Oct 19, 2007

The Strategy of Denial

It is ironic that Karen Hughes, Bush's Public Diplomacy czar, stresses "the Diplomacy of Deeds" -- disaster relief, food donations, medicine supplies, etc. -- when the U.S. deeds that matter the most to foreign audiences are of a rather less admirable nature.

When your job requires you to spin activities like torture, renditions, unsuccessful wars, the violation of various domestic and international laws, and a serial inattentiveness to the need for a "decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind", one probably shouldn't make "the Diplomacy of Deeds" the slogan of your campaign.

From an open letter by Sidney Blumenthal to Karen Hughes, Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs:

The genius of your appointment is that the president and his advisors understood ahead of time that they would need your services to repair the nation's reputation. After all, this position has never existed before; and it has never been so drastically needed. While it is true that there have been organizations within the government, such as the US Information Agency, under directors such as Edward R Murrow and John Chancellor, that built libraries and conducted international educational exchanges, the idea of a public diplomacy czar is novel. Having someone to paper over the country's mistakes by telling people what they should think despite the reality would in the past have been considered undemocratic. Form and content, it would have been said, needed to complement each other. But your position is one in which form and content (words and deeds) stand in opposition to each other. Ironically, therefore, your job has never been more important than now.

So far, to be honest, you have earned a reputation for being out of touch, for spouting platitudes without understanding the underlying issues. You are seen as oblivious to the concerns and sensibilities of groups of foreigners with whom you have met. However noble the abstractions of your rhetoric, your speeches are uniformly received as irrelevant propaganda. Even after objective observers have called attention to this pattern, you have done little to adjust. While it would be unfair to put the entire burden of transforming the image of the United States on you, it is a sad fact that your actions have deepened cynicism about American motives. And your inability to change has been consistent with the administration's unwillingness to shift course in the face of demonstrable failure.

If you still wish to succeed, you must finally come to terms with how you and the administration are perceived. Self-awareness is the first step to recovery. Denial has been more than this administration's pervasive state of mind; it has become its prevailing strategy. When other rationales have been shown to be false, hollow or self-undermining, denial has invariably become the last defense. Even when presented with irrefutable facts - there were no weapons of mass destruction, there were no links between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden, and torture has indeed been the official policy - the administration resorts to transparent gestures of denial: "We do not torture." But repeating a falsehood does not make it true. As one American president who was a keen student of public opinion put it: "You cannot fool all of the people all of the time." But this truism does not seem to have come to the attention of the White House or of your office. I hope it is not a shock to you that the strategy of denial is not working. It is your job, after all, not only to take into account the considered views of others but to assess objectively what works and what does not. Acknowledging that this persistent reaction is not achieving its goal is essential to learning from failure.


You might also use your acquired skills in diplomacy among your colleagues in the inner circle of the White House. Perhaps you could talk to them about the dangers of politicizing and militarizing fear. They are a group, as Goldsmith has pointed out, consumed with "fear bordering on obsession." When he informed the White House that one of its counter-terrorism programs was illegal, vice-president Cheney's then counsel, David Addington, angrily lashed out, "If you rule that way, the blood of the hundred thousand people who died in the next attack will be on your hands." As Addington demonstrated, when legal artifice falls, bullying takes its place. Fear has become a license for quelling not only political criticism but also the rule of law.

As you know only too well, fear-mongering, though it has worked well politically at home, has backfired abroad, breeding hatred throughout Muslim and Arab lands. Public diplomacy should assuage fear, not fan its flames; enable understanding, not hostility. Perhaps, while you're talking to your colleagues, you might explain that the opinion of the world matters, and that while it might be "soft power", not "hard power" like a piece of military equipment, it directly impinges on global stability.


JBrown said...

FYI, the following on Hughes's diplomacy of deeds might be of interest:


Meatball One said...

Une pièce de résistance, éminence grise.

And votre blog (http://uscpublicdiplomacy.com/index.php/newsroom/johnbrown_main) is one of the absolute best, if not the best, live wire PD resources out there. (Mountain Runner ain't chicken sh*t either.)

Warning: consider your aide-mémoire duly targeted for rendition by the SMC Jack & Hack team.