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March 30, 2009

The Education of Doug Feith
Posted by Patrick Barry

It's not at all surprising to read today's New York Times opinion section and find that Doug Feith continues to be a font of lazy thinking.  This time he uses the tragic bombing of a shrine to Pashtun Poet Rhaman Baba to outline his scheme for countering Islamic extremism through a public diplomacy initiative patterned after Radio Free Europe:

If it had the equipment and personnel for the job, the United States could broadcast radio programs for the Pashtuns commemorating Rahman Baba’s life and poetry, thus helping to revive the collective memory of Sufism and inspiring opposition to the Taliban. Other programs could highlight the cultural and physical devastation wrought by the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

The United States conducted impressive strategic communications during the cold war. Radio Free Europe, Voice of America and other programs conveyed information and ideas that contributed to the discrediting and ultimate defeat of Soviet communism.

Strategic communications directed at the Muslim World, patterned after Radio Free Europe? Sorry Doug, maybe you shuld have gotten involved with al-Hurra, the Bush administration's attempt to replicate the success of Cold-War era public diplomacy, but which has been widely regarded as a sham by the Muslim world. 

There is unquestionably a need for the U.S. to update its public diplomacy infrastructure.  But to do it via analogies that show no appreciation for the complexities of the audience we're trying to reach, such as how a conservative, sometimes violent strand of Islam reacts with longstanding political and juridical grievances (see Joshua White discuss the current state of affairs in Swat), is just not the way to go. 


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Those who advocate transforming U.S. International
Broadcasting/Internet/Television into nothing more
than "strategic communications" seem to be not only
badly mis-informed about the history behind Voice of
America, which has continued to operate (despite
frequent periods of pressure) based on clearly-stated
journalistic principles, but also fail to recognize
that to a great degree even newly-created "entities"
are also committed to doing so.

Whether it's under President Obama, or any future
administration, the United States can have a structure
that transmits propaganda to folks overseas (whether
it's in the Swat Valley, Kenya, or Cambodia) designed
to "win hearts and minds", or one that wins respect by
adhering to sound journalistic principles and news
gathering approaches.

The muddying of the waters by proponents of STRATCOMM
in which they suggest that the U.S. would be better
off by "coordinating" messages (a code word for forcing
VOA and others to accept intensified and probably heavy-
handed programming guidance from the State Department
and likely Pentagon) is also trying to advance an
objective pursued for decades of destroying exactly
the kind of government-funded but journalism-based
operations that still serve us well.

The muddying of the waters by proponents of STRATCOMM

The muddying of the waters by proponents of STRATCOMM

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I believe too that there is unquestionably a need for the U.S. to update its public diplomacy infrastructure.

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