Monday, February 7, 2011

"Obama 2.0": Two Years On...

January ended a week ago: another month over, which also means another Empire episode on Al Jazeera English (yes, I'm a devout follower as you probably noticed by now). This latest episode was shot in Washington, DC, as a panel discussion at GW University - featuring noteworthy speakers: Ralph Nader, Roger Hodge, Stefan Halper, and As'ad Abu Khalil (the "Angry Arab") - and focusing on the evaluation of President Obama's foreign policy performance two years after taking office.

In "Obama 2.0", the discussion focuses on American "soft power" (or rather, the lack thereof) around the world, its sources, weaknesses, and the reasons for its failure. Here is the discussion in full:

(Please note that the program was shot some time mid-January, and was aired on January 24 for the first time - much earlier than Egypt erupted. That is why the references to North African "revolutions" come only in terms of Tunisia. Nonetheless, the conversation does touch upon the volatility of the region and all the hypocrisy perceived by the local Arab publics.)

Yet again, if you don't have the time (for whatever reason) to sit through the entire piece, I would suggest you look through the following segments that were - sort of - the starting points for the discussion. The first one focuses on "The Imperial Presidency":

Interesting, and very relevant to the discussions we have been having in the public diplomacy class this week. The program makes the point that Obama was indeed a great speaker - especially compared to his predecessor - and when it came to rallying the international public, he was certainly much more successful in getting the message across and inspiring hope beyond the American borders.

Yet, two years on, very few of his foreign policy promises actually materialized, resulting not just in the same old disillusionment, but perhaps even in net loss in terms of improving perceptions abroad ( --> the greater the expectations, the greater the perceived dissatisfaction, and thus, much greater disappointment). After all, he can make very eloquent and charismatic speeches, but what people really want to see are actions, and these don't seem to be coming about. Not yet, at least.

Can't help but refer back to my favorite concept that serves (in my opinion) as one of the core foundations of public diplomacy: diplomacy of deed. Instead, this discussion points to "the gap between words and deeds", and how, over time, the U.S. is losing its so-called "soft power". Oh, and certainly: they could not pass on the hypocrisy of selective democracy promotion/enforcement, which has been demonstrating itself only too well over the past several weeks.

Watching this program now could not have been more timely: after a week of reading on soft power, hegemony, and the predominance of American values and structures around the world, such formulations and framing by Al Jazeera seem to make quite a lot of sense. (But hey, let's not forget their own perspective, and their own, so-called agenda. That granted, both, the channel itself, and Marwan Bishara especially, need special recognition for raising these questions in the first place, and more importantly, for making it in a pretty legitimate and "backed-up" way.)

The second segment deals with "Obama's Wars" - the peculiar similarities and differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, American tactics, the losses in terms of "hearts and minds", and the implications for the future of U.S. foreign policy (featuring Jeremy Scahill and Matt Hoh).

Certainly, there is a lot of emphasis on the military spending, as well as the "Counterinsurgency" program, which some on the panel contend, is not just not working, but is fueling further disillusionment and extremism among the locals. Here, it would be appropriate to go back to a term I really like - cultural intelligence, or "CultInt". This term truly captures the conceptual incoherence of the effort, I think: garnering support from the local population by combining "culture" (broadly defined) with "intelligence" (no, it's not referring to competence, but rather, information gathering). In short, studying the "target public" from within so as to be able to use various elements of its culture against itself. And it is also here that one can observe the very thin line where "soft power" easily transforms into "hegemony", if not outright "coercion". (Remember "Avatar", the movie?)

It is difficult not to go into the ethical implications of this effort. But even if that is ignored "for the sake of national security", the issue still begs the question: what is national security? I thought the fact that most of the insecurity comes from negative perceptions of the U.S. among certain parts of the international public was recognized ten years ago. But then it seems to take a little longer for policymakers to fully comprehend that perceptions are also directly related to actions ("public diplomacy of deed", remember?).

Visualization of President Obama's Cairo Speech on June 4, 2009 (in Wordle).

Seeing all this obsession with rhetoric and words in the U.S. media (but also the society as a whole), I can't help but ask whether this obsession also projects itself into the foreign policy domain. If so, it is unfortunate, because two more years from now the Arab (and Muslim) public will not be going to re-read and re-analyze every single phrase in every speech Obama made and what it represents about his intent (unless, of course, they use it to evaluate his actions). Rather, they will be counting their number of dead, as well as the millions (and in some cases, billions) of military aid the U.S. gives to their authoritarian and corrupt leaders.

(Yes, some may ask why Obama's personal effort is so decisive. But then, being the democratically-elected President and the Commander-in-Chief of the military, he is also the "Persuader-In-Chief", speaking on behalf of all of America.)

With this in mind, it seems like Egypt does indeed present the major public diplomacy challenge for Obama (if not the biggest foreign policy problem). There has been a lot of attention as to what the White House (or anyone else from the administration) will or will not say. And yet, what will matter in the end is what his administration actually does, whether overtly or not (apologies to all the speech writers!).

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