Operation Stars and Stripes PR
Some politicians fall in love with their stupid soundbites. Henry Hyde, for one. In June, the Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee delivered a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations regarding the negative perception of the United States in other lands, and he said, "How has this state of affairs come about? How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has allowed such a destructive and parodied image of itself to become the intellectual coin of the realm overseas."
Several months back, after the dust of 9/11 had started settling, government leaders and opinion-makers began tut-tutting about "why they hate us." As Hyde joined in back then, he offered this Hollywood/Mad Ave. line, and he's been repeating it ever since. His point: America ought to use the talents of the glitter industry and we-can-sell-anything copywriters to enhance its standing within foreign cultures.
This is ridiculous. Hollywood pushes escapist fiction, and advertising firms try to hornswoggle people into believing they can get laid if they purchase the right car, the right toothpaste, the right beer, or the right cigarette. And if Arab countries are a primary concern, Hyde might ponder Hollywood's tendency to portray Arabs as terrorist thugs who have no motivation for their diabolical schemes except an attraction to evil and mayhem.
But the poohbahs of U.S. foreign policy keep wondering why "they" still don't love us, and that creates a demand for Hyde's simplistic analysis. And this notion of peddling America's story ("it's a great tale, chief, scrappy little nation of misfits, outcasts, and freedom-lovers that nobody respects grows up to save the world from bad-guys and becomes a beacon of hope for millions") is back in the news, for the White House is in the process of creating the Office of Global Communications to oversee government actions promoting the USA overseas.
The OGC will institutionalize a White House endeavor launched during the Afghanistan war, when the administration believed it was not succeeding in disseminating overseas a positive message about the United States and its aims. The office apparently will work in sync with Charlotte Beers, the ad exec Bush hired last year to head up the public diplomacy bureau at the State Department. Beers has been producing mini-documentaries on Muslim life in America for distribution in foreign countries, and she recently told the Washington Post that all US diplomats, whatever their rank, will be trained to spread the American "message" of democracy, personal freedom and free markets.
There's nothing wrong with trying to figure how to create the best impression. For example, it was good that someone informed George W. Bush he ought to ix-nay the talk about waging a "crusade." This past spring, the US government began Radio Sawa, which broadcasts to the Arab world, ("sawa" is Arabic for "together"), and Americans should hope smart folks are considering what to air. It now plays mostly American and Arab pop music. But if Bush, Hyde, Beers, or anyone else believes PR-initiatives can have a lasting, strategic impact, then they must be watching too many movies.
When it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, the hard-nosed foreign policy-hands of the Bush clan constantly claim they want to see deeds, not words. Arafat, Saddam, Castro, Kim -- we don't care what you say, we will judge you by your actions. This was the conservative crowd's attitude toward Mikhail Gorbachev, when he became head of the Soviet state. So why should citizens in other countries care about US word and images?
To the degree that the average Mohammed on the street is going to form an opinion of the United States, that judgment probably will be shaped more by American actions than by American propaganda. And what might he be looking at these days? Bush hailing Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace" -- and not withdrawing that endorsement when Sharon praises an Israeli operation that purposefully fired a missile at a civilian neighborhood and killed several children in order to take out a terrorist leader.
Or, the US military killing dozens of Afghan civilians at a wedding celebration and not apologizing, admitting error, or offering compensation. Or, the Bush administration openly and enthusiastically discussing an invasion of Iraq, and dismissing the advice of Jordan's King Abdullah ("everybody is saying this is a bad idea") and ignoring a resolution passed by the Arab League that declared that an attack on Iraq would be considered an attack against all League members. Which weighs more -- the impressions caused by these US moves or Britney Spears on Radio Sawa?
Washington can point out to anti-American Europeans that Uncle Sam saved Europe's backside in the Good War (how long did the French hold out?) and helped put out the fire in the Balkans, in Europe's own backyard -- incidentally, protecting Muslims in Bosnia. But will that cause Europeans to forget the more-recent episodes of American arrogance and unilateralism?
As the European nations -- especially island nation England and below-the-sea Holland -- have expressed concern about global warming, the United States has shot them the finger. The Bush administration acted like a bully by threatening to withdraw its support of the Bosnian peacekeeping force in order to show its opposition to the newly-formed International Criminal Court.
As for the other parts of the globe, the Bush administration has increased the foreign aid budget, but it is still below the per capita rate of industrialized nations. His administration has supported a modest hike in funds for combating AIDS in Africa -- but the total amount is much less than what is needed. On trade, Bush signed a bloated farm bill that subsidizes US agribusiness and, thus, harms farmers in developing nations. How will those US diplomats trained by Charlotte Beers to praise US free markets explain this? And Washington has been slow to join the effort to forgive Third World debt.
Let's be blunt: The United States is hardly the most generous or most empathetic nation on the block -- even though it is the wealthiest and most powerful. That's naturally going to piss off people in other countries. And if Washington wants to sell itself on the basis of its political values, there are problems there, too. Some foreigners might wonder about a democracy in which the fellow who comes in second in the vote count gets to be president. Or they might have trouble understanding why a nation that is supposedly fighting a war for freedom is quick to partner up with nations bearing awful human rights records.
This week, the State Department Inspector General released a report about US actions in Venezuela before and after the April 12 coup that noted "our record in the region a generation ago may have led some Venezuelans to conclude that our present profession of support for only democratic means of changing unfriendly governments in Latin America is hollow."
This is not to suggest that all the anti-Americanism out there is justified. Some of it is reflexive and not stirred by specific US deeds. But, certainly.the United States has to do more than offer pop tunes to improve its "brand." American culture already dominates much of the world. That is a sore point overseas, though nobody forces foreign media to air Baywatch and play Madonna. US cultural imperialism -- to use that old-fashioned term -- is a self-inflicted wound. I was at a festival in a northern Spanish city a few weeks ago, and the big-selling item for many peddlers was an inflatable Spiderman. No WTO or IMF decision was behind this.
Reminding Arabs -- via those mini-documentaries -- that there are mosques in Detroit full of friendly Arab-Americans, who love their country, won't make a difference. Regarding relations between the United States and Arab nations,Graham Fuller, a former senior CIA analyst on the Near East, says, "I have never felt such an extraordinary gap between the two worlds ... Clearly, in a region where we desperately need friends and supporters, their number is dwindling, and we are increasingly on the defensive" But he's no fan of the Office of Global Communications. "If fundamental policies are seen to be flawed," he notes, " a prettied-up package will not make a difference."
The United States is no cereal. A better package with a new-and-improved label isn't the answer. America's image is not a product that can pushed with hype and ads. ("America: Just Like Us.") If the Office of Global Communications does not realize this fundamental -- it's the story, not the script, that counts -- it will end up a box-office flop.
David Corn is Washington editor of The Nation.