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William Fisher: Stupidgate


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

Thursday 26 October 2006

Most politicians agree that when they make a mistake, the most reliable way to restore their credibility is to fess up - and the least reliable way is to cover up.

John F. Kennedy knew that when he admitted his mistakes at the time of the Bay of Pigs.

Richard M. Nixon forgot it when he tried to conceal Watergate.

We know the outcome of both.

The Bush administration has forgotten this principle for six years. When generals recommend that the president send more troops to Iraq, they quickly find themselves in retirement. When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice tells an audience that the US has made thousands of tactical mistakes in Iraq, she incurs the wrath of Donald Rumsfeld.

Now we learn that the latest victim of getting "off message" is a senior State Department Foreign Service officer who acknowledged, during an interview on Al Jazeera, that the US had made some "stupid" mistakes in Iraq and had sometimes exhibited "arrogance."

And, despite the fact that President Bush's own bloviating press conference on Wednesday was filled with implicit admissions of mistakes, the Foreign Service officer, Alberto Fernandez, was ordered to recant his remarks.

At first, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Fernandez's comments were mistranslated. Then, when an unimpeachable translation of his remarks was produced by the Associated Press, Fernandez was told by his bosses to disavow his comments.

In a statement released by the State Department, Fernandez is quoted as saying: "I seriously misspoke by using the phrase 'there has been arrogance and stupidity by the US in Iraq.' This represents neither my views, nor those of the State Department."

There are four issues here.

First, what did Fernandez actually say? Here's an excerpt:

"There is no doubt that there is plenty of room for blame ... but we haven't focused enough on the future and the possibility of failure in Iraq.… We must all focus on saving Iraq for the sake of the Iraqi people and for our sakes, us in the West, and also you in the Arab world. I know that sometimes there is a kind of gloating in the Arab world that America has problems in Iraq ... [but] we must think of the Iraqi people, the Arabs, the Muslims, and the citizens of Iraq more than gloating about the United States."

Doesn't sound much like "cut and run," does it?

Secondly, Alberto Fernandez is no ordinary State Department functionary. To millions of Middle East Arabs, the Arabic-speaking Fernandez - one of very few in the State Department - has become the voice of American policy in the neighborhood. While his main job is to place US spokespersons on Middle East radio and TV interview programs, Al Jazeera has become so toxic in the eyes of the Bush administration that he can never find enough people to participate in their coverage. So Fernandez has filled in by speaking for the US on hundreds of Arab media outlets. In the process, he has become one of the few credible voices for American public diplomacy in the Middle East. His Al Jazeera remarks - and his subsequent recantation - became front-page news in the Arab world.

But that didn't stop wing-nut ideologues like Michelle Malkin from frothing at the mouth. If this is "the face of the United States in the Middle East," she inveighed, "we need to withdraw all State Department bureaucrats from the region, find out what else Fernandez and his Arabic-speaking colleagues have been telling the Arab media, and boot them off the airwaves. Permanently. If showing 'politeness' towards suicide bomb-embracing jihadi clerics and showing contempt for our country on enemy airwaves is how we plan to win 'hearts and minds,' we're screwed."

But many who actually know something about public diplomacy say that Fernandez's acknowledgement that the US is not perfect is precisely the tone most likely to build trust in this troubled region of the world.

Which brings me to my third point: US public diplomacy in the Middle East is a disaster. We spend tens of millions of dollars every year on government-sponsored broadcasting, yet there is very little evidence that any of this effort is contributing anything substantial to "winning hearts and minds." On the contrary, Middle Easterners see these efforts as what they are - American propaganda.

Our government's Middle East radio station, Radio Sawa, plays pop music interspersed with news bulletins. Young people no doubt enjoy the music, but the connection between the Rolling Stones and winning hearts and minds for US policy is, at best, a stretch.

Then there's our TV outlet, called Al Hurra, which carries some interesting news and documentary content, but which has failed to attract Arab audiences when compared with, say, Al Jazeera, Al Arabia, any of the other dozens of channels now available to any Arab who can afford a satellite dish.

This broadcasting empire is ruled over by a quasi-governmental body called the Broadcasting Board of Governors, or BBG. It is headed by none other than Kenneth Tomlinson. Tomlinson, you may recall, lost his Bush appointment as head of our Public Broadcasting System (PBS) for, among other questionable activities, hiring a contractor to "monitor" PBS programs to identify "political bias," and bringing the Wall Street Journal to PBS air to restore "balance."

The BBG's Inspector General recently issued a report criticizing Tomlinson for running his horse breeding business out of BBG offices on BBG time. And the Senate committee charged with reconfirming his appointment has declined to hold hearings - leaving President Bush with the option of giving him a recess appointment or finding another loyalist for the job.

And, of course, there's Karen Hughes, the Bush crony who heads up our entire public diplomacy efforts with the grandiose title of Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy. Mrs. Hughes, a longtime Bush confidante and message-meister-in-chief, was brought out of private life a year go to again serve the president by reinvigorating America's global efforts to restore the trust and admiration the US once enjoyed.

Given current US policies in the Middle East, this was a mission impossible from the get-go - even if Karen Hughes had the international experience required to take on a job of this magnitude. Mrs. Hughes has continued successful State Department programs that have been around for many years, like student and scholar exchanges. But she has done little that qualifies as new. And when new initiatives are launched, they sometimes seem grotesquely out of sync with other administration programs - for example, educating foreign journalists about press freedom and editorial integrity while the Department of Defense pays a contractor to bribe Iraqi journalists to write "good news stories" about our positive achievements in Iraq.

The result has been that, among most in the American diplomatic community, the former weather reporter for a Texas TV station has thus far been given failing grades. Her frequent gaffes - for example, urging upper-class Saudi women to drive cars when they made it clear they'd rather use their drivers - have revealed a shocking cultural insensitivity.

Finally, there's another issue regarding Alberto Fernandez and his recantation. There are some in the US diplomatic community who think he should have refused to cave and instead joined numerous other Foreign Service Officers who resigned in protest to the Iraq War.

I don't know Mr. Fernandez, but my guess is that he must have agonized over that option. Maybe, at the end of that process, he concluded that he would make a greater contribution to American interests by staying in his job.

I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

But the question now is whether the message-obsessed Bushies will let him continue to do that job.

Watch this space.

Note: Here's a link to the full transcript of Alberto Fernandez's interview with Al Jazeera as translated by the Associated Press.


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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