The appointment of Rahm Emmanuel as Obama's chief of staff offers an interesting lesson for the future of public diplomacy. Emmanuel was almost certainly chosen because of his relationship with Obama and for his reputation for hard-nosed efficiency in the legislative arena, not for his foreign policy views. But the Arab media instantly and overwhelmingly focused on his Israeli origins and some really unfortunate comments made by his father about Arabs. News spread incredibly fast. Before I had even seen the pick confirmed in the American media, I saw angry denunciations on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya and from Palestinian sources. Dozens of hostile op-eds have since appeared in Arab newspapers. And I've received a deluge of emails from friends in the Arab world either venting or anxiously asking what it means (cf some comments in the previous thread).
The selection of Emmanuel was almost certainly not intended as a signal of Obama's likely Middle East policy -- when he has not yet named any of his senior foreign policy personnel, much less his Middle East policy personnel -- but that's how it was received. The furor has remarkably quickly dulled the initially enthusiastically positive reception of Obama's victory in the Arab arena - a lightning-fast turnaround driven by something which in the past would have been an internal personnel announcement barely noticed by most Americans, let alone Arabs. I don't think that this will have particularly long-lasting effects - his selections to the key foreign policy positions, and then his actual policies will matter far more. But it does illustrate something important: in today's media environment, everything domestic is open to intense foreign scrutiny, nothing can be assumed to be 'purely domestic', and public diplomacy concerns need to be incorporated into every stage of the policy process.
The Arab reaction to Rahm Emmanuel's appointment was entirely predictable, and had there been a 'public diplomacy' representative at the table it could have been anticipated and the ground better prepared to mitigate negative impacts. It would have been fairly easy and an effort well-spent to have immediately explained to Arab journalists and key opinion leaders what the selection of Emmanuel did and didn't mean -just as is commonly done in the domestic realm. That wouldn't have persuaded everybody, of course, but would have at least blunted some of its effects and demonstrated an attentiveness to their concerns that would help build the relationships down the road.
That's a lot to ask of a campaign now intensely focused on the mechanics of transition. But it's not too much to ask from a government. This has been one of the most common recommendations made by the countless task-forces dedicated to improving American public diplomacy - instead of designing policies and then assigning 'public diplomacy' to sell them to relevant publics, give those charged with understanding and engaging with foreign publics a seat at the decision-making table so that their reactions can be anticipated and pre-emptively addressed. Someone should be there to explain to policy-makers how a new policy on, say, missile defense or the peace process or Emmanuel or whatever will likely play with relevant foreign publics and then incorporate a communications strategy before the outrage is generated. The position of Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy could and probably should fill that role at the highest levels, though I'm agnostic about the bureaucratic details.
Just something to think about....