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Chas Freeman's Address to USIA Alumni 10/4/06

Chas Freeman's Address to USIA Alumni 10/4/06

Why Not Let Them Hate Us, as long as They Fear Us?

Remarks to the United States Information Agency Alumni Association
October 4, 2006 in Washington, DC
Chas W. Freeman, Jr.
Ambassador (USFS, Ret.)

We are gathered together to reflect upon our country's adoption of
Caligula's motto for effective foreign policy - ODERINT DUM METUANT -
"let them hate us, as long as they fear us." As we do so, let us observe
a brief moment of silence for the United States Information Agency and
also for our republic, both of which long stood for a different approach.

Most of you devoted your many years of public service to USIA. I served
with the agency twice, once abroad and once at home. I am proud to have
been able to join you in making the case for America. I wish to honor
and thank you for your service to our country in a time of great peril.
Although most of my career was associated with the Department of State,
I confess to sadness when the agency was subjected to euthanasia in 1999.

Americans began our independence with an act of public diplomacy, an
appeal for international support, based upon a "decent regard to the
opinion of mankind." But, 243 years later, we convinced ourselves that -
inasmuch as we had won decisive victories over totalitarianism and
tyranny and democracy and the rule of law faced no serious counter
arguments anywhere - our history had been fulfilled, and the requirement
to explain ourselves to others had ended.

I guess we forgot Dean Rusk's famous insight that "at any moment of the
day or night, two thirds of the world's people are awake, and some of
them are up to no good." Still, the notion that there was a lessened
need for public diplomacy wasn't as foolish as you and other veteran
public servants judged at the time. Nor was it as obvious as many others
now agree it was.

No country was then more widely admired or emulated than ours. The
superior features of our society - our insistence on individual liberty
under law; the equality of opportunity we had finally extended to all;
the egalitarianism of our prosperity; our openness to ideas, change, and
visitors; our generous attention to the development of other nations;
our sacrifices to defend small states against larger predators both in
the Cold War and, most recently, in the war to liberate Kuwait; our
championship of international order and the institutions we had created
to maintain it after World War II; the vigor of our democracy and our
dedication to untrammeled debate - were recognized throughout the world.
Critics of our past misadventures, as in Vietnam, had been silenced by
the spectacle of our demonstrable success. This, our political betters
judged, made the effort to explain ourselves, our purposes, and our
policies through public diplomacy an unnecessary anachronism. The spread
of global media and the internet, many believed, made official
information and cultural programs irrelevant.

Our values were everywhere accepted and advancing, albeit with some
lingering resistance in a few out-of-the-way places. Our policies would
speak for themselves through the White House and State Department
spokesmen. Why not save the money, while simplifying the organization
chart?

That was, of course, before we suffered the trauma of 9/11 and underwent
the equivalent of a national nervous breakdown. It was before we
panicked and decided to construct a national-security state that would
protect us from the risks posed by foreign visitors or evil-minded
Americans armed with toenail clippers or liquid cosmetics. It was before
we decided that policy debate is unpatriotic and realized that the only
thing foreigners understand is the use of force. It was before we
replaced the dispassionate judgments of our intelligence community with
the faith-based analyses of our political leaders. It was before we
embraced the spin-driven strategies that have stranded our armed forces
in Afghanistan, marched them off to die in the terrorist ambush of Iraq,
and multiplied and united our Muslim enemies rather than diminishing and
dividing them. It was before we began to throw our values overboard in
order to stay on course while evading attack. It was before, in a mere
five years, we transformed ourselves from 9/11's object of almost
universal sympathy and support into the planet's most despised nation,
with its most hateful policies.

You can verify this deplorable reality with polling data or you can
experience it firsthand by traveling abroad. Neither is anything a
thoughtful patriot can enjoy. In most Arab and Muslim lands (which
include many in Africa and Asia) the percentage of those who now wish us
ill is statistically indistinguishable from unanimity. In many formerly
friendly countries in Europe and Latin America, those with a favorable
opinion of us are in the low double digits. Polls show that China is
almost everywhere more admired than the United States. We used to
attract 9 percent of tourists internationally; now we're down to 6. The
best and the brightest from around the world came to our universities;
now, very often, they go elsewhere. We are steadily losing market share
in the global economy.

I will not go on. It is too depressing to do so. Suffice it to say that
the atmosphere is such that men like Hugo Chávez Frías and Mahmoud
Ahmedinejad felt confident of a warm response to their unprecedentedly
anti-American diatribes at the UN. And that's what they received.
Clearly, we are now more than "misunderestimated," to employ a useful
word coined by our president; we are badly misevaluated and
misunderstood abroad.

Here, in our country, there seem to be three reactions to the collapse
of our international reputation and the rise in global antipathy to the
United States.

Some, many of whom seem to inhabit the bubble universe created by our
media as an alternative to the real world, agree with Caligula and the
cult of his followers in the Administration and on the Hill. They think
it's just fine for foreigners to hate us as long as we've got the drop
on them and are in a position to string 'em up. They're surprised that
"shock and awe" has so far proven to be an inadequate substitute for
strategy, but they're eager to try it again and again on the theory
that, if force doesn't work the first time, the answer is to apply more
force.

Others seem to be in denial. That's the only way I can explain the
notion of "transformational diplomacy" coming up at this time. Look, I'm
all for the missionary position. But, let's face it, it's hard to get it
on with foreigners when you've lost your sex appeal. A democracy that
stifles debate at home, that picks and chooses which laws it will ignore
or respect, and whose opposition party whines but does not oppose, is -
I'm sorry to say - not one with much standing to promote democracy
abroad. A government that responds to unwelcome election results by
supporting efforts to correct them with political assassinations and
cluster bombs has even less credibility in this regard. (If democracies
don't fight democracies, by the way, what are Gaza and Lebanon all
about? But that's another discussion.)

The third reaction is to call for a return to public diplomacy, this
time on steroids. This sounds like a good idea but there are at least a
couple of difficulties with it.

The first is that, if there is no private diplomacy, there can be no
public diplomacy. And as we all know, Americans no longer do diplomacy
ourselves. We are very concerned that, by talking to foreigners with
whom we disagree, we might inadvertently suggest that we respect them
and are prepared to work with them rather than preparing to bomb them
into peaceful coexistence. Both at home and abroad, we respond to
critics by stigmatizing and ostracizing them. To avoid sending a signal
of reasonableness or willingness to engage in dialogue, we do threats,
not diplomacy. That's something we outsource to whomever we can find to
take on the morally reprehensible task of conducting it.

Usually, this means entrusting our interests to people we manifestly
distrust. Thus, I note, we've outsourced Korea to Beijing even as we arm
ourselves against the Chinese; we've outsourced Iran to the French and
other fuddy-duddies in the officially cowardly and passé "Old Europe;"
and we've outsourced the UN to that outspoken international scofflaw,
John Bolton, who, despite representing us in Turtle Bay, remains
unconfirmable - as well as indescribable in polite company. We can't
find anyone dumb enough to take on the Sisyphean task of rolling the
Israeli rock up the hill of peace or to step in for us in Iraq so we try
to pretend, with respect to both, that the absence of a peace process
equates to the absence of a problem. Everything is under control and
going just fine.

This brings me to the second difficulty. As our founding fathers
understood so well, for public diplomacy to persuade foreigners even to
give us and our policies the benefit of the doubt, let alone to support
us, we must put on at least the appearance of a decent respect for their
opinion. Persuasiveness begins with a reputation for wisdom, probity and
effectiveness, but succeeds by showing empathy and concern for the
interests of others. Finally, it's easier to make the case for judgments
that have some grounding in reality, and for policies that have a
plausible prospect of mutually beneficial results, than for those that
don't.

I will not dwell on how poorly our current approaches measure up to
these standards. Americans are now famous internationally for our
ignorance and indifference to the world beyond our borders. We are
becoming infamous for our disregard for the fate of foreigners who
perish at our hands or from our munitions. Some of our military officers
sincerely mourn the civilian Arab deaths their operations and those with
whom we have allied ourselves cause; there is no evidence that many
other Americans are the least bit disturbed by them.

Not content just to let foreigners - Arabs and Muslims, in particular -
hate us, we often seem to go out of our way to speak and act in such a
way as to compel them to do so. Consider Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, the
practice of kidnapping and "rendition," our public defense of torture,
or the spectacle a month or so ago of American officials fending off
peace while urging the further maiming of Lebanon and its people.
Catastrophically mistaken policies based on intelligence cooked to fit
the policy recipe have combined with the debacle of Iraq reconstruction
and the bungled response to Hurricane Katrina to discredit American
competence with foreign governments and publics alike. It's hard to find
anybody out there who believes we know what we're doing or that we have
a sound grasp of our own interests, let alone any understanding or
concern for theirs. We have given the terrorists what they cannot have
dared dream we would - policies and practices that recruit new
terrorists but that leave no space for our friends and former admirers
to make their case for us or for our values or policies.

This is not, I judge, a propitious atmosphere for public diplomacy. The
atmosphere will not improve until the policies do. And what is the
prospect of that?

Normally, of course, one would look to elections and the natural
alternation of power in a two-party system to produce a change of
course. Republicans should be held accountable for what they have done
and failed to do, of course. But there is no evidence that bringing the
Democrats to power would cure the post-9/11 loss of contact with reality
and dysfunctional behavior that account for the fix we are in.

Judging by its record, the so-called opposition party has suffered from
the same hallucinations that made us so sure that there were weapons of
mass destruction in Iraq and that there was an urgent need to eliminate
them; the same delusional beliefs that foreign occupation - because it
was by Americans - would be seen as liberation, that regime removal in
Afghanistan and Iraq would result in democratization, and that inside
every Arab there is an American struggling to come out; the same
disorganized thinking that equates elections to democracy, and the same
ruthless impulse to reject and punish the results of democracy when - as
in the case of the Palestinian elections this past January - Americans
find these results uncongenial.

Neither party is in the least introspective. Both are happy to attribute
all our problems to the irrationality of foreigners and to reject
consideration of whether our attitudes, concepts, and policies might not
have contributed to them. Both are xenophobic, Islamophobic,
Arabophobic, and anti-immigrant. The two parties vie to see which can be
more sycophantic toward whoever's in charge in Israel and to be most
supportive of whatever Israel and its American lobby wish us to do.
Neither has a responsible or credible solution to the mess we have
created in Iraq, a plan for war termination in Afghanistan, an answer
for how to deal with Korean issues, a vision for relations with China or
other rising powers, or a promising approach to Iran or the challenge of
post-Fidel Cuba, among other issues. (I'll spare you my observations on
the default of both parties on addressing the challenges of our budget
and balance of payments deficits, decaying pension systems, collapsing
health insurance and delivery systems, overcompensation of corporate
executives at the expense of both their shareholders and the public
interest, and other relevant issues that bear on our national
wellbeing.) Neither party displays any willingness to learn from the
successes and errors of foreigners, and both are unjustifiably
complacent about our international competitiveness.

Both Republicans and Democrats seem to consider that statecraft boils
down to two options: appeasement; or sanctions followed by military
assault. Both behave as though national security and grand strategy
require no more than a military component and as though feeding the
military-industrial complex is the only way to secure our nation. Both
praise our armed forces, ignore their cavils about excessive reliance on
the use of force, count on them to attempt forlorn tasks, lament their
sacrifices, and blithely propose still more feckless tasks and
ill-considered deployments for them. Together, our two parties are well
along in destroying the finest military the world has ever seen.

I fear that, by mincing words as I have, I may have failed to make my
high regard for our political parties and their leaders clear. So I will
conclude with two brief observations.

The first is that the threat the United States now faces is vastly less
grave but much more ill-defined than that we faced during the Cold War.
That era, which most here lived through, was one in which decisions by
our president and his Soviet counterpart could result in the death,
within hours, of over a hundred million Americans and a comparable
number of Soviet citizens. That threat was existential. The threat we
now face is not. Muslim extremists seek to drive us from their lands by
hurting us. They neither seek to destroy nor to convert nor to conquer
us. They can in fact do none of these things. The threat we now face
does not in any way justify the sacrifice of the civil liberties and
related values we defended against the far greater threats posed by
fascism or Soviet communism. Terrorists win if they terrorize; to defeat
them, we must reject inordinate fear and the self-destructive things it
may make us do.

The second observation is that the answer to the question of whether we
can defend ourselves and persuade others to support us as we do so lies
first and foremost in our own thoughts and deeds. Muslim extremists
cannot destroy us and what we have stood for, but we can surely forfeit
our moral convictions and so discredit our values that we destroy
ourselves. We have lost international support not because foreigners
hate our values but because they believe we are repudiating them and
behaving contrary to them. To prevail, we must remember who we are and
what we stand for. If we can rediscover and reaffirm the identity and
values that made our republic so great, we will find much support
abroad, including among those in the Muslim world we now wrongly dismiss
as enemies rather than friends.

To rediscover public diplomacy and to practice it successfully, in other
words, we must repudiate Caligula's maxim and replace it with our
traditional respect for the opinion of mankind. I do not think it is
beyond us to do so. We are a far better and more courageous people than
we currently appear. But when we do restore ourselves to mental balance,
we will, I fear, find that decades are required - it will take decades -
to rebuild the appeal and influence our post-9/11 psychoses took a mere
five years to destroy. In the process of reaffirming our traditions, as
I am confident we shall, Americans may well find a renewed role for an
independent agency that can facilitate the projection of our democracy
and its values abroad.

Save your Charlie Wick wristwatches. USIA or a reasonable facsimile of
it will rise again!

And, in the interim before it does, I look forward to an active debate -
not just here but ultimately in the country at large - about how we can
more effectively relate to the world beyond our borders. Let the
discussion begin!

Thank you.

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