Hello, I’ve been away for awhile attending to pleasant summer activities. But I’m back now. This piece in the Wall Street Journal caught my eye. Beware editorialists decrying “moral equivalence.” I’m under no illusions about the subtlety of Bush administration public diplomacy, mistaking as it does public relations for public diplomacy. What is suggested here, seems worse by far. What we need is a public diplomacy that not only helps Muslims understand what is positive about the United States, but that also helps us understand the complexity of the 1500 year old Islamic tradition. The truth is that for many Muslims their alternative story is also a fundamentally good one. Simply writing it off as negative will only confirm the view of Islamists that the story of the West is essentially negative. Taking a point of view seriously is not the same as treating it as equally plausible.
As the scholar Carnes Lord notes in his useful book on public diplomacy, “Losing Hearts and Minds,” America’s public diplomatists “are today no longer as convinced as they once were that America’s story is after all fundamentally a good one, or believe an alternative, negative story is at least equally plausible.” Hence someone like Mr. Riccardione can say, when asked about discrimination in Egypt (where a Coptic population amounting to about 10% of the population has one member in the 444-seat parliament) that it “happens everywhere, even in the U.S.”
No doubt a dose of moral equivalence served Mr. Riccardione’s purposes in getting through his interview without a rhetorical scrape. No doubt, too, maintaining (or pretending) a blissful ignorance about the ideology being propagated by the Islamic Center served Mr. Bush’s political purposes. But if effective public diplomacy is really as vital in the war on terror as everyone appears to agree it is, we need better ambassadors, better administrators and a better sense of who we need to engage and how. At least Mr. Taylor has a clue. The administration could stand to learn from him.
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