February 15, 2008

Public Diplomacy Starts at the Top

You know who's not very good at this whole public diplomacy thing? President Bush. We here at Abu Muqawama stay out of the whole presidential politics thing, but that's okay because quite frankly all three of the remaining candidates for president -- sorry, Huck -- would be pretty good communicating U.S. interests and decision-making to the global public. Honestly, McCain, Clinton, and Obama would all be pretty good public diplomats. Abu Muqawama has been watching the president's interview with the BBC for which he has gotten little but negative press over here in London. ("Bush cites London attacks to defend waterboarding" reads the lead headline in today's Guardian. "Bush defends US record on Darfur" says the BBC.)

Now, a lot of what the president says speaks pretty well to American viewers. He uses a baseball analogy at one point, so as long as people were watching the interview in Japan (or some other place U.S. Marines brought baseball via war) it didn't fly over everyone's head. And he condescendingly mentions "the elites" a lot, which probably goes over well among those who watch the O'Reilly Factor on Fox and who think this Andover/Yale/Harvard graduate and son of a former president is a regular Joe, but for the rest of the world, Bush -- the leader of the world's most powerful country -- is the elite. Does he not get that? You can't speak to the BBC like you would speak to Brit Hume.

Another thing, geez, this guy doesn't have a very firm grasp on the English language, does he? Abu Muqawama is from East Tennessee and he knows that whole thing about people who live in glass houses, etc., but the president talks about suiciders at one point. Folks, you need to have grown up in East Tennessee to understand this guy's language sometimes.

The interview wasn't all bad, though. The president spoke with great intelligence at points. (Seriously.) But the thing that made Abu Muqawama most angry was that the questions weren't even that hard and yet the president missed his opportunity in every instance to put a shine on or explain U.S. policy, opting instead to answer in ways every viewer knows are at odds with the facts. At one point the interviewer rightly extends congratulations to the president for U.S. AIDS initiatives in Africa but asks if the U.S. should have capitalized on the program to, you know, earn a little credit with the African people. (Yes!) Instead the president gave this aw shucks faux-humble answer in which he claimed it was just about doing the right thing and wasn't about taking the credit. (Deep breath.) Yes it is, Mr. President! Yes it is! The primary purpose of those AIDS initiatives are to ease human suffering, but a secondary purpose should be to ensure that every African knows the U.S. has their interests in mind while others -- the EU, China -- could care less. There's nothing wrong with taking a little credit on the global stage when you're getting hammered elsewhere.

Such as on the torture issue.

Never mind the fact that McCain, Clinton, and Obama have all broken sharply with the president on this issue. Never mind the fact that newspaper editorials in the U.S. and abroad have all condemned American use of "waterboarding" to combat terrorism. The president stuck to his guns on this, and when he was asked by the interviewer whether or not this had hurt America's moral standing in the world -- a question to which everyone knows the answer is YES -- Bush claimed against all reason that it had not. Mr. President, even if you think waterboarding is a good idea, it doesn't look good at all when you make statements on international television that are completely at odds with reality. You know the perception that the U.S. tortures has hurt America's standing in the world. You know this, even if you think torture is appropriate in certain cases.

Folks, we can't keep bashing the U.S. military and State Department for doing such a crummy job with public diplomacy as long as the guy in the White House does such a bad job himself. Honestly, the average, earnest 23-year old platoon leader is a better public diplomat when put in front of the camera than the 43rd president of the United States. Sad but true.