Friday, February 27, 2009

Listening and PD Policy

An editorial in the Washington-based Middle East Times today cited a public opinion survey of the Muslim world, based on polling in Jordan, Turkey, Nigeria and Azerbaijan, and more than 3,000 in-depth interviews in Egypt, Pakistan and the Palestinian territories. The editorial summarized several important conclusions of the study, which applied across the Muslim world.

1. Significant majorities in all countries covered "firmly reject" attacks against American civilians for political goals, ranging from 80% in Egypt and Azerbaijan to 60% in Pakistan and Palestine.

2. Equally large majorities disapprove of U.S. military action in the Middle East. This doesn't seem terribly shocking at first, but its corollary is:

"the disturbing finding that very significant majorities approve of attacks on U.S. troops based in Iraq, the Gulf, and Afghanistan. Large majorities approve of attacks in Egypt (over 78 percent), the Palestinian territories (87 percent), and Jordan (66 percent). In Turkey and Pakistan views are more divided. However, only minorities in Indonesia and Azerbaijan would endorse such attacks."

In other words, the same majority that rejects "terrorism," meaning attacks on U.S. civilians, does in fact support violent attacks on U.S. military. The fact that respondents lump the Gulf in with Iraq and Afghanistan suggests that this goes for "peacekeeping" or "advisory" forces as well as combat troops.

I think these findings are especially important in light of the Iraq plan Obama unveiled today, in which he plans to leave a reserve of 50,000 non-combat troops for year or so after removing "all combat troops." The findings of this study suggest that this is a distinction that people in the Muslim world do not make.

This goes directly to the question of whether Public Diplomacy should play a role in policy development, i.e. whether there should be a Secretary of Public Diplomacy in the cabinet. Obama's plan was clearly drawn up with careful and sound military advice about security concerns and the strength of the Iraqi military. Maybe these facts can't be avoided. But at the same time, it would have been worthwhile to have someone at that meeting to say: "Most people in the Middle East strongly distinguish between civilian and military, but not between combat and non-combat troops."

A voice like that in the meeting could have led to some alternatives: replacing some of those 50,000 advisory troops with civilian USAID staff, for example. Maybe that's an oversimplification, but it seems like the PD perspective would be useful for major decisions like this.

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