In September 2003, I published a piece in Foreign Affairs which, among other things, had one very simple policy prescription: "open a direct dialogue with the Arab and Islamic world through its already existing and increasingly influential transnational media." Or, to be more blunt, end the informal ban on senior officials appearing on al-Jazeera. I've spent the last couple of years repeating and elaborating on the argument, privately and publicly.
While I was in Washington, Karen Hughes unveiled some of the key aspects of her new approach to public diplomacy:
The New York Times said Thursday this would include more frequent appearances by Bush administration figures on the influential Al-Jazeera network, which has been a harsh critic of U.S. policies. The Times quoted Ms. Hughes as saying U.S. officials need to convey their message through the media that people are listening to, so they clearly must be more effective in communicating on Al-Jazeera.
Here's the exact quote from Hughes: "As a communicator, first of all, you have to communicate your message through mediums to which people listen. So I think that we clearly need to be more effective about how we communicate on Al Jazeera." Over the last couple of days, several officials involved in public diplomacy have told me that she seems to be serious about this.
Good. This is a long overdue, extremely sensible policy shift. A good start for Ms. Hughes - if only a start, with a long way to go. Let's hope that she pushes ahead to reorient our public diplomacy efforts in the region away from the failed white elephants burning through resources over at the Broadcast Board of Governors and towards the media which really matter.
One other thing, though. Talking to al-Jazeera was only one of my recommendations. I also had a series of recommendations for how the US should be talking on al-Jazeera: less lecturing, more listening; less spin and message control, more recognition of the reality of conflicting interests; less lashing out at 'disinformation' and more respectful hearings for reasoned arguments coming from the Arab world.
Another key component of her initiative suggests reason for concern:
The rapid response teams would seek to counter misinformation about U.S. policies and actions in the same news cycle so that it is not perpetuated. Hughes plans to set up a rapid response center to monitor what is printed and broadcast by television networks such as al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. "We're behind the curve in being able to put down rumors and myths," she said.
Rapid response teams are a good idea - I've recommended something like it myself. But I had something different in mind. I had suggested having a corps of dedicated Public Affairs Officers based in the region whose primary responsibility would be to appear on any Arab media which invited them - attractive, fluent Arab speakers who would be desirable guests and give an appealing picture of Americans as funny, open to dissenting points of view, willing to admit mistakes, but still powerfully advocating American beliefs and policies.
This sounds more like a "truth squad."
Lies and misinformation should indeed be corrected when they are broadcast, but they aren't really the core of the problem. If the rapid response teams turn into a vehicle for hectoring, harrassing, and lecturing - insisting that Arab media accept the official Washington spin on every event - then they will make the problem worse, not better. It would be a real shame, and a horribly missed opportunity, if the increased engagement with the Arab media promised by Hughes turns out to simply throw fuel on the fire.
I hope that Hughes's pragmatism will win out. She seems to be talking to a lot of the right people - members of the Djerejian commission, experienced public diplomacy officials, people at State - who (my pointy little aardvark ears tell me) are telling her the right things. Listening to them now wouldn't only be good practice for listening to what Arabs are actually saying... it would also save a lot of grief down the road.