WASHINGTON (Reuters) - After six years of largely unsuccessful efforts to burnish the U.S. image in the Arab world through public diplomacy, here comes The Digital Outreach Team, blogging in Arabic.
Next, possibly, the government’s debut in Second Life.
Public diplomacy is the governmental twin of corporate public relations. As practised by the Bush administration so far, it is based on the assumption that if only the world in general, and the Arab world in particular, knew America and Americans better, it would like them.
That hasn’t worked, despite the best efforts of first Charlotte Beers, an advertising executive who made her reputation by turning Uncle Ben’s rice into a best-selling brand, then State Department veteran Margaret Tutwiler, and most recently Karen Hughes, a close advisor of President George W. Bush who played a key role in his 2000 election campaign.
Beers took up her job shortly after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington and left abruptly 18 months later, after criticism that she did not understand her target audience.
Tutwiler, a highly-regarded former ambassador to Morocco, left after five months - in the week photographs of the mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners shocked the world - and took an executive job at the New York Stock Exchange.
Hughes, a member of Bush’s inner circle from Texas, was engaged in public diplomacy for just over two years.
What stood between their campaign to sell Brand USA and eager Arabs lining up to buy it was a string of events that shaped public perceptions more than catchy slogans, videos, pamphlets, booklets and television ads.
The war in Iraq, for starters, and then the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal, Guantanamo, the shooting of two dozen Iraqi civilians at Haditha, the Baghdad rampage of Blackwater security guards, unflagging U.S. support for Israel. The list goes on.
What Beers and Hughes were trying to do was not unlike polishing a car to a high gloss, putting it under spotlights in a showroom and trying to sell it - without an engine.
Hughes resigned from her post as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy last month with global perceptions of the U.S., according to opinion polls, just as negative as they were when she started her job.
But she left behind an array of committees meant to provide new weapons in the war of ideas between the West and Muslim fundamentalists.
They include the Digital Outreach Team, which was quietly launched a year ago and labored in obscurity until its existence was announced for the first time in public last week to a congressional subcommittee.
The Digital Outreach Team’s job is to spring into action when they see bloggers on Arabic-language sites maligning the U.S. and casting aspersions on U.S. policies.
Duncan MacInnis, the man in charge of the team, described it as “an initiative to counter ideological support for terrorism.”
Government bloggers “speak the language and idiom of the region, know the cultural reference points and are often able to converse informally and frankly rather than adopt the usually more formal persona of a U.S. government spokesman,” he said.
“This is a major departure from our previous ways of conducting public diplomacy. It requires both creativity and a new set of skills.”
The original team of two will be expanded to six, and they will be joined by two linguists blogging in Farsi and one in Urdu to counter terrorist ideas from Iran and Pakistan.
“We are also exploring...new cyber-technologies, such as Second Life and cell phone games to further advance our mission,” according to MacInnis.
Second Life is an online digital world whose more than nine million “residents” can communicate in a variety of languages, including Arabic.
The government’s entry into the blogosphere came with a tacit admission that the PR campaigns of the past six years have been ineffective.
“Terrorists have shown themselves to be adept at exploiting the freedom of the Internet to spread their propaganda directly to young Muslims around the world,” said MacInnis.
“Our traditional communication tools are designed for mainstream media and have little impact in this new information battlefield.”
Few would argue with that observation but how many hearts and minds the novel approach will win is open to doubt. One of the main reasons for the U.S.’s dark image in much of the Middle East is an often glaring gap between the reality of foreign policy and rhetoric.
It will take more than six bloggers to close that gap.
(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters com)
Editing by Sean Maguire