U.S. public diplomacy and the Arab uprisings

The empowerment of Arab publics through months of uprisings and popular protests is driving a structural change in the texture of regional politics which has only begun to unfold.  Whether or not regimes fall, or real democracy emerges, every political player in the region who hopes to remain competitive will have to be more responsive to the concerns and demands of the mobilized public.  Sometimes that will involve demands for democracy and reform, but it would be delusional to believe that those popular passions will not extend to foreign policy concerns, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the regional role of Iran. 

One implication of this is that the burden on U.S. public diplomacy has never been greater.  As the role of publics expands, it becomes ever more urgent that the U.S. better understand them and effectively engage with them across a far wider spectrum (it's incomprehensible that Congress wants to slash funding for these functions at precisely the time they are most needed). The rapidly increasing urgency of public diplomacy made particularly interesting yesterday's panel at the Brookings U.S.-Islamic World Forum, where  I commented on presentations by four top administration officials with responsibility for engagement with the Muslim communities of the world.  While their comments were off the record, I can outline some of my own thoughts about where we are and where we need to go.  The bottom line is that the administration can claim vindication for some of its early decisions about how to craft global engagement, but has a lot to do if it hopes to grapple effectively with the new challenges.   

It's easy to point to the problems with American public diplomacy, and I'll do that at the end of this post.  But first, I would point to three areas where the administration can claim some real vindication in its approach to engagement with the Muslim world.  

First, and largely unrecognized, its focus on building up networks around areas of common interest with Muslim youth, entrepreneurs, and technology (among others) meant that the administration had points of contact with key individuals in those groups outside the mainstream of political activists and traditional civil society.  Many people mocked the administration's focus on youth, the internet, entrepreneurs, health, science and technology as missing the point.  But the composition of Tahrir Square's revolutionaries demonstrates powerfully how forming those broader contacts and networks in the preceding years paid concrete dividends.  People who administration officials got to know in their capacity as health or technology innovators now prove to be just as important to the newly mobilized public as traditional political party leaders or newspaper editors. If the administration decided today to try to set up engagement networks with internet activists or youth leaders across the Muslim world they would be seen as hopelessly behind the curve.  They deserve some credit for being ahead of the curve. 

Second, the uprisings demonstrate the wisdom of the administration's efforts to downgrade the "war of ideas" and to deal with the Muslim communities of the world through a lens not defined by terrorism and al-Qaeda. It isn't entirely an accident that al-Qaeda has struggled to find a foothold in the Arab uprisings. It has become increasingly marginal to Arab political discourse (though that many not be the case in the Afghanistan-Pakistan zone, at least) and its narrative has little relevance to the events unfolding over the last few months.  That doesn't mean it can't come back.  If the revolutions stall or end in brutal violence, it may be able to claim vindication of its own and find new footing.  The distraction or collapse of hostile regimes, especially in Yemen and Libya, could give it more operating space.   And the domestic American politicization of Islam, from Quran-burning to anti-sharia campaigns (or, offshore, Sarkozy's niqab ban), offers a lifeline to its "clash of civilizations" narrative.  Through all this,  the administration (notably recently through senior officials such as John Brennan and Denis McDonough) has consistently and bravely pushed back to defend the place of Islam in American life.  

Third, the administration got Libya, Egypt and Tunisia right.  While activists will always be disappointed that the U.S. isn't completely and instantly on their side, and regimes will always be upset for the same reason, the administration did help significantly in pushing Ben Ali and Mubarak off their thrones, and in the case of Egypt played a pivotal role in restraining the military from using violence.  On Libya, the administration saw more clearly than even many Middle East experts the unprecedented focus and direction of Arab public opinion demanding Western action to save Libyans from Qaddafi's slaughter.  These days, it's all the rage among Realists to find reasons why Qaddafi really wouldn't have harmed the people of Benghazi in spite of his history, his advancing military forces, and his public warnings of what he was about to do, but fortunately the administration's wasn't so trusting and didn't wait for the mass graves to act.  And it's all the rage on the left to see the US-NATO intervention as an act of imperialism, Iraq-redux, but fortunately the administration was able to see things as they were and not stand paralyzed by faulty historical analogies.  But at those decisive moments, thanks to al-Jazeera and the unfolding narrative of the Arab uprising, Arab public opinion was decisively on the side of intervention and would have held the U.S. responsible for the impending slaughter.  

That's the good.  But there's also a lot on the other side of the ledger.   While the engagement networks and activities described above offer some pockets of progress, overall U.S. public diplomacy in the region remains distressingly weak.  The retail-level, local engagement can only be one part of the overall strategy, and needs to be synched up with stronger macro-level engagement and communications.   I'm not sure why there has been so little progress after two years, but I see very little evidence of sustained, coherent, broad engagement with Arab publics.  The finely calibrated U.S. position on key issues such as its goals for Libya currently or its position on Mubarak's departure a few months ago just are not being effectively communicated in a clear, consistent and credible way.  This has to get better.  

There are also obvious problems at the policy level, which are built in to the realities of America's position in the region.  The administration's acquiescence to the harsh Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain is understandable, given the intensity of Saudi preferences and the importance of the naval base for the Fifth Fleet, but it has crippled the administration's efforts to paint itself as being guided by a clear set of universal principles. Gaza and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more broadly continues to animate Arab perceptions of U.S. double-standards and hypocrisy, with few takers for the administration's beleaguered defense that they have tried hard on those issues even if they have been frustrated.  Guantanamo remains open, despite the administration's efforts.  

This phase --what I call the "Empire Strikes Back" period, following the "New Hope" of Cairo and Tunis -- poses new challenges. The darker days of bloodshed from Syria, Yemen and Bahrain to Libya over the last month give an entirely different texture to the discourse. The initial Arab enthusiasm for Western intervention can not be sustained indefinitely, and will likely evaporate completely if there is an escalation to Western troops on the ground.  The battle in places like Egypt and Tunis has shifted to struggles over constitutional design and electoral strategy which don't make for the kind of riveting TV which drove the protests, and the U.S. will need to work hard to keep frustrated revolutionaries engaged with the process.  The administration is going to have to figure out how to deal with Islamist groups who want to participate in democratic politics.   And the administration will constantly struggle to balance between its relationship with Arab regimes and its efforts to align itself with the empowered Arab public.

Secretary of State Hilary Clinton's speech last night  at the Forum represented one effort to lay out an American vision for dealing with these new regional realities.  President Obama will likely be doing more in the coming weeks and months.   Those are important beginnings, and demonstrate the extent to which the administration is actively grappling with the new realities posed by empowered publics and a rapidly changing region.  They've done better than many people realize.  But there's a long way to go, and real problems at both the policy and communications levels to address in the coming days. 


Brookings Institution, photo from U.S.-Islamic World Forum, April 12, 2011

Marc Lynch

Why Obama had to act in Libya

"We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi – a city nearly the size of Charlotte – could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world. It was not in our national interest to let that happen. I refused to let that happen."  

This was the blunt, powerful heart of President Obama's speech last night explaining American intervention in Libya: had the international community not acted when it did, thousands would have been slaughtered as the world watched.   The effects of that decision would have been felt across the Middle East, where America would have been deemed to have abandoned the people struggling for freedom in the Arab world.  And it would have quite simply been wrong. I have long been conflicted about the decision to intervene militarily, primarily because of the absence of a clearly defined end-game and the risk of escalation. I doubt that Obama's speech will convince many of his critics. But I now think that he made the right call.

My conversations with administration officials, including but not limited to the one recounted by the indefatigable Laura Rozen, convinced me that they believed that a failure to act when and how they did would have led to a horrific slaughter in Benghazi and then across Libya.  There was no mad rush to war, and certainly no master plan to invade Libya to grab its oil.  The administration resisted intervening militarily until they had no choice, preferring at first to use diplomatic means and economic sanctions to signal that Qaddafi's use of force would not help keep him in power.  The military intervention came when those had failed, and when Qaddafi's forces were closing in on Benghazi and he was declaring his intention to exterminate them like rats.  

And my conversations with Arab activists and intellectuals, and my monitoring of Arab media and internet traffic, have convinced me that the intervention was both important and desirable.  The administration understood, better than their critics, that Libya had become a litmus test for American credibility and intentions, with an Arab public riveted to al-Jazeera.  From what I can see, many people broadly sympathetic to Arab interests and concerns are out of step with Arab opinion this time.    In the Arab public sphere, this is not another Iraq -- though, as I've warned repeatedly, it could become one if American troops get involved on the ground and there is an extended, bloody quagmire.  This administration is all too aware of the dangers of mission creep, escalation, and the ticking clock on Arab and international support which so many of us have warned against.  They don't want another Iraq, as Obama made clear.... even if it is not obvious that they can avoid one. 

The centrality of Libya to the Arab narrative about regional transformation is the main reason why I am unmoved by the "double standards" argument that we are not intervening in Cote D'Ivoire.  It did matter more to core U.S. national interests because the outcome would affect the entire Middle East.  Thanks to al-Jazeera's intense focus on Libya, literally the whole Arab world was watching, dictators and publics alike.  Not acting would have been a  powerful action which would have haunted America's standing in the region for a decade.  And many of the same people now denouncing the intervention would have been up in arms at America's indifference to Arab life -- it is all too easy to imagine denunciations such as "the dream of the Cairo speech died in the streets of Benghazi as Barack Obama proved that he does not care about Muslim lives." 

The double-standards argument applies more forcefully to Bahrain, where attempts to mediate a negotiated reform package fell apart in favor of Saudi/GCC intervention and a descent into nasty sectarianism.  Obviously the naval base in Bahrain and its strategic importance to Saudi Arabia are decisive factors.  And the U.S. is paying a price for that failure with parts of Arab public opinion and with many regional analysts, as it should (though al-Jazeera's limited coverage and the unfortunate popularity of the sectarian Sunni-Shi'a narrative blunt that edge slightly). The double-standards argument about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still there and strong.  One of the most frequent points I hear made in the Arab arena is still "where was the No-Fly Zone for Gaza?"  The U.S. pays a political price for that, and if a new Israeli war breaks out with Gaza or Hezbollah, and the U.S. is forced to take sides, then this may very well wash away all the administration has done to try to engage and build partnerships with the newly empowered Arab public.   Those are real problems -- but neither of them should mean that the U.S. can't at least get Libya right. 

That doesn't mean that there are no problems.  The administration hasn't done a great job communicating its position, particularly on the question of whether or not Qaddafi's departure is the goal (I personally think it has to be).   While I hope that today's London meeting will produce more clarity on a political path forward, I haven't seen much to suggest one yet.  I'm still very worried about the endgame, that Qaddafi might hold on and drive a problematic partition or that the U.S. and NATO will be tempted to escalate with ground forces to prevent such a hurting stalemate.  I worry about second-order effects across the region, including the likely terminal impact on the negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program since Tehran can see clearly that Qaddafi's deal with the West did not buy him long term support. But I also see the potential upsides of a successful intervention.  And then there's the push to apply the Libya model to Syria or Iran or even Saudi Arabia, which most people understand would be disastrous but which may well soon confront the administration whether it likes it or not. But for all of that, I feel that the U.S. did what it had to do, when it had to do it. 

Official White House photo, Pete Souza, January 28, 2011