Why Uncle Ben Hasn’t Sold Uncle Sam

When a war isn’t fully on course, blame ineffective propaganda. That certainly was the message of the Washington Post in its Sunday “Outlook” edition (March 30). Several articles, including one by a British psychological warfare specialist, underscored that the U.S. had not won hearts and minds in the Middle East during its military campaign in Iraq. The it’s-the-propaganda’s-fault-stupid syndrome was also in evidence in the media during the early stages of the Afghan war, when the U.S didn’t seem quite able to rout the Taliban. Again in the pro-Iraq war Post (October 21, 2002), Richard Holbrooke opined: “Call it public diplomacy, or public affairs, or psychological warfare or ­- if you really want to be blunt — propaganda. But whatever it is called, defining what this war is really about in the minds of the 1 billion Muslims in the world will be of decisive and historic importance.”

But the failures of “whatever it is called” during the Bush administration go beyond particular episodes of the armed conflicts it so willingly embraces. Indeed, the administration’s public diplomacy –in official State Department parlance, U.S. government programs that engage, inform and influence foreign audiences — has been marked by one catastrophe after another, from limp videos about Muslim life in America to simplistic brochures on terrorism. Millions throughout the globe now demonstrate against the U.S. and its policies.

Given this universally negative image of the United States, unprecedented in our history, it’s no wonder that the head of the administration’s public diplomacy effort, Charlotte Beers, the marketing guru who brought us the Uncle Ben ad campaigns, recently resigned, officially for reasons of health. A successor has not yet been named.

Reasons for the failures of the public diplomacy since Bush took office abound. First, public diplomacy — like diplomacy itself — has been put on the back burner by the White House and the Pentagon. What really matters for this administration is force, not negotiations or communications with foreign publics. Soft power, America’s ability to influence the world through its achievements and ideals, is passé to Bush and his advisers. After 9/11, the president tells us, we must focus on fighting terrorists, rogue states, and all those who are against us. It’s an eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth world, with no room for the subtleties of diplomacy, traditional or public.

Second, Bush’s public diplomacy hasn’t been properly integrated in policy as a whole. The result: Messages that are out of sync with or irrelevant to what the administration actually does. As Peter Freundlich put it on an NPR program: “We are sending our gathered might to the Persian Gulf to make the point that might does not make right, as Saddam Hussein seems to think it doesWe cannot leave in power a dictator who ignores his own people. And if our people, and people elsewhere in the world, fail to understand that, then we have no choice but to ignore them.”

The White House’s Office of Global Communications is supposed to fix this gap between policy and message, but the world (and, I sense, the State Department’s Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs staff as well) is as confused as ever about what the administration is up to. No wonder that conspiracy theories about our Iraqi adventure abound. Is it for oil? Is it to avenge Bush Sr. against Saddam’s assassination attempt against him? Is to redraw the map of the Middle East? Nobody knows for sure, and who can blame them, since the policy and the message don’t gibe.

Third, the formulation of a downgraded public diplomacy by Ms. Beers and company has been marked by a singular lack of imagination. Ms. Beers may have been able to understand why people hate dandruff (hence the success of her Head and Shoulders commercials), but she was clearly incapable of penetrating the mentality of people in countries other than her own. The ability to empathize with other cultures — which is the aim of the vastly successful Fulbright educational exchange program — was clearly not her forte. Hence pathetic videos on U.S. “values” that insulted foreign audiences by their superficiality.

Let’s briefly return to propaganda, which so many erroneously confuse with public diplomacy, including, evidently, Mr. Holbrooke cited above. Now there is nothing wrong with propaganda per se. The best writers on the subject agree that it is a morally neutral process of persuasion used (under another name, rhetoric) since at least the ancient Greeks. It would be naïve to think that propaganda is not an element in public diplomacy. But the trouble starts when propaganda is used stupidly and makes a mockery of public diplomacy. This is what the administration has done, and it’s the fourth reason that its public diplomacy has failed.

Take the so-called “justifications” for the war in Iraq, which so clearly failed to convince the world. They show all the marks of crude propaganda:

* The repetition of unconnected words and slogans–weapons of mass destruction, regime change, he gassed his own people–instead of presenting a coherent and credible argument;

* The demonization of everyone, from the Iraqi to the French, who disagree with the president’s policy ­- instead of providing a solid and logical refutation of their views;

* The appeal to atavistic emotions ­- fear of the other, suspicion of the unknown — instead of making a honest case through serious intellectual discussion.

Propaganda is a bad word in America, so “branding” was a much used phrase during Ms. Beer’s tenure. It’s not surprising that the expression would be so popular among the administration. After all, when asked by a New York Times reporter last year why Bush’s war plans were fully announced only after Labor Day, White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card replied that “from a marketing point of view you don’t introduce new products in August.”

Public diplomacy is not branding for the simple reason that public diplomacy deals with a country, not a product. But, even from a branding, marketing perspective, the administration’s public diplomacy has been a disaster. Jack Trout, an advertising man who began working for the State Department last fall, is quoted in an article in the Christian Science Monitor (March 24) as saying that “America had one idea attached to its brand. We presented ourselves as the world’s last superpower. And that was the world’s worst branding idea.” Bush’s strategy, says Trout, “was a moving target. In the world of marketing, you pick one idea and it’s what you do.”

Finally, the Bush administration has failed in its public diplomacy because it has not remedied the Clinton administration’s mishandling of it, which included the closing of open-access libraries overseas, the underfunding of educational and cultural programs, and the consolidation of the United States Information Agency (USIA, established in 1953 to carry out U.S. government information and educational programs) into the State Department in 1999. The small-scale USIA, for all its faults, was nimble and flexible enough to react quickly to public diplomacy challenges such as rapidly changing overseas opinion. The State Department, a bloated bureaucracy, is all too often incapable of doing this effectively. The loss of USIA is especially felt at the field level, where public diplomacy officers feel cramped by the excessive rules and regulations of the State Department hierarchy, which looks down at them for being engaged in what it considers non-priority activities.

What is to be done? Since 9/11 there have been many recommendations on how to improve our failed public diplomacy, including a lengthy report by the Council on Foreign Relations which outlines in detail what steps should be taken. As a former practitioner of the trade, I would suggest four ways to bring public diplomacy back on it feet:

First, “attitude lobotomy,” in the words of Thomas Friedman. The administration, if it’s capable of it, must simply get out of its parochial shell and view the world in a more nuanced way.

Second, we need what I’d call preemptive public diplomacy ­- planning and implementing information, educational, and cultural programs that go beyond the immediate needs of the moment but are based on our long-term interests.

Third, we should increase U.S. government artistic presentations in countries where American culture is viewed unidimensionally as vulgar Hollywood-produced violence.

Finally, instead of having foreign service officers who like pawns on a chessboard move from one country to another every two or three years, we should develop area experts who become thoroughly familiar with a particular part of the world–and especially, at this time, with Muslim countries. With knowledgeable people in the field who are listened to in Washington, public diplomacy programs can be shaped effectively to promote American national interests.

Of course, no public diplomacy will fix poor policy. So no matter how much propaganda is used to support the war on Iraq, the U.S. stands to lose much in this tragic conflict, even with a so-called military “victory” that can be achieved only at the cost of enormous devastation and the loss of international good will toward the United States.

JOHN BROWN recently resigned from the Foreign Service to protest the Bush administration’s war plans. The title for this article comes from a piece by Richard Tomkins in Financial Times on line (March 5, 2003). He can be reached at: jbrown@counterpunch.org