While rumors circulate about his replacement, acting and outgoing Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman has been ruminating about lessons learned and his legacy at PD. However, it strikes me that two of those take-away messages are strangely at odds with each other.
On one hand, Glassman (in a solid application of 'listening') notes that the U.S. polls least favorably in the Middle East and non-Arab Muslim nations, just as he marks these areas of the world as central to Global Strategic Engagement and 'winning the battle of ideas.'
...achieving specific foreign policy and national security ends is possible even if the United States is not popular...We need to recognize that there is a complex, multi-sided battle going on in Muslim societies for power. This is a battle in which we cannot be a bystander if we wanted to.
On the other hand, a cornerstone of Glassman's tenure at PD has been an emphasis on Public Diplomacy 2.0:
This new approach takes advantage of new social networking technologies like Facebook and YouTube and Second Life. In fact, a few days ago, I became the first U.S. high official to participate in a Second Life event when I participated in a discussion with bloggers from Egypt and others around the world.
While PD 2.0 makes for good media sound-bites at home and generates a progressive, proactive image for the outdated division of the State Department Glassman inherited from his predecessors, it does little to address the United States' number one target audience in GSE/the 'battle of ideas.'
In fact, it is likely not even reaching them. I spent over a year researching online public media and interviewing bloggers in one of the most moderate Arab countries, Jordan. The fact remains that, as much as new media and Web 2.0 are doing for free speech, balanced journalism, and even civil society, they remain a drop in the bucket when you consider the region's established (and populist) media machinery. Only about 20% of the population in the Middle East has regular Internet access, and it is much more expensive relative to the cost of living than in Europe or the U.S. The demographic that does use the Internet in the Arab world is likely to be affluent and, on balance, more secular.
That is not to say there aren't Internet users of all stripes in the Middle East (the Muslim Brotherhood in Egpyt sports a robust blogroll), or that PD's Digital Outreach Team clarifying U.S. policies on Arabic and Farsi blogs isn't a step in the right direction. But the 'complex battle' Glassman references, between voices of moderation and extremism, is not playing out only or even mostly online. The public square in the Arab world is not found in Second Life nor on YouTube (actually, it's Ikbis for Arabs) nor on the comment boards of Baheyya's blog in Egypt; it is the actual, public square. It is the news stand next to the Mosque ablution fountain. It is the coffee house where political debates flare over the late-night hum of al Jazeera's punditry programs or its latest rebroadcast message from bin Laden.
If the U.S. wants a voice in this public square, or to promote local moderate voices, it needs to operate through the people's media. Accept more invitations for official spoke-persons at al Jazeera tapings (I can tell you Gonzalez's Arab-speaking replacement is less than stellar, but that the channel's translations for English speakers are fair and accurate). Place editorials in the still-dominant local print media (After all, Qaddafi gets page space in ours). Cash-in the doomed al Hurra's mutli-million dollar budget for more language training for press attaches and cultural affairs specialists in Embassy posts throughout the region.
PD 2.0 isn't a bad idea for the Arab world and Muslim nations, it's just 10 years too early--and 10 years can be an eternity for the United States' regional image and 'the complex battle' raging within Middle East society.