Our President in Cairo: Muslims Listened. Did America?

"When all other means of communication fail, try words." I walked by this anonymous quotation every day in grad school -- stuck on a cork bulletin board. Now it makes sense. For the past eight years, our bad attitude made us really unpopular. Unappeasable, we became like the schoolyard bully -- you give him your lunch money and he still beat you up. President Obama is out to change this reputation. His Cairo speech needed to address two audiences at once... skeptical Muslims worldwide and Americans back at home who mostly have a negative view of Muslims and don't believe that US policies are the culprit. Not an easy task. Obama achieved this by sticking to themes that appear in his other public appearances -- by describing how our ideals can make us stronger at home and can help us be a country that others look to for leadership and collaboration. As communications strategies go, President Obama's presence and message once again set the stage for hope and change. His gift is not so much for soaring rhetoric, but certainly for emotional uplift, for creating a sense of shared space. And most significantly, for putting forward a genuine and personal desire for mutual respect. And given where we've been, that's a significant step in the right direction.

Now what do we do?

The Cairo speech may have taken place in Egypt, but it has implications for almost every international challenge that America is facing today. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Iran. We need to step back, take a deep breath and realize that we are at a turning point -- where all of these relationships converge. The big question today is about who we are as a nation and how we're going to interact with the world. The president put it well in his speech, real power comes from consent, not coercion. So then we need to ask ourselves, do we have what it takes to build that kind of power? It will require some pretty dramatic shifts. Now that its the next day, the rest of the world is probably thinking, that speech sounded good, but will Americans ever be able to see themselves in the scheme of things rather than as the scheme of things?

For twenty years, the United States has needed to dramatically shift our strategic lens on national security away from coercion (force) and toward consent (persuasion). This was evident with the end of the Cold War in 1989. In today's world, the safety of people is the centerpiece of 21st century security. Americans perceive these human needs accelerating with the impact of globalization (climate change, contagious ideology, failed governments, disease, etc.). But this principle is also true in our counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan -- where protecting civilians is paramount. Here at home, the Secretary of Defense himself is asking us to stop relying exclusively on the military to achieve national security. As the US re-engages the world, Americans must heed calls to shift from the old linear and technical notion of threat containment to one defined by the human requirements for legitimacy like opportunities for participation, mutual respect and relationship building i.e., policies that give the United States the moral authority to lead. The defense budget this year cuts Cold War programs. The diplomacy budget has increased, but America still desperately lacks the human resources necessary to change course. And we must stop thinking that there is a technological fix for our challenge. The vast majority of our problem solving requires someone to show up and participate in a conversation. Only people can do this job.

Who is continuing the conversation Obama started in Cairo?

What if President Obama put the charisma, organizing ability, and unifying power to inspire -- demonstrated on his campaign -- to work in the Middle East? To cultivate that feeling of potential -- that things will be good again, if we make political changes toward a healthy, green, wired society -- in order to create the innovation necessary for economies to flourish. In other words, people's minds need to change before their politics will. However, it's nearly impossible to expect much of anything to happen when the Palestinians are living in terrible conditions. The United States needs to take a stand, and follow up on it. Americans are ready for it. (Two internal letters circulated Congress recently, one is a rigid text focused on Israel's needs only. The other, however, strongly supports a two state solution) Unless Palestinians start to see some changes on the ground (re: checkpoints, settlements, closure -- complete closure in Gaza), it's going to be asking a lot of them to "wait around" for their daily lives to improve. Their economy is completely strangled as long as they are an occupied territory.

The bottom-up strategy for change is happening. A poll by OneVoice Movement indicates that the overwhelming majority of Israelis and Palestinians are committed to the Two-State Solution. Moreover, the poll showed a strong consensus for the U.S. role in the peace process: 91 percent of Palestinians and 59 percent of Israelis deem the American role "Essential" or "Desirable." And, starting this summer, OneVoice will convene a Town Hall Meeting Series in Israel and Palestine, giving citizens a platform to build consensus on the same issues that their leaders must address during peace negotiations. In this way, ordinary Israelis and Palestinians are doing the heavy lifting to ensure that the parameters of the Two-State Solution are supported on the ground -- so that their leaders will not have to risk a potentially paralyzing expenditure of political capital in order to reach an agreement. We need similar public involvement here for the president's objectives to be realized.

American involvement in Afghanistan-Pakistan confronts us with perhaps the toughest communication challenge in the mix. Our present policy combines both counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, i.e. protecting civilians and going after the bad guys. It thus relies on both coercion and consent -- often at the same time. The case against the predator drone strikes, in fact, is emblematic of this policy struggle. Are the strikes worth it if they engender so much anger that the population turns irretrievably against us? That they become impossible to persuade? Are we offering them any compelling alternatives? I would argue not enough.

Afghanistan is definitely not going to tilt toward consent through technological means. This is where western strategic communications needs a complete revamp. For example, the International Assistance Security Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) plans to install new satellite transmitters across the country, ostensibly to move anti-insurgent messages as quickly as possible. Targets are to include traditional information sources and new media, including popular social networking sites such as Facebook and possibly using local cellphone systems to transmit counter-insurgency messages to villagers via text-message. Um. does ISAF know that only 28% of Afghans are literate? Or that only 18 in 1000 people uses the Internet? (and most of those are likely in Kabul) Having worked in Congress, it makes me wonder whose cousin is getting the satellite contract because they can't be spending these resources based on a real strategy for victory.

Success in Afghanistan is going to require a completely different type of community engagement -- one that is basic and implemented Afghan to Afghan. Even more, it must be truly bottom up and put local power ahead of federal power because Kabul is not uniformly recognized as a credible nor legitimate authority. Americans and other foreigners are going to be involved on the periphery -- if at all. I don't know exactly what success looks like, but it would most likely include all sorts of person to person interaction: activities, meetings of significant community leaders and include roles for observers, validators, surrogates, convenors... a fantastic challenge of coordinated human communication -- one that can't be done by ISAF or any outsider. Kabul could possibly be a coordinating hub... a city as facilitator... but this type of strategy would require us to work on the margins, step back, let go, not know what's going on necessarily, and accepting it.

"What we have here is a failure to communicate"

This famous line from Cool Hand Luke one the best movies of all time... is the sobering starting point for the US government in how we address the rest of the world. Though all our federal agencies have an international desk, getting non Americans to understand and support US policies is part of the State Department called Public Diplomacy (don't worry, nobody really knows what that means). Judith McHale was confirmed in May to run this program -- she's basically the public relations czar for the USA.... McHale is very smart and has an impressive track record in television. In her Senate confirmation, she lauded new media and technology as a way to go directly to the people of the world with our message. I was encouraged that she also stressed that technology is a tool, and not a strategy for communicating. Because she's right, its not.

A strategy would require that we analyze what do people USE computers and Internet for? -- putting greater emphasis on behavior, not just availability. Pretty much everyone can name an instance where technology did not fix a communication problem. Or didn't arrive in time. When I moved to DC in the late 90s my friends at the State Department were using Yahoo! and Hotmail addresses because their tech was so awful. In Lefty politics, it has taken years to create an interactive "crowdsourcing" model for Americans to participate in congressional debate (check this out at and that's only because my colleague Darcy Burner is a technology wizard and could write the program. How many people have someone like that on hand around the world?) The "one laptop per child" program has disappointed. There's a common theme here: it is counterintuitive to believe that technology on its own can create ideal outcomes. It's like giving people an oven and automatically assuming / expecting them to bake soufflé , when all 99% will do is heat up pizza.

But pizza is a fine place to start in most places. People like talking to other people. President Obama has reminded us of this and given us a golden opportunity to positively change what it means to be American. He is speaking our world into existence. It is up to us to do the rest.