U.S. Squandering the PR Opportunity of the Arab Spring

An effective strategy would not only deepen the reservoir of good will toward America but also help marginalize the voices of extremists, writes Michael Holtzman.

Banaras Khan / AFP-Getty Images

The anti-American protests raging across the Middle East and beyond are testing much more than the security at America's diplomatic missions, or even the ability of Arab leaders—many of them in nascent democracies—to address extremism. The turmoil has exposed America's continuing inability, despite its overt political, economic, and military support for Arab democratic aspirations, to build street-level good will with the peoples of the Arab and Muslim world. The lack of a comprehensive, post-Arab Spring "public diplomacy" strategy by the Obama administration, and the utter failure by the Romney campaign to even call for one, suggests that what is now happening on the streets is but a sign of things to come.

The fact that a mindless, hateful fourteen-minute film was the spark to a powder keg of anger directed at all of America demonstrates the fragility of U.S. standing in the region. Indeed, public-opinion polls showed no “bounce” for America in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a great deal of hand-wringing on the question of "Why do they hate us?" Some say the answer is unpopular U.S. policy. Others say it is resentment of American values. The U.S. government responded by wasting millions of dollars targeting the Arab people with television channels no one watched, magazines no one read, and radio stations no one listened to in an effort to improve our image.

But following the Arab Spring, when we saw an increase in grassroots American solidarity with the people of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria, no major effort has been made to consolidate the kind of people-to-people relationships that can transcend policy differences, or even the effects of hateful propaganda promoted by a tiny lunatic fringe. Indeed, the U.S. is squandering a once-in-a-lifetime chance to organize American doctors, academics, civic groups, sports figures, cultural organizations, and others to open exchanges and dialogues between ordinary people in countries that are only now charting new national directions.

An effective public-diplomacy strategy would not only deepen the reservoir of good will toward America and create an insurance policy in case things go wrong; it would also help marginalize the voices of extremists. The fact that protests manifested against a hateful film is not in itself the problem. The problem is that the anger became unfairly conflated with anti-Americanism, and that such anti-Americanism remains an acceptable outlet for political expression. Counterintuitively, such misguided anger can only be stamped out by expanding freedom of speech and expression and by demystifying and un-demonizing the United States.

Instead of launching a major effort to win the hearts and minds of the people, the U.S. has fallen into the old trap of focusing on engaging and influencing the elites—the new political order in post-Arab Spring countries. We send billions in military aid. We send lawyers to help draft constitutions and election observers to ensure the fair election of Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia. None of this has bought us any friends. Yet Americans viscerally sense a lack of gratitude among these countries when we see anti-American protests hit the streets. America must recognize that these are separate and distinct audiences. In fact, since the Arab Spring, it is the people on the street America must better attend to in order to secure its long-term strategic interests in the region.

Of course, the people taking to the streets today do not represent the whole of their respective populations. According to a poll by Pew Research Center taken in July, solid majorities of people in Lebanon, Egypt, and Tunisia want more democracy and freedom of speech. Anecdotally, many counter-protesters—particularly in Libya—denounced the message and the methods of the extremists in response to the film.

It is not too late to turn things around. As America provides financial aid and other supports to regional governments, it must redouble its efforts to reach people in the spheres of everyday life, helping them to embrace pluralism and human rights and to better associate these values with America. The Pew study showed a disturbing disconnect between the desire in the Arab and Muslim world for democracy and freedom and their association of these ideas with America.

The Obama administration should act to provide tax incentives to private organizations like hospitals and colleges willing to engage and locate in the Arab world. It should encourage the American social-media outlets that helped give voice to the Arab Spring to launch new dialogues about democracy and civic responsibility. Free email accounts, Skype video-phone dialogues, Facebook collectives, Google hangouts, and the like can connect high-school and college students for discussions.

Once-banned community-based organizations are springing up across the region. American civic groups, parent-teacher associations, community organizers, and the like can be marshaled to share their best practices for governance, recruitment, and development.

America can also help cement the democratic imagery and icons so critical to building new national narratives in the new Middle East. Groups like Daughters of the American Revolution can donate a statue of Mohamed Bouazizi, the street vendor whose suicide sparked the revolution in Tunisia, to the Tunisian people. American Tea Partiers, who love our founding documents, can sponsor a project to recycle sheaves of old regional propaganda like Gadhafi’s Green Book into copies of the new constitutions being adopted across the region and distribute them in schools, libraries, polling places, and consulates.

The bottom line is that when it comes to neutralizing the corrosive anti-Americanism now on display in the Middle East—not to mention the mindless hate of a handful of zealots in America—there is no alternative to the ingenuity and generosity of the American people.