Friday, April 10, 2009

Smith-Mundt's 21st Century Logic

Noted conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer had an editorial in the Washington Post this morning blasting Obama's International Tour. By his reckoning:

"Our president came bearing a basketful of mea culpas. With varying degrees of directness or obliqueness, Obama indicted his own people for arrogance, for dismissiveness and derisiveness, for genocide, for torture, for Hiroshima, for Guantanamo and for insufficient respect for the Muslim world."

He goes on to say that Obama received nothing for this "this obsessive denigration of his own country." No European troops are going to Afghanistan, no European governments are taking Guantanamo prisoners (France will take one as a gesture), Russia won't back U.S. efforts with Iran, China won't back the security council with North Korea. In contrast to numerous commentators, foreign and domestic, who are celebrating Obama's commitment to turning over a new leaf and leaving the catastrophic Bush legacy behind, Krauthammer sees Obama weakening the US position without obtaining any concrete foreign policy results. If the point is to gain support for US policies: a more multilateral force in Afghanistan, and a united front for Iran and North Korea, he views this PD tour as near total failure.

As much as I disagree with this, and I do, strongly, at least its reasonably argued. The same cannot be said about the firestorm that just broke over a video from a Spanish news outlet of Obama bowing to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. The comment boards under this YouTube video are elucidating as to what's being said out there, and a google news search of "Obama and Abdullah" will bring up a similar host of quasi-professional blog-posts, which are outraged that the President would bow to anyone, especially the Saudi King - these writings then degenerate into name calling directed at Abdullah, which, importantly, anyone in Saudi Arabia with an internet connection can find just as easily as I can. I would add a sidenote that showing humility in Arab culture is usually not interpreted as weakness, but actually increases your own honor/status, but that's really not the point.

The point is that these conservative reactions to what otherwise was viewed as a successful trip that attempted the critical first step of reparing America's image once again present the challenge of crafting a message for both foreign and domestic publics.

A new logic for Smith-Mundt comes to mind here: that act says that U.S. PD material must be concealed from American citizens, with the justification that we cannot have the US government propagandizing its own people. In the current political climate, however, it can be argued that PD material should be concealed from the domestic public to keep them from messing it up - the long term PD strategy this country needs cannot be sustained when engagement with foreign publics becomes a domestic liability. I'm not saying these voices are in the majority, but their public comments can be read overseas, undoing what Obama is trying to do, and in our democratic system, their lack of support will sooner or later undermine the political will to pursue such policies.

Smith-Mundt is clearly out of date for purely technological reasons - the video of the bow was originally aired in Spain after all - but this country still needs to make up its mind as to what it wants to show to the outside world. We've read about governments, like Norway, who include domestic education about foreign policy in their PD programs, or who, like Canada, include some form of public feedback into the system. The United States either needs to do away with Smith-Mundt altogether and add some element of domestic education about international issues to the PD program, or they need to find some way to enforce it, not to protect U.S. citizens from propaganda, but to protect PD from U.S. citizens. The former seems slightly less impossible than the latter, but I'd be interested to hear anyone else's thoughts.

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