Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Bush's Kinder, Gentler "Public Diplomacy"

The New York Times quotes a couple of US government officials waxing poetic about Dina Powell's attractiveness; she apparently is the "Mideast Card" in the administration's "Mideast Strategy," or so says the headline. Last week, Powell was appointed as something called "deputy under secretary of state for public diplomacy." Since then, she has been all over the press plugging her line about her Egyptian roots, the stuffed grape leaves in her lunch box, etc. while co-workers gush to reporters about her looks (first) and skills (second).

Why is it completely predictable that this administration would pick an American woman of Arab background to sell US policy to those stubbornly anti-American Arabs? For one, the US's earlier forays into "public diplomacy" failed miserably. State Department-conceived Radio Sawa and "Hi" magazine were greeted with the withering criticisms they deserve. I remember flipping through a seriously overpriced, ultra-glossy issue of "Hi" last summer, laughing at the clumsy didactic presentation of US life as happy, productive, and exciting, and the ultra-happy smiles of the magazine's staff, who included some appropriately Arab names and faces, of course. No matter which way you cut it, state propaganda is state propaganda, no matter how many slick PR firms massage it. "Hi" has the same overpowering whiff of disinformation as the hoariest autocratic state agitprop. And whoever came up with the zine's title needs to have their head checked.

For another thing, this administration apparently thinks that locating and cultivating Arab-Americans as fronts for its policies will immediately win over those tribal Arabs who reflexively cleave to their own, even if their own are agents of destruction (cf Gen. John Abizaid). Sounds like Fouad Ajami thought that one up, since as you know atavistic Arabs can't apprehend ideas or policies, only ascriptive identity. And as you know force is the only language Arabs respect and understand (and other favorites of the American and Israeli Likud). The New York Times piece quotes a spokesman for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington claiming that Powell is "a celebrity in Egypt." Really? That's odd, because when Dina Powell met with some actual Egyptians in Egypt last year, they didn't treat her as a celebrity but asked her some very tough questions about her political and career choices. Quoting an Egyptian Embassy spokesman for facts is like reading "Hi" for information.

The saddest aspect is that this administration, in 2005, still thinks it's a matter of "public diplomacy" and spin that will win Arabs' hearts and minds, not actually changing US policies. Because the problem of course is not tangible, concrete US policies; it's all a matter of perception and perceived US policies. See, if the perceptions of the US are changed, so will the hostility. Because Arabs don't really know it but they're actually victims of their own perceptions, and when they change their perceptions reality will change, not the other way around. Tragic, isn't it, how "perception" has morphed into the most powerful weasel-word in the English language?

I can't resist a final note about Powell's gender: this is certainly not the first and it won't be the last time states deploy women to sell ruthless policies in kinder, gentler packaging (see Powell's concluding comments in her meeting with the Egyptians). I won't wade into "false consciousness" territory here, because women are entitled to make their own political and career choices (and bear the consequences), and many women choose to be bureaucrats, and that's their prerogative. But please, spare us the bromides about "women's empowerment", "women's equality", "carving out opportunities for women", and all the rest. State feminism is state feminism, and it's never to my knowledge changed anything about the status of women, anywhere. But it's especially ugly when state feminism is combined with the crudest and most insulting form of identity politics. Good luck, Dina Powell.