By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Shortly after the presidential election results were in, a friend of mine who’s in touch with members of the Obama transition team asked me to help him think up Public Diplomacy programs to be aimed at Muslims. He wanted things like “Seminar on Topic X,” “Conference on Topic Y,” "Web Chat on Topic Z.”
Just like that! Specific programs ready for delivery on Day One after inauguration. Programs like OTC medicine. Glibness incarnate.
I was, briefly, flattered and tried to comply, following my friend’s example. He’d sent me a list of his own inspirations. Since he’d actually been a PD man before going into private sector public relations, the list was superficially more than plausible.
In no time, however, I had to say Whoa! I can’t do this. I can’t design PD programs with any hope of impact until I know a few very important things.
Policy Precedes Program
For instance, what’s the Obama policy spectrum, domestic and international, going to be? If the new president, like the outgoing one, wants America to be in the business of preaching democracy, what will his administration do, and quickly, to rectify the damage to our own democracy? Right now, America isn’t a very good example, despite the ground-breaking biracial heritage of the president elect. The torture policy, the rejection of the Geneva Conventions, the suspension of habeas corpus, the extraordinary power grab by the executive, the anti-democratic provisions of the so-called Patriot Act, the unwarranted secret spying on ordinary Americans—all this and more comes to mind. Each of these Bush era innovations must be quickly abrogated if the U.S. is to become a leader in the realm of human rights, civil rights and democracy promotion. Another concern: if America is going to continue to preach free market economics, what will the new administration be doing to make markets attractive again? Free enterprise, at the moment, is looking decidedly scarey, and America isn’t looking very wise. Are we capable of leading the world toward an economic system that rewards creativity even as it curbs capitalism’s tendencies toward strangle-hold monopoly and Gilded Age corruption and excess?
In short, under an Obama administration, will self-confident, forthright public diplomacy be possible again? Or must our PD practitioners continue the Bushian duplicities that ended in a PD disaster that will go down in history: the infamous shoe throwing.
The Muslim Grab Bag Fallacy
Once the critical matter of who we are as Americans is positively redefined and convincingly acted upon through legislation and executive order, it still won’t be easy to create effective PD programs for the “Muslim world,” because there is no such thing, any more than there is a homogenous “Western world” congruent with an equally uniform “Christian world.” Furthermore, to design respectable programs for Muslims of any sect or any ethnicity or any nationality or any degree of modernization or secularization or any combination of the foregoing, PD strategists and programmers need to know what understandings of Islam, past, present and future, the Obama administration will be basing its policies on. In short, to whom do our new leaders think they will be talking—and, equally important, what will be the American stance during these exchanges? Will the Obama administration address its Muslim audiences as equals or as clients to be tutored? Will we be engaging in substantive conversation or will we be preaching and making demands? The Bush administration couched most of its conversations domestically and internationally as “musts.” X must do this! Y must do that! Needless to say, George W. Bush didn’t get much cooperation. That being obvious, we still don’t know the voice in which the Obama administration plans to address the world.