Barack Obama: Diplomat in Chief
President Obama made his first personal foray into world diplomacy this week and he didn’t even have to leave the White House. On Monday he gave his first formal interview since being sworn in to the Dubai based Al-Arabiya network. While the interview content did not break new policy ground its symbolism and tone (thoughtful and at times humble) spoke volumes.
This move displays Obama’s smarts policy-wise. It’s also a somewhat bold move domestically given right-wing efforts to link the concepts “Muslim" and "Obama" in voters’ brains. But in one symbolic act, Obama telegraphed his willingness to perhaps begin to reframe the “war on terror” as actually a bit more about communication across cultural divides and a bit less battle on the battlefield. (And this issue of the problems with the concept “war on terror” is addressed directly in the interview.)
Too often the term “public diplomacy” has been bureaucratic jargon for a mix of Voice of America programing and slick global advertising campaigns. That type of public diplomacy is thus a euphemism for propaganda. This was true especially during the Bush administration. What we really do need is a broader conception of “public diplomacy” that improves cooperation across the globe through understanding how all our nation’s words and actions impact international relations. Through shutting down Guantanamo to arranging a dramatic interview with a Muslim audience, Obama is focusing attention on this most important part of public diplomacy. Notably, he has also pledged to make a major speech from a Muslim capitol soon. (Of course the citizens’ election of the multi-racial Barack Hussein Obama is the most important recent act of American public diplomacy.)
So Obama deserves applause for making personal outreach to the rest of the world – and particularly to the Muslim world community – a personal priority in his first days in office. Peace Action West is encouraging Congress and the administration to look at another crucial piece of the public diplomacy puzzle. The global impact of the civilian casualties our current military strategy inevitably causes in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq seriously undercuts outreach to Muslim communities. It may be hard for Americans to understand, but for many people, casualties caused by our military actions are seen in some of the same heartrending light as the abuses at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. If the Obama team has made winning “hearts and minds” with Muslims across the globe a top priority, they'll have to work to stop these far too frequent tragic attacks. As I wrote earlier this month, there are other, better ways of shutting down terrorist networks than counterproductive attacks likely to frequently cause “collateral damage” and thus become a recruitment pretext for insurgents.