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William Fisher: Remember the Edsel!

Remember the Edsel!

By William Fisher
t r u t h o u t | Perspective

Sunday 07 May 2006

Nobel Peace Prize-winner and Iranian human rights advocate and dissident Shirin Ebadi was asked on PBS last week about the $75 million the US State Department intends to spend supporting pro-democracy groups in her country.

"Will such a program be helpful to assist democracy advocates like yourself?" asked the News Hour's Margaret Warner.

Ebadi's response: "No, I don't think it will benefit people like me because whoever speaks about democracy will be accused of having been paid by the US." She went on to ask, "Can democracy be brought to people by bombs? Democracy is a culture. It has to come from within a society, not brought by America to a society."

That's about as good a capsule summary of America's public diplomacy dilemma as I've heard.

The essence of that dilemma is that the US is spending a great deal of money on getting its messages out - $597 million last year alone, much of it in the Middle East. Yet successive opinion polls show that people in the neighborhood have increasingly negative opinions about American policies.

Those of us who live in the US know that there are gazillions of positive stories to tell about our country. And no doubt Karen Hughes and her public diplomacy colleagues at the State Department are trying hard to tell them.

But these stories are being drowned out by the realities and perceptions of our target audiences.

The US is now thought of in the Middle East not just as the country that brought jazz and hamburgers, Hollywood movies, and the Bill of Rights to the world. We are thought of as the country that cooked the intelligence books to sell the American people on invading Iraq. That preached about human rights while abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. That is waging a silent war on Muslims at home. That extols democracy but cozies up to dictators in Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, etc. That is seen as ignoring Palestinians while helping Israelis. That is led by a swaggering Texas-style "bring it on" president who dismisses critics as unpatriotic as he exhorts his citizens to "stay the course."

Against that incessant background of "white noise," how can the US hope to be heard?

The truth is it can't. Not now. Not until the policies change.

Because every credible poll in the Middle East tells us that Arabs and other Muslims don't hate the American people or American culture - they hate the policies of the Bush administration.

And that would be true even if the strategies, tactics, and mechanics of our public diplomacy efforts were impeccably crafted. But they aren't.

Last week, the Government Accountability Office weighed in on the subject with a new report. It found the State Department's efforts to reach more than 1.5 billion Muslims in 58 countries lack a strong central message and a strategic plan of communication, and that as many as 30 percent of public diplomacy posts in the Middle East are filled by officers with limited language skills.

It reported that public diplomacy officers abroad don't spend enough time talking to local audiences and, while the program is aimed primarily at younger audiences, there is a shortage of basic, core messages, and a lack of analysis of the program's results.

To explain US foreign policy more effectively, the GAO recommended that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice provide our embassies and consulates with clear written guidance on priority goals and tactics.

At the end of the day, however, it's not going to matter how professionally our public diplomacy efforts are organized and executed, or how much more money we throw at this activity.

Karen Hughes, longtime Bush friend and confidante, has been dealt a lousy hand by the president. He asked her to take on an impossible job for which nothing in her background equips her. I'm sure she is working hard and really trying, but the enemy she faces is not the difficulty of actually getting anything done in the Washington bureaucracy. Her enemy is the very US foreign policy she was brought on board to sell.

So the problem is not the messenger or the message. It's the product. It's US policy. Until that changes, we're kidding ourselves if we believe we're going to be able to win Muslim hearts and minds.

Isn't it amazing that the country that invented modern marketing doesn't understand that sales of a flawed product can't be sustained?

That's what we just don't seem to get.

Remember the Edsel!


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East and in many other parts of the world for the US State Department and USAID for the past thirty years. He began his work life as a journalist for newspapers and for the Associated Press in Florida. Go to The World According to Bill Fisher for more.

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