On Aug. 17, Judith McHale, my successor as U.S. undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, sat down with a Pakistani journalist in a hotel conference room in Karachi. According to a New York Times account, the one-on-one meeting was part of U.S. President Barack Obama's strategy to convince "the Pakistani people that the United States is their friend."
McHale gave a "polite presentation about building bridges between America and the Muslim world." Then, the Pakistani journalist, Ansar Abbasi, told her, "You should know that we hate all Americans. From the bottom of our souls, we hate you."
Winning Abbasi's heart and mind would be, to say the least, an ambitious undertaking. He is known for his xenophobia, his support for conspiracy theories, and his knee-jerk anti-Americanism. In an article last September, he floated a rumor that the U.S. government was involved in the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad. In April, he vigorously defended on television the Taliban's public flogging of a 17-year-old Pakistani girl, saying, "Those people who are transgressors against God's law should not be given any mercy."
Can Mosquito Nets Stop Terrorists?
A previously unreported program sheds light on the battle for Africa's hearts and minds -- and the battle between the State Department and the Department of Defense.
By Elizabeth Dickinson
Reasoning with people like Abbasi is futile, but even more counterproductive is the broader reconciliation strategy, described in the Times as "one message: America cares about Pakistan." Making people like us better is a perfectly decent U.S. goal, but is an image-building strategy the most effective use of public diplomacy's tools in such a crucial relationship? And should the U.S. public image even be such a priority in the first place?
I don't think so. Abbasi is right about one thing. Pakistanis don't like the United States, and they are unlikely to change their minds soon, no matter how many bridge-building meetings we have with them.
Rather than trying to win Pakistanis over, the United States should focus on undercutting support for the mutual enemy -- violent extremists -- by helping Pakistanis in government and civil society engage their fellow citizens with a powerful narrative about the threat posed by the enemy and how to combat it. This promises to be a better use of U.S. diplomatic resources and a more beneficial mindset for Washington as well.
Although views of the United States have become more positive in most countries since Obama's inauguration, they have deteriorated in Pakistan. The most recent Pew Global Attitudes survey, conducted this spring and released last month, found that only 16 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of the United States, with 68 percent unfavorably disposed.
But even as U.S. favorability has slipped, support for al Qaeda and the Taliban has plummeted. In spring 2008, some 25 percent of Pakistanis had a favorable opinion of al Qaeda, with 34 percent unfavorable -- a disturbingly close split. Today, just 9 percent have a favorable opinion, with 61 percent unfavorable.
So too with the Taliban: The ratings shifted from 27 percent favorable and 33 percent unfavorable in 2008 to 10 percent favorable and 70 percent unfavorable today. In addition, the percentage of Pakistanis concerned about "extremism in our country" rose from 72 to 79 percent in a year.
The State Department and other U.S. agencies -- including the broadcasters of Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which have expanded their objective coverage for Pakistanis -- helped effect this change. But most of the credit should go to the terrorists themselves.
With their assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, their attacks on innocent civilians in Islamabad and elsewhere, and the Taliban's bloodthirsty behavior after Pakistan ceded them judicial control in the Swat Valley, the violent extremists have turned a largely complacent Pakistani population against them. Similar shifts in support for terrorism occurred in Arab countries after attacks by terrorists in Amman, Casablanca, and elsewhere.
Until very recently, Pakistanis treated the lawless terrorist havens along the Afghan border in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and North-West Frontier Province like the American Wild West -- outside the control of the central government, anarchic, and on their own. What happened in FATA stayed in FATA, they hoped. Now, Pakistani minds are changing. And the U.S. State Department, military, intelligence community, and private sector should continue to support this change -- and can do so with relatively little money.
We should not abandon attempts to make Pakistanis admire and respect us, but we must recognize that those efforts are long-term and expensive. Currently, about $600 million, or about two-thirds of the State Department's overall public diplomacy budget, goes to efforts such as educational and cultural exchanges. But at a time of violent extremist threats, public diplomacy, as during the Cold War, must be more immediate, countering pernicious ideologies and helping divert young people from following a path that leads to terrorism.
That job is best accomplished not by direct U.S. action but by support for indigenous people and organizations. With what I call Public Diplomacy 2.0, which started toward the end of the George W. Bush administration, we positioned the U.S. government as a facilitator and convener of a broad, informed, and free conversation, often using new social-networking technologies. That conversation brings Pakistan and other Muslim countries the vivid story of terrorism and a potent narrative that leads to action to enhance these societies' own security.