The Magazine

Memo to: Karen P. Hughes

From the March 28, 2005 issue: Re: The Mission of Public Diplomacy.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
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* Don't be condescending or bashful. Talk to Muslims as you would have them talk to you--maturely, candidly, openly. Many may oppose certain U.S. policies--such as the war in Iraq or our support of Israel--but that's okay. We should be ready to listen to complaints about U.S. policies, engage in continual dialogue, and "agree to disagree" in order to join forces in an anti-extremist coalition. Whether they are orthodox, pious, lapsed, or secular Muslims, if they are willing to serve on the front line in the struggle against radical Islam, America should be ready to hear them out.

* Never read polls: If you judge your success by America's poll numbers, you will fail--both in your mission and your job. In the Middle East, polls tend to distort and exaggerate; public opinion is episodic and driven by news cycles; and popular attitudes seem to have little impact on people's behavior. In your old job, polls may have been essential; in this job, they are toxic.

* Don't try to accommodate, co-opt, or "dialogue" with Islamists. They are much better at this game than we are and, in the process, we confuse and demoralize our allies. And don't try to tell Muslims how to be "good Muslims" or suggest that America knows what is "true Islam." Focus on what we really know something about, i.e., running a reasonably well-functioning democracy for 229 years.

Here are two last pieces of advice.

First, recognize from your first day on the job that you sit in a building whose mission can run counter to yours. While your task is to reach out to foreign publics, the State Department is set up to engage with foreign governments. Even if your fellow tenants of the seventh floor have all the right intentions--which certainly seems the case--you need to ready yourself to do battle with a bureaucracy hard-wired for quiet, capital-to-capital diplomacy. At best, you can trigger some creative tension with regional bureaus; at worst, you will go hat-in-hand to them for personnel, resources, and access.

Your ties to the president will be helpful but they won't be enough. You need to be empowered--by him and by the secretary of state--to be in charge of our nation's strategic communications. You should be prepared to use that power to improve the entire range of outreach to Arab and Muslim publics, using all media at our disposal, from the Internet to textbooks. This may require White House commitment to legislative reforms and additional appropriations to improve America's capacity to fight the ideological battle properly and successfully.

Second, and this may be the toughest part--do no harm. Since 9/11, dozens of smart, well-meaning people have taken a look at America's public diplomacy problems; some of the ideas they have come up with are clever and creative; others run the gamut from silly and stupid to downright masochistic. Put every suggestion to this simple test: If it were implemented, would radical Islamists be better off or worse off? You would be surprised how many reasonable-sounding proposals fail this test.

Finally, if the president's second term is about "legacy," then you are in the right job. So far, the president will be remembered for having met the challenge of 9/11 with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. However successful those two democratic experiments may turn out, their legacy pales beside the current opportunity--to define the second Bush administration as the one that turned the tide against the global ideological threat of radical Islam, thereby giving strength and succor to democrats in every Muslim country. Now, that's something worth chiseling into granite.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute, is the author of The Battle of Ideas in the War on Terror: Essays on U.S. Public Diplomacy in the Middle East (2004).