The United States needs to engage with Arab and Muslim people on broader issues than the war against terrorism, the former head of the Obama administration’s public diplomacy team says.
Judith McHale, who recently finished her appointment as undersecretary for public diplomacy, believes that the U.S. had been seen as overly preoccupied with terrorism and needed to ensure its response to al Qaeda and its affiliates had a “very narrow, targeted focus.”
“We’ve got to respond” to al Qaeda, Ms. McHale said. However, she added, “You have to be careful not to let it overtake everything else. You have to have an appropriate balance.”
Critics say the Obama administration’s approach to public diplomacy hampers U.S. efforts to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world by staying out of the ideological battle in Islam between extremists and moderates.
“I think the United States has an interest in promoting religious figures and ideas who are opposed to al Qaeda and its version of Islam,” said William McCants, who until earlier this year was a senior counter-terrorism adviser at the State Department.
He said legal and policy constraints stopped the State Department from getting solidly behind moderate voices engaged in a battle of ideas with extremists about the true nature of Islam.
“It was a red line,” he said.
But James Glassman, who held Ms. McHale’s job as head of public diplomacy in the George W. Bush administration, said, “There were no red lines when I was there.”
He pointed to a number of religious groups that had received State Department support when he was head of public diplomacy.
However, many in the Arab world thought the Bush administration’s public diplomacy was obsessed with terrorism, said Ms. McHale, a political appointee and major donor of campaign funds to Democratic candidates.
“I think there was [that perception], and I think that’s changing over time, and I think it’s an important change,” she said.
“You want to be sure that in focusing on something that’s important to us, we don’t lose sight of what’s important to [other] people.”
Ms. McHale emphasized the importance of engaging with Muslim nations, especially now during the anti-government upheaval in the Arab world.
“In Egypt or Tunisia or in other places in the Middle East right now, they are not focused on al Qaeda. They are focused on the transition of their countries,” she said.
Ms. McHale said countering violent extremism was one of five goals of the new “road map” for public diplomacy she had launched at the State Department.
“We are leveraging all our assets in missions [around the world] to ensure that they have the tools for responding to events,” she said.
U.S. diplomats respond through both conventional and social media, highlighting news reports of Muslim civilian casualties or other Islamic targets and critical comments from Muslim leaders.
“We want to make it about [al Qaeda] and the harm they do to innocent people,” she said.
U.S. public diplomacy is increasingly based on direct, people-to-people engagement, Ms. McHale said, something she predicted was “going to be the ‘word’ of the first couple of decades of the 21st century.”
She said the new approach is driven by the “the new media landscape,” including the growth of social media and other interactive technologies.
“Governments everywhere are struggling,” she said, “Everyone agrees that the old model of engaging just government-to-government is no longer sufficient,” she said.
“We also need to engage with the citizens of those countries directly in new and different ways.”
Asked whether U.S. strategy should be to engage in the war of ideas within Islam, she said, “We do not accept that frame.”
“I’m not sure it’s the role of any government to go in and proselytize about any particular religion,” she said.