Argument

Fiasco in Jerusalem

Israel's embarrassment of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is just further evidence of the Netanyahu government's incompetence.

Benjamin Netanyahu accidentally broke the glass on Tuesday, but that was just the beginning -- and only the lesser Israeli disaster in a day that marked a new low point for Netanyahu's rocky relationship with the current U.S. administration. The Israeli prime minister's team prepared a symbolic gift for visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden: a framed document announcing that several trees were planted in Jerusalem in memory of Biden's mother, a loyal supporter of Israel. But Netanyahu leaned on the present by mistake and shattered the glass frame. "I have one thing to offer you right now, and it's broken glass," the prime minister said, trying to improvise a joke during a joint news conference. It got worse.

Biden arrived in Israel, the third and most-senior U.S. official to do so in less than three weeks, mainly to talk about Iran. President Barack Obama's administration is worried that Israel might interfere with the U.S. plan to initiate international sanctions against the regime in Tehran by launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. But apart from issuing restraining orders against Israeli F-16s, the Americans were also hoping to show progress on the Palestinian track. After many attempts, and many mistakes, it seemed by early March that both sides were willing to resume negotiations, though indirectly, mediated by U.S. special envoy George Mitchell. This was hardly a cause for celebration because everybody involved in the talks assumes there is only a slight chance of significant achievement in the near future. Yet Netanyahu managed to ruin even that. A few hours after Biden arrived in Jerusalem, Israel's Interior Ministry announced that approval had been granted to build 1,600 new housing units in Ramat Shlomo, an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in northeast Jerusalem that borders the Palestinian neighborhood of Shuafat.

The units were authorized by the Jerusalem District Planning and Building Committee, the body in charge of approving such programs. It will be one of the largest construction projects launched by Israel in Jerusalem in recent years. It is also seen as a direct insult to the vice president because the Obama administration had emphasized numerous times during the last few months its strong reservations against Jewish neighborhoods expanding beyond the Green Line (1967 borders) in East Jerusalem. Ramat Shlomo lies beyond that line.

Biden reacted immediately. In Washington, the White House issued a statement condemning the decision, while the vice president, acting in what was clearly an undiplomatic manner, arrived an hour and a half late to a formal dinner with the prime minister and his wife. Biden, it was explained, was busy on the phone with Washington, trying to figure out the appropriate U.S. response. Then on Wednesday in Ramallah, the vice president verbally attacked the Israeli decision, saying the housing plan "undermines ... the trust that we need right now in order to begin as well as produce profitable negotiations."

Why was it necessary for Netanyahu to embarrass Biden, a longtime supporter of Israel and a man the prime minister describes as a personal friend? Did Netanyahu even know of the plan to announce the decision during the visit? The answer to the second question is apparently negative, as Netanyahu has denied being in the loop. As for the timing, it might have been a coincidence because the committee was planning to do it anyway.

It wouldn't even come as a surprise to anybody following the Israeli bureaucracy closely. Many in the United States see Netanyahu as a hard-liner who isn't serious about peace. But seen from Israel, a perhaps more-important issue is the incompetence of some of his advisors. Netanyahu's government makes unnecessary blunders (such as the recent pointless insults to the Turkish ambassador in Tel Aviv) on an almost weekly basis, though usually the consequences aren't always so far-reaching.

For Netanyahu, the current disorganized construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank is a feature, not a bug. Israeli governments, as a rule, find it useful to leave such district planning commissions with no supervision. "A righteous person's work is done by others," goes the old Jewish saying. Why should a minister bother to interrupt? If the construction goes unnoticed, Israel has succeeded in creating "facts on the ground" in a disputed area. If the plan is exposed, better not to be involved. East Jerusalem is not officially included in Netanyahu's pledge to freeze construction in the settlements for 10 months. But a close look at the situation in the West Bank will show that even there, the government and the settlers have found diverse ways to bypass the official decision. Settlers were granted permission to build hundreds of housing units just before the freeze was announced, and they are also allowed to complete houses for which the foundations have already been laid.

There is also a potential domestic political explanation for the latest crisis. Interior Minister Eli Yishai is the leader of Shas, an ultra-Orthodox party on the right wing of Netanyahu's coalition. His ministry's decision will mostly help Shas constituents living in the overcrowded religious neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Yishai faces fierce competition from within his party, but unlike Netanyahu, the interior minister can afford some criticism from Washington. Actually, it might even help him among his voters.

Not surprisingly, the Palestinians could hardly curb their enthusiasm regarding the Israeli fiasco. While not very keen to achieve any progress in the "proximity talks" with the Israelis, Palestinian leaders are more than happy to see Israel take the blame for any obstacles to Obama's dream of peace in the region. Unfortunately, the outcome for Netanyahu might be even worse. At such a delicate time regarding Iran, Israel needs maximum cooperation and understanding from the Unites States. But after this latest scandal, Obama and Biden now have fewer reasons to trust Netanyahu's word.

Avi Ohayon - GPO via Getty Images

Argument

How to Win the War of Ideas

What the Obama administration needs to understand about Muslims, extremism, and America's image.

Barack Obama entered the Oval Office implicitly promising to single-handedly reinvent America's image in the world. And if his administration had a strategy for reducing the long-term threat of violent extremism, it boiled down to this: Put the president in front of a microphone, and let his natural charisma do the work.

This approach has paid some dividends; multiple surveys show that views of the United States have noticeably improved over the last year. But winning the war of ideas means making progress on a much wider, and arguably more important, set of indicators. It means putting together carefully calibrated actions and initiatives that together make up public diplomacy, which is often wrongly conflated with old-fashioned public relations. It's not the same thing.

The future of public diplomacy, in my view, is in doubt. It is not currently being taken seriously  by policymakers as a tool of national security. Furthermore, when officials do focus on strategic communication, they often turn to American brand-burnishing, which ignores the unresolved question of whether a better-liked America can more easily achieve its national security goals.

There is a better way. Public diplomacy needs to be sharp, not flaccid. It needs to focus on key foreign-policy problems, not merely on vague, feel-good improvements in the far-off future. It needs to be primarily an activity of national security, not of public relations. It needs to be mobilized and sent into battle to win the ideological conflicts of our time.

When I served as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, we tried to achieve our war-of-ideas goals in two ways: first, by pushing back and undermining the ideology behind violent extremism while at the same time explaining and advocating free alternatives and, second, by diverting young people from following a path that leads to violent extremism. What all terrorist groups have in common, in fact, is the exploitation of vulnerable young people, who are isolated and indoctrinated and become the shock troops of these movements.

In both of these endeavors -- undermining and diverting -- Americans themselves are rarely the most credible actors and voices. Much of what we did was encourage others. For example, we supported a global organization of female family members of victims of violent extremism and supported another network, based in Europe, of Muslim entrepreneurs.

In Afghanistan, with the most meager resources, we helped stand up an Afghan-led media center in Kabul. In October 2008, the Taliban stopped a bus in the town of Maiwand, pulled off 50 passengers, and beheaded 30 of them. The media center's leaders immediately brought together 300 Afghan religious leaders who issued a statement condemning the action and calling it anti-Islamic. The effort led to widespread anti-Taliban protests.

What do these efforts in strategic public diplomacy have to do with improving America's image abroad? Very little, in an immediate sense. The United States  is not at the center of the war of ideas. Rather, the United States is being affected by conflicts within Muslim societies, which themselves are ground zero for this enormous struggle.

On the threat of violent extremism, the United States is absolutely on the same page as Muslim societies. As a result, even in countries where vast majorities say, even today, that they view the United States unfavorably -- Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, to name a few -- the mutual interest in defeating the terrorist threat and, I should add, in constraining the Iranian threat, means that the United States can work cooperatively, using public diplomacy methods, to reach mutually shared goals.

Americans, for example, have a clear mutual interest with Pakistanis, who, according to recent Pew Research Center surveys, view Americans more unfavorably than practically any other people (in fact, favorability dropped, to just 16 percent, between 2008 and 2009). Both want to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda for the sake of a stable, free Pakistan and a safer America. That interest can be achieved even if Pakistanis harbor animus toward Americans.

The latest Pew data reinforce this notion. By a margin of 63 percent to 12 percent, Pakistanis support America's "providing intelligence and logistical support to Pakistani troops fighting extremist groups." By 47 percent to 24 percent, Pakistanis even support U.S. "missile strikes against leaders of extremist groups." What can public diplomacy do in Pakistan? Working quietly, it can help the Pakistani government reinforce the notion that the violent extremist threat is real and that "this is Pakistan's war."

Much of the public diplomacy effort in the past has focused on America's own image, on how Americans are seen by others. But today, in the war of ideas, our core task is not how to fix foreigners' perceptions of the United States but how to isolate and reduce the threat of violent extremism. In other words, it's not about us.

We began to develop such an approach during my tenure in government, calling it Public Diplomacy 2.0. The approach begins with research on America's image. We found three reasons for low favorability -- differences with U.S. policies, a lack of understanding of those policies and beliefs, and a perception that the United States does not respect the views of others, does not listen to them, or take them seriously. These last two subjects -- lack of understanding by foreigners and lack of respect by the United States -- cannot be addressed by preaching or by telling the world how wonderful America is. In fact, the technique of standing in one place and spraying a message widely to others is not very effective in today's world.

A better way to communicate is through the generation of a wide and deep conversation. The U.S. role in that conversation is as facilitator and convener. We generate this conversation in the belief that our views will be heard -- even if U.S. government actors are not always the authors of those views.

The most urgent task confronting this new concept of public diplomacy is to dispel the pernicious idea in Muslim societies is that the United States wants to destroy Islam and replace it with Christianity. Vast majorities in many countries believe this narrative, and it is the prism through which they view almost all U.S. activities. But to try to refute this narrative head-on is not easy. A better approach is to promote a different narrative -- one that reflects the truth.

The indispensable narrative is the real story of what is happening in Muslim societies. It is a narrative of two conflicts that are within Muslim societies. Yes, the United States is deeply affected by them, but they are intra-Muslim conflicts and need to be understood that way.

The first conflict involves a small group of violent reactionaries -- led by al Qaeda, the Taliban, and allied groups -- that is trying, through horrifying brutality, to bring more than 1 billion Muslims into line with a sweeping totalitarian doctrine, inconsistent with the tenets of Islam.

Growing numbers of Muslims are waking up to this threat and are opposing and ostracizing the violent extremists in their midst -- even in Pakistan, where a terrible threat had been widely ignored. Even as U.S. favorability has slipped, support for al Qaeda and the Taliban has plummeted. In the spring of 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. Our job in public diplomacy should be to help spread information about these reactionary groups trying to destroy Islam.

The second, much broader conflict involves the battle between Muslim societies and their governments over democracy and human rights, especially the rights of women. Many Arab governments have denied their citizens what Egyptian activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has called "the infrastructure of democracy": rule of law, an independent judiciary, free media, gender equality, and autonomous civil society. These necessities of liberty are more important than ballots dropped in a box, as Americans have seen by the actions of the terrorist Hamas regime in Gaza.

A widespread criticism among Muslims is that the United States has not pressed authoritarian allies to democratize. For both moral and strategic reasons, we have a stake in supporting free societies with accountable governments. The reality of democracies thriving in Muslim societies -- such as Turkey and Indonesia -- is a powerful counterweight to the canard that Islam and political freedom can't coexist. Here, public diplomacy can remind those advancing freedom and democracy that they aren't alone and that history, including our own, is replete with examples of brave advocates.

For the immediate future, our job in public diplomacy is to promote this accurate narrative in everything we do. We can do it while at the same time emphasizing America's values -- concepts of pluralism, freedom, and opportunity that run counter to the extremists' ideology. We should emphasize that the United States won't be a passive bystander in these struggles. We will advance our own ideals and interests -- which include promoting a comprehensive two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Particularly on Iran, the United States is squandering a great opportunity. Public diplomacy can advance U.S. objectives -- mainly because of the brave opposition movement that developed after the June elections. What is the United States doing to help? It's hard to see.

The United States needs to do more: providing moral and educational support for the green movement in Iran by publicizing what worked in Ukraine or Georgia; dubbing into Farsi documentaries on the fall of Ceausescu, Milosevic, and Pinochet; the transitions in South Africa and Poland; and the achievements of the U.S. civil rights movement. The great fear of the Iranian regime is that a nonviolent civil resistance in the form of a color movement, like those in states of the former Soviet Union, will gain authority and legitimacy and, ultimately, power through democratic means. The regime is right to be afraid.

The United States should also work to tighten sanctions on the Iranian economy and publicize the connection between regime belligerence and economic malaise. The slogans of the protesters demonstrate that they are connecting the dots between the regime's foreign policy and economic privation.

America needs to do all it can to increase communications within Iran, as well as between Iran and the outside world -- and help Iranians get the technology to overcome regime attempts to block and censor. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has often stated that he believes the Islamic Republic is engaged in a soft war with the West. As pointed out by Mehdi Khalaji and J. Scott Carpenter, he believes "all new telecommunication, Internet and satellite technology are Western tools to defeat him in this war." The United States should be furnishing that technology.

The task ahead is to tell the world the story of a good and compassionate nation and, at the same time, to engage in the most important ideological contest of our time -- a contest America will win.

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images