I came across something interesting while doing some research on public diplomacy for an unrelated project. Since at least the 9/11 Commission Report, almost every foreign policy blueprint or platform has for better or for worse mentioned the need to fix American public diplomacy and to engage with the "war of ideas" in the Islamic world. I expected all three remaining Presidential candidates to offer at least some boilerplate rhetoric on the theme. What I found was different.
Barack Obama's counterterrorism plan, as I already knew, prominently features the need for better public diplomacy and engagement with the "crucial debate.. taking place within Islam". He has advanced some bold ideas such as convening a summit with the leaders of the Islamic world early in his administration and the "America's Voice Initiative" modeled after the Peace Corps (an idea which I love for all kinds of reasons). He's making rebuilding America's relations with the Muslim world a real priority, while putting forward a sophisticated reading of the politics of the Islamic world. Indeed, his discourse about this the other day during a potentially difficult meeting with Ohio Jewish leaders is possibly the best I've ever heard from an American politician:
The question, then, is what do we do with the 1.3 billion Muslims, who are along a spectrum of belief. Some extraordinarily moderate, some very pious but not violent. How do we reach out to them? And it is my strong belief that that is the battlefield that we have to worry about, and that is where we have been losing badly over the last seven years. That is where Iraq has been a disaster. That is where the lack of effective public diplomacy has been a disaster. That is where our failure to challenge seriously human rights violations by countries like Saudi Arabia that are our allies has been a disaster. And so what we have to do is to speak to that broader Muslim world in a way that says we will consistently support human rights, women's rights.... Those all contribute to people at least being open to our values and our ideas and a recognition that we are not the enemy and that the clash of civilizations is not inevitable.
Now, as I said, we enter into those conversations with the Muslim world being mindful that we also have to defend ourselves against those who will not accept the West, no matter how appropriately we engage. And that is the realism that has to leaven our hopefulness. But, we abandon the possibility of conversation with that broader Muslim world at our own peril. I think all we do then is further isolate it and feed the kinds of jihadist fanaticism....
To me, that's great stuff. It exemplifies the reasons why I've supported Obama, and to the extent that it incites the radical fringe against him, all the better!
John McCain, for his part, talks about creating a "single, independent public diplomacy agency" to reverse our "unilateral disarmament in the war of ideas" (a phrase I seem to recall from the Kerry campaign). He calls understanding foreign cultures a "strategic necessity", and advocates helping moderate Muslims against extremists. While I think that his vision of public diplomacy is overly militarized, really more about strategic information operations than about dialogue or public diplomacy, at least he's got well-developed ideas about the subject. We disagree, but there's something there to have an argument about.
But Hillary Clinton.... nothing. Her Foreign Affairs essay says not a single word about public diplomacy or the war of ideas, or even hints at the notion that there might be a vast, complicated Muslim world out there beyond al-Qaeda impatient for real dialogue with a post-Bush America. When she talks about engagement, she seems to mean either talking to friendly leaders or working within institutions. I searched her campaign web site in vain for her ideas on the subject: the term "public diplomacy" turns up only one, unrelated hit on her campaign site, "war of ideas" none, "dialogue and Islam" none. Even her big foreign policy address last week at GWU - right across the street from where I was teaching at the time - began by proposing to restore America's moral authority but never offered a single word about public diplomacy or international dialogue or the internal debates in the Muslim world. Even when the address closed by reciting all the "tools" which she would use, public diplomacy didn't make the laundry list. In a foreign policy community saturated with recommendations on public diplomacy and the war of ideas, this absence has to be intentional. Combine the silence on public diplomacy with her decision to highlight at every opportunity her Bush-like refusal to talk to problematic foreign leaders as her main point of disagreement with Obama, and you get something which looks... well, all too familiar (no wonder those bastions of liberal foreign policy Powerline and Commentary have got her back).
The contrast is striking, and I think important for reasons that transcend the immediate Presidential campaign. Any new American President is going to get a window of opportunity to reach out to the Muslim world, a reprieve after the Bush administration. What they will do with it should be a major question for each of them. Obama's call for a summit meeting with the Muslim world in the first hundred days of his administration would take advantage of that window. Even McCain seems keen to dramatically increase engagement across the Islamic world, though I don't think he's as likely to be successful given his other commitments (particularly Iraq). But Clinton seems determined not to offer any ideas about engagement with the Islamic world or public diplomacy, for reasons which I don't entirely understand. I invite informed observers - John Brown? Patricia Kushlis? Matt Armstrong? I'm looking at you! - to offer their analysis.