The United States Is Losing the Arab Spring

We need to conduct aggressive public diplomacy to convince Middle Eastern countries the U.S. is not the enemy.

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Egyptian anti-Muslim Brotherhood protesters shout slogans during a rally to denounce the country's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood group in Cairo, Egypt Friday, Aug. 24, 2012. Friday's protests were the first attempt by Morsi's opponents to stage a major demonstration against the new president. Arabic reads " Morsi is illegal."

Daniel Gallington is the senior policy and program adviser at the George C. Marshall Institute in Arlington, Va. He served in senior national security policy positions in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Department of Justice, and as general counsel for the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Imagine we are watching—say from another planet—the violent and tumultuous, social media-inspired events of the "Arab Spring." We would probably conclude that the two major themes of the various movements were: youth (average age in these countries is 19) and a struggle for "democracy" or "freedom" against entrenched autocratic and corrupt governments.

We would be right, and we would also hope that these same conclusions were reached—very early on—by our State Department and/or our various intelligence agencies. Sadly, they weren't, and those agencies seemed as surprised as the rest of the world. This is inexcusable considering our technical abilities to collect and analyze information.

Next, we would probably conclude that the United States, being the epicenter of social media, the youth movement and—most important—the model for freedom and democracy, would emerge with more influence and better standing in these regions than we had before. After all, freedom and democracy are what we're all about.

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Just the opposite: Not only did we not see the Arab Spring coming, we have been transformed into the enemy in many regions—largely because of our support, real or perceived, to the earlier regimes. This is especially evident in Egypt, where we will—ironically perhaps—continue to support the new government with massive foreign aid.

How could this have happened? Simple: a huge failure of U.S. "public diplomacy." The irony is that we are supposed to be really good at this; after all, we are world leaders in the advertising and public relations business. How could we fail at it?

More irony: If you want to see what world class public diplomacy looks like, just tune in to "RT," the Russian-English (and Spanish) language TV channel on our cable TV and listen to their "take" on the news and their anti–American editorial "commentaries." In fact, a good question is: Why aren't we doing this in Russia, as a basic condition to allowing them to broadcast in the United States?

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An even better question is why we weren't aggressively "working" the foreign and social media during the Arab Spring to improve our standing with the various populations and successor regimes? The short answer is that we either can't, don't, or won't.

The reasons for this originate from our history of overseas intelligence activities and operations. Perhaps the best evidence is the following section of law from The National Security Act:

…[T]he term "covert action" means an activity or activities of the United States Government to influence political, economic, or military conditions abroad, where it is intended that the role of the United States Government will not be apparent or acknowledged publicly….

….

No covert action may be conducted which is intended to influence United States political processes, public opinion, policies, or media.

[ Check out our collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

Similar language appears in the President's Executive Order on U.S. Intelligence Activities (Executive Order 12333).

As a practical result of this pre-social media, pre-Internet law and regulation, the "division of labor" in government is simple: Most anything with a policy "spin" isn't allowed to be placed in foreign media channels if there is a chance that it will be picked up by U.S. media. This is called "blowback"—and our obsession with preventing it (whether it's "intended" or not) has a chilling effect on most anything we can do to influence public opinion overseas.

It has also paralyzed our ability to peacefully influence the outcome of the struggles going on in the Middle East, as the various factions fight to determine the outcome—and we are blamed for the sins of the past.

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The best we can do is still called "public affairs", the same kind of lame "official media spokesman" stuff we see on TV—it's not very inspirational and nobody believes it anyway. Our failure transcends politics and administrations; neither Democrats nor Republicans are able to get out of the public affairs rut and transition to more proactive and effective methods of getting our national "message" out.

We need to change our laws and policies. Why should we, world leaders of the "soft sell" and the home of so many professional "spin doctors" be prevented from using our best "public diplomacy" skills to promote democratic and peaceful policies overseas?

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: Should the U.S. Intervene in Syria with Military Action?]

In this day of instantaneous world-net communications, there is simply no way to prevent "blowback." More importantly, it doesn't really matter anymore, especially in today's fast moving cyber world. Given the opportunity, most social media and Internet consumers decide exactly what they want to look at and are able to put it in the context of the deluge of the other information offered to them on the net.

In sum: Preventing ourselves from competing for attention to our policy "message" in today's world-wide information-centric world is just plain dumb. To the contrary, we should quickly empower agencies of our government to do aggressive public diplomacy and "information operations" consistent with our foreign and national security goals and policies. Existing oversight mechanisms, appropriately modified and extended for the new tasks, should be sufficient to monitor and manage both content and privacy issues.