From Karachi, Pakistan, this week, the New York Times’s Helene Cooper reports the following exchange between the Obama administration’s new senior diplomat for public diplomacy and a Pakistani journalist:
Judith A. McHale was expecting a contentious session with Ansar Abbasi, a Pakistani journalist known for his harsh criticism of American foreign policy, when she sat down for a one-on-one meeting with him in a hotel conference room in Islamabad on Monday. She got that, and a little bit more.
After Ms. McHale, the Obama administration’s new under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, gave her initial polite presentation about building bridges between America and the Muslim world, Mr. Abbasi thanked her politely for meeting with him. Then he told her that he hated her.
“ ‘You should know that we hate all Americans,’ ” Ms. McHale said Mr. Abbasi told her. “ ‘From the bottom of our souls, we hate you.’ ” . . .
“He told me that we were no longer human beings because our goal was to eliminate other humans,” Ms. McHale said Wednesday, recounting the conversation with Mr. Abbasi. “He spoke English very well, and he said that thousands of innocent people have been killed because we are trying to find Osama bin Laden.”
Ms. McHale said she argued her points with Mr. Abbasi, points that to many Americans would appear logical, but that often fail to impress over here: Al Qaeda and Mr. bin Laden attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001; the war in Afghanistan, unlike the war in Iraq, is blessed by the United Nations and is a multinational effort; America will always do whatever it takes to defend itself.
Holy cow, imagine the surprise for Secretary McHale to have discovered that the end of the Bush administration and the election of Barack Obama has not magically transformed relations with folks such as Abbasi. Maybe he just hadn’t gotten around to reading the president’s speech in Egypt this past June calling for a new era in Muslim-American relations. But somehow I don’t really think that’s the problem.
At least in this instance, the problem is McHale’s approach to “public diplomacy.” Basically, the undersecretary ceded the high ground to Abbasi, i.e., she leads with her chin, receives the predictable uppercut in response, and accepts that his hatred for us is a sufficient reason for us to have to try to defend ourselves to him. In brief, we place ourselves in his court room, so to speak. And her defense, the standard talking points, has the predictable effect—zilch. Obviously, he has no incentive to cede the high ground by accepting our defense—why should he?
But imagine if her response had been along the following lines: “I’m sorry you hate us, but you should understand that President Obama will do whatever is necessary to defend America regardless. What I would like to ask you is, not whether you hate America—I understand that you do—but whether you hate America more than you love Pakistan? Would you, like the Palestinians have done now for decades, let your hatred undermine every possibility of improving your country’s situation?” The Obama team wants to claim they are approaching the Islamic world with more realism than the Bush team did. If true, they ought to know that the Abbasis of the word are not likely to give up their hatred for us; it’s too valuable an asset for them within their own communities. The goal should be instead to make him and his ilk understand that a “no” to the question above has real benefits, while a “yes” is self-destructive.
And perchance that such an approach were adopted, maybe then we wouldn’t have the spectacle of an undersecretary of State looking so weak in a part of the world where weakness is an invitation for more abuse and more trouble.