image-building campaign the most effective use of public diplomacy's tools in such a crucial relationship? And should the U.S. public image even be such a priority in the first place."
Right on, Mr. Glassman.
I've just started reading Plan of Attack, the second in Bob Woodward's series of books chronicling the Bush White House and its planning and execution of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. It's fascinating reading that provides an opportunity to reflect back on recent history that gets lost in the shuffle of continuous reporting. Woodward's books put the news that comes across the Associated Press wires into a different context, reframing, in my mind at least, what's happening overseas.
As small a George W. Bush fan as I am, one thing that stuck in my head from reading Bush At War, especially when reading Glassman's piece in Foreign Policy. The focus on public relations and putting a good face on policy is kind of disturbing. There is a definite undercurrent, in the course of decision making, that better public relations is the key to making people agree with a policy, rather than coming up with a better policy (and yes, we're seeing this with the Obama administration, too, when it comes to foreign policy and the ongoing health care debate).
Woodward's first book, and I'll bet the second, too, show a decision making process focused on the small potatoes of war planning - opening up basing for search and rescue areas, securing overflight rights from foreign nations, the ability to get special forces teams into Afghanistan - rather than the actual end goals.
What is success? When will the job be considered done? What are the targets, who needs to be eliminated or deposed? How much will it cost, how much are we willing to spend, what are we willing to forego to pay those prices? Nowhere in the course of Woodward's reporting are these questions mentioned. Now, I don't know if that's because it wasn't a focus of Woodward's reporting and thus not included in the book, or maybe it never came up.
Why am I talking about a lack of planning?
Because now we're spending $600 million, or two-thirds of the State Department's overall public diplomacy budget, on public diplomacy in the Middle East to convince people in countries where our forces are fighting that we are the good guys, that we're not against Islam and that we're not there to make them Anglo-Saxon Christians.
I make the argument that we're placing such a focus on selling our product because we're still not sure what our product is. We can't tell the Pakistanis that we'll be out of their country for good once A, B and C are accomplished. We can't tell the Iraqis that they won't see another Humvee with U.S. soldiers riding down the middle of Baghdad until X, Y and Z happen.
So, we're left selling an unfinished product. You should like us because we're better than the militants who want to publicly flog a 17-year-old Muslim woman for a trifle offense. You should like us because we don't want to hurt you. You should like us because we're not as bad as they are.
That doesn't exactly make us good, does it?
When in doubt, of course politicians turn to the easiest possible solution - sell them on why we are right.
I argue there is a better way. We should enter policies with concrete goals. When we make a promise, we should live up to it. When we give a reason for a policy, that should actually be our reason for the policy. And, when we enter into debates, have the right answers, rather than constantly repeat stupid answers.
For example, in Muslim societies, the narrative is that the United States and the West are out to destroy Islam. That narrative showed up on Family Guy, for Pete's sake. It's so simple that we don't think people can possibly think that way (they do). And, our actions make it very easy for extremists to make such a case.
We respond by saying -- like us, we like you, we mean you no harm. Did that stop the aliens from blowing up the White House in Independence Day? Would that stop someone from strapping a bomb to himself and walking into Madison Square Garden?
Extremists are trying to hijack Islam. We can't resolve the problem by ourselves, and you probably can't take care of the problem by yourself. But, we have a common enemy, and if we work together to defeat that common enemy, we'll be out of your hair before you can say, "Hey, beer guy."
This is why we do what we do, this is what we will do, this is how long we'll do it. We want you to help.
Would that line of reasoning work better?
Probably.

 
 

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