The toll of diplomacy failures

July 20, 2005|By Jill Schuker and Tara Sonenshine

WASHINGTON - After the terrorist bombings in London, bells rang in Trafalgar Square and around the world in memory of the victims.

U.S. citizens also paused for a moment of silence to remember those who lost their lives in the shared tragedies of 9/11 and July 7. And at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game in Detroit, the band played the British national anthem. All were heartfelt expressions of respect.

But while bells are tolling for some, they are deafeningly silent for others. Like the 18 innocent Iraqi children who died at the hands of a suicide bomber as they reached for candy in that most simple of all childhood gestures. Or the 54 Iraqis who lost their lives while praying at a mosque south of Baghdad last weekend, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt. No moments of silence. No Iraqi national anthem.

In fact, the White House stayed relatively silent on that particularly bloody weekend.

Why would our government, eager to improve its standing with Arab publics, show such little public concern, sensitivity and understanding for the residual consequences of our presence in a part of the world in which we have such deep perception problems?

The answer lies in the paradox of President Bush's public diplomacy.

On one side, the administration understandably wants to build back the confidence of Muslims and Arab citizens, at home and abroad. (A recent poll by the Pew Center shows a slim drop in negative attitudes toward the United States but concludes that "anti-Americanism in most parts of the world we surveyed seems pretty entrenched.")

On the other side, there appears to be a strong desire to divert attention away from the unpleasant realities associated with an increasingly unpopular war and the necessity of staying the course. (Recent polls show a continuing decline in Americans' confidence in Mr. Bush's handling of Iraq and his credibility.)

The result is a muddle, a kind of schizophrenic public posture.

Mr. Bush tells us that we are fighting in Iraq to keep terrorism from coming to our shores. But at the same time, he diverts us from the truth and roots of this wave of suicide terrorism, which modern communications enable us to share quickly and graphically.

If the Bush administration continues its "spin" on Iraq, how can we expect to be viewed credibly abroad in the most important battle for hearts and minds? How can we be sure that the old global caricature of the "ugly American" is not the overriding perception of America today and one that could take generations to erase?

The White House is missing the moment. And the consequences for public diplomacy are serious.

It is time for the administration to be credible on Iraq, past, present and future, and not dismiss the suffering of the Iraqis themselves. The White House message that we are fighting there to keep terrorism from coming here is insensitive and disingenuous.

And it is time to get real about public diplomacy. Throughout the six years of the Bush administration, the public diplomacy position has been ignored, undervalued or vacant.

This spring, Vice President Dick Cheney stated that "we have to get public diplomacy ... right. ... It has been a weak part of our arsenal." The president announced in March that he would appoint long-time and well-regarded adviser Karen P. Hughes to the post, but months later and rhetoric aside, the office remains empty. And we continue paying the consequences in accountability, attention and missed opportunities to integrate public diplomacy effectively and fully into the policy process.

The administration needs to be less selective in its outrage and do what this country does best - demonstrate by word and action our interest and respect for the integrity of other cultures, for those across the globe who share our aspirations and for those everywhere who are caught in the daily, deadly crossfire of terrorism.

Maybe then the lure of suicide bombings would become only the very rare aberration, and the bells would not have to toll at all.

Jill Schuker, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations Public Diplomacy Task Force, was senior director for public affairs at the National Security Council. Tara Sonenshine was a deputy director of communications at the NSC and former editorial producer for ABC's Nightline.

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