The False Hope of Public Diplomacy

Last week, the Government Accountability Office released a report titled “U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Efforts to Engage Muslim Audiences Lack Certain Communication Elements and Face Significant Challenges.” [.pdf]

The report focuses mainly on structural and programmatic aspects of the US public diplomacy effort, but it hints at a central problem.  It has become a cliche in Washington to refer to the crisis in public diplomacy, the idea being that we need to get our message out better.  America’s unpopularity in the Muslim world, the thinking goes, is the result of poor communication.  The trouble with this logic is that it rests on the notion that it is somehow the presentation, not the product itself, that is the problem.

The GAO report points out that, by and large, where Muslim anti-Americanism is concerned, US foreign policy is the culprit:

All of our panelists agreed that U.S. foreign policy is the major root cause behind anti-American sentiments among Muslim populations and that this point needs to be better researched, absorbed, and acted upon by government officials.

This echoes the Defense Science Board’s 2004 report on strategic communication [.pdf], which put the point rather more tersely:

American direct intervention in the Muslim World has paradoxically elevated the stature of and support for radical Islamists, while diminishing support for the United States to single-digits in some Arab societies…Muslims do not “hate our freedom,” but rather, they hate our policies.

Granted, US public diplomacy could improve a great deal.  But emphasizing public diplomacy as the problem implies that somehow people in the Muslim world just don’t understand our foreign policies.  The stark reality is that they understand our policies well enough.  They just don’t like them very much.

It’s true enough that foreign policy isn’t a popularity contest, and on the rare occasions when vital American interests are threatened, say, by a pending terror attack, public opinion ought to be low on the list of our concerns.  But in too many cases, US foreign policy unnecessarily inflames public opinion in the Muslim world.  The invasion and occupation of Iraq, the erstwhile US military presence in Saudi Arabia, US support for tyrannical regimes in the Arab world, and the unrelenting push to maintain a US military presence on Muslim lands, all have greatly increased the potential recruiting pool (let alone sympathy) for groups like al Qaeda.

That’s why the GAO is right to say that the “point needs to be better researched, absorbed, and acted upon by government officials.”  Until our foreign policy itself is fixed, all the public diplomacy in the world won’t fix our image problem—or deflate support for al Qaeda—in the Muslim world.