The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Fernandez and Arabic public diplomacy

I completely agree with Abu Aardvark's analysis of the Fernandez controversy (the State Dept. spokesman who said that the US had on occasion been stupid and arrogant in the region on Al Jazeera):

The State Department, and especially Karen Hughes, must back Alberto Fernandez to the hilt in this StupidStorm. If he's fired, or transfered to Mongolia, the United States unilaterally disarms in the 'war of ideas' as currently waged in the Arab media. While we do have 'rapid reaction' units coming online in Dubai and London, and CENTCOM has its own media outreach team, the fact is that Fernandez has been single-handedly carrying the American flag on the Arab broadcast media for years. America simply can not afford to lose him over a silly partisan media frenzy. And if Fernandez is punished, it's safe to guess that nobody will be foolish enough to step up and take his place and do what he did.  And that will be a major loss for America in a place where it can ill-afford any more losses at all.
Another point is that sympathy for the US in the region, which is deservedly low after the Lebanon war fiasco, is bound to stay low unless American officials begin to admit that they have made mistakes in the region. President Bush did so a few days ago with regards to Iraq -- at last. Why can't a State Dept spokesman admit that mistakes were made too? One other point is that, among my American friends, I know a lot of people who speak at least some Arabic and were at one point interested in a government career. Most of them declined to pursue a foreign service career (or, despite lucrative offers, go work in Iraq even when it was relatively safe) because of the administration's policies and arrogance. They have so few people with skills because those tend to know more about the region and refuse, for moral reasons, to work with this administration (and under the likes of Elliott Abrams).

The first step to correcting the Bushies' disastrous Middle East policy would be to admit they are wrong (as the president vaguely, reluctantly but partly has) and begin with a strong change of direction, notably in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (this is what the Egyptians have been asking for a long time now, by the way). Part of that change of direction will have to be a public acceptance that mistakes were made.