Where’s U.S. Public Diplomacy When Bin Laden Whines About Obama?
President Obama has arrived in Saudi Arabia for the first leg of of his outreach to what-we-maybe-shouldn’t-call-the Muslim world and, unsurprisingly, Osama bin Laden has released his latest mixtape screed against Obama and the United States more broadly. This time, to blunt the message of reconciliation and respect that Obama intends to send in his speech to Cairo tomorrow, bin Laden hinges U.S. support for Pakistani military action against his Taliban friends in the Swat Valley to create a broader message of Obama’s continuity with the Bush administration:
In this manner, Obama appears to have followed the same path taken by his predecessor, in creating more enmity towards Muslims, and adding on to the fighting enemies, thus paving the way for new long wars.
Let the American people prepare to continue harvesting what their White House leaders grow, in the years and decades to come.
They say the classics never go out of style. But more distressing that bin Laden’s expected bleating is the lack of rapid response from the administration’s public diplomacy infrastructure. If this were a political campaign, the pushback would have begun already. But so far there’s nothing from the State Department’s blog taking bin Laden’s message down.
Now, there have to be a number of caveats to my criticism. First, Obama’s Cairo speech tomorrow is, of course, a massive public diplomacy effort aimed at essentially refuting bin Laden’s worldview, even if the president doesn’t mention bin Laden. Second, the administration’s announced National Security Council shakeup last week is creating a White House director for interagency public diplomacy, so that represents an elevation of the importance of public diplomacy. Third, an argument that I don’t personally find persuasive but others might is that you don’t want the president of the United States in a back-and-forth with an al-Qaeda mass murderer. Fourth, Judith McHale’s testimony to the Senate last month to be the State Department’s public diplomacy chief made some gestures to treating public diplomacy as a national security issue, and embraced a series of Web 2.0 tools for rapid response. Fifth, the bin Laden tape was just released.
But I’m not going to let all that get in the way of my complaint! The longer bin Laden’s dreck is out there, the greater likelihood it’ll spread through the information bloodstream, and experience demonstrates that disinformation will be accepted if it’s not promptly confronted. The State Department has existing infrastructure set up — the DipNote blog, its Tweeting, and so forth — to get the U.S. message out, and yet it rarely spends much effort countering anti-American messages directly. Similarly, the Pentagon is getting out of the public diplomacy business for fear of edging too closely into propaganda. That’s laudable, but it contributes to an information lacuna that several administrations have failed to address.