The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Public diplomacy? We don’t need no stinking public diplomacy!

June 29, 2007

The BBC reports:

US President George W Bush has appealed for people to give his strategy in Iraq a chance – holding up Israel as a model for defining success there.

He said America would like to see Iraq function as a democracy while dealing with violence – just as Israel does.

Speaking at the US Naval War College, Mr Bush said success in Iraq would not be defined by an end to attacks.

His remarks come as members of his Republican party are increasingly turning against the war in Iraq.

The US president characterised the war in Iraq as primarily against al-Qaeda forces and their use of “headline-grabbing” suicide attacks and car bombings.

He said: “Our success in Iraq must not be measured by the enemy’s ability to get a car bombing in the evening news.”

The terms of success set out by Mr Bush included “the rise of a government that can protect its people, deliver basic services for all its citizens and function as a democracy even amid violence”.

Mr Bush suggested Israel as a standard to work towards.

“In places like Israel, terrorists have taken innocent human life for years in suicide attacks.

“The difference is that Israel is a functioning democracy and it’s not prevented from carrying out its responsibilities. And that’s a good indicator of success that we’re looking for in Iraq.”

Is this an unreasonable analogy? No, it isn’t. Is it a stupid &^@!)# thing to say? Hell, yes.

The Bush Administration still hasn’t figured, or at least adapted to, a basic rule of global media: US officials must assume that any messages intended for domestic consumption can, and will, be scrutinized abroad. And arguments that resonate well with an American audience may fair very, very poorly with important international audiences.

Consider that while the Bush Administration has certainly displayed a more unilateralist bent than the Clinton Presidency, the international backlash against Bush even before Iraq was far out of proportion to his substantive changes in US foreign policy. At least part of the problem was that Bush, Cheney and the gang were so relentlessly focused on their “Mayberry Machiavellianism” at home that they either didn’t pay attention to, or didn’t care, how their rhetoric–much of which worked well in the American context–would be interpreted abroad.

Which brings us full circle. Will Bush’s words be twisted in the coming days in the Arab world? Perhaps. I’d lay good odds that the coverage will not be favorable. Will they make an enormous difference? Probably not. But what’s the upside to handing your opponents a big shiny quote that the US wants Iraq to look like Israel? I think you all know the answer.

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Daniel H. Nexon is a Professor at Georgetown University, with a joint appointment in the Department of Government and the School of Foreign Service. His academic work focuses on international-relations theory, power politics, empires and hegemony, and international order. He has also written on the relationship between popular culture and world politics.