Remarks on al-Jazeera by Alberto Fernandez, director of the State Department's Arab media outreach office, that America had been "arrogant" and "stupid" in Iraq have already generated enormous controversy. The partisan hounds are out. It isn't clear whether the State Department will rise to his defense. It should, because there's a lot more at stake here than the partisan fallout of the reporting of his interview.
What did he actually say? The initial line was that he was misquoted; I don't know since I haven't yet tracked down an Arabic transcript. But a full translation by the AP's Baghdad office can be found here, which offers this fuller excerpt:
But what is important, we believe, is the exercise of flexibility and self- criticism and take responsibility for correcting mistakes and policies if those policies have failed or are unable to present the Iraqi people with what they want most: Security first, second and third, and then (solutions to) a long list of problems, including economic and political one.
Of course, some historians, history will judge American history in Iraq. We tried to do our best but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq."
That's what is being quoted. But look how he continues:
We focused today, and the media focuses on blame. There is no doubt that there is plenty of room for blame. Blame of the United States or others, but we haven't focused enough on the future and the possibility of failure in Iraq. If we are witnessing failure in Iraq, it's not the failure of the United States alone. Failure would be a disaster for the region. We, all of us in the region, countries in the region, have a role in what is happening in Iraq. Failure in Iraq will be a failure for the United States but a disaster for the region. 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. I fully understand that. But, in the end, we must think of the Iraqi people, the Arabs, the Muslims and the citizens of Iraq more than gloating about the United States.
Reading it makes clear that the parts of Fernandez's comments which have been quoted extensively are mostly a throat clearing preface to saying that Arabs need to move on and talk about Iraq's future instead of "gloating" over American problems. This is a way of establishing credibility and a reputation for candor with Arab audiences - two things that almost all American spokespeople who stick to the administration's script lack. His humility treats those audiences with respect, rather than trying to force talking points crafted in Washington down the throats of skeptical listeners who live in the region and know better. At a time when everyone in America is talking about how and why the US failed in Iraq, and everyone in the Arab media is following those American debates, how credible could he be if he continued to whistle along and pretend otherwise? The admission of some blame about the past sugar coats the key argument about the need for Arabs to step forward and take some responsibility for the future - which is exactly what the US needs right now.
By the way, most of the furor over the interview has missed the really significant part of his interview: his indication of American willingness to negotiate with any part of the Sunni insurgency other than al-Qaeda. This clearly is America's new policy, and it needed to be communicated directly to Iraq's Sunni communities without the filter of interested intermediaries. By airing this invitation to talks on al-Jazeera, which is probably the most widely viewed television channel among Iraq's Sunnis, Fernandez accomplished something of real political significance.
The controversy over Fernandez gets to the heart of the question of whether America can have an effective public diplomacy. Dating back to my 2003 Foreign Affairs article, I have consistently advocated getting American voices on to al-Jazeera and other Arab media and having them engage in real debate. For all that it is demonized by too many Americans, al-Jazeera is still by far the most watched and most politically influential Arab television network. Its programs are the most important place where Arab views of the United States and American policy are formulated. Those arguments about America can happen with or without American participation. All America's absence from those debates accomplishes is to cede the field to its enemies, to allow hostile arguments or allegations to go unchecked, and to give speakers on those programs no incentive to take American perspectives into account.
Over the last year and a half, the American government - from Karen Hughes and the State Department to the Pentagon - have largely come to understand that reality, and have begun re-engaging with al-Jazeera for pragmatic reasons. As a recent story about CENTCOM's efforts put it, "Influencing Arab opinion is a component of the Pentagon's new “long
war” strategy, which says that America's conflict with Islamic
extremists requires more diplomacy and less bombing." If the US cares about Arab public opinion, reasonable people understand that it can't afford to ignore the most important media outlet shaping Arab public opinion. Karen Hughes went to al-Jazeera (repeatedly) because that is where the eyeballs are, and CENTCOM does the same thing.
As the American government has struggled to retool to act on this newfound understanding of the importance of engaging with the Arab media, Fernandez has been almost a one man show. Fernandez has conducted literally hundreds of interviews in Arabic with various Arab media outlets at a time when few American officials could be bothered or could perform effectively when they tried. In the first weeks of the Lebanon-Israel war, he was the only American official to appear on al-Jazeera, at a time when America desperately needed someone at least trying to defend it. What made him effective was not just his fluent Arabic, but that he is willing to argue, to get angry, to make jokes - in short, to offer a real human face and not just a grim diplomat reading from a script. He has established a strong reputation with Arab bookers and audiences not by "bashing America" but by being honest and candid, which has in turn made his defenses of American policy far more effective.
This kind of public diplomacy is by far the most effective kind of engagement with the media. But it's also dangerous for exactly the reasons currently on display. I've been told by all kinds of old public diplomacy hands that Public Affairs Officers live in fear of having some off-hand comment picked up, translated and sent back to Washington to kill their careers. That this has become ever more likely in the internet era (along with MEMRI and the blogosophere) has a chilling effect on would-be public diplomats. Discretion as the better part of valor is good career advice, but terrible for the country's public diplomacy. The partisan attack dogs who want to collect a scalp may care absolutely nothing about how this might affect the American national interest, but I hope that more serious people do.
The State Department, and especially Karen Hughes, must back Alberto Fernandez to the hilt in this StupidStorm. If he's fired, or transfered to Mongolia, the United States unilaterally disarms in the 'war of ideas' as currently waged in the Arab media. While we do have 'rapid reaction' units coming online in Dubai and London, and CENTCOM has its own media outreach team, the fact is that Fernandez has been single-handedly carrying the American flag on the Arab broadcast media for years. America simply can not afford to lose him over a silly partisan media frenzy. And if Fernandez is punished, it's safe to guess that nobody will be foolish enough to step up and take his place and do what he did. And that will be a major loss for America in a place where it can ill-afford any more losses at all.