Department of Babel

Department of Babel

The dramatic implications of the State Department's public-relations failures.


Say what you will about the controversial Cairo statement released by the U.S. embassy in Egypt only hours before the tsunami of anti-American protests that have swept the Islamic world. But the “Long Telegram” it was not.

The statement was so bad—even lacking appropriate punctuation at one point—that it produced a rare moment of true bipartisanship. Neither presidential candidate thought much of it. Romney attacked it. Obama withdrew it.


But while the declaration mostly will be remembered for its place in the squabbling over the race to the White House, there is a more important question: Does Obama’s State Department know how to talk to the world?

Discordant Diplomacy

If you click on the link to the statement from the U.S. embassy in Cairo, you get an error message: “HTTP 404 Not Found.” That’s because the page was pulled from the embassy’s website. And don’t go looking for it in some future volume of the State Department’s Foreign Relations of the United States, the compilations of key historical documents. This is one statement that Foggy Bottom hopes the world will forget.

It’s understandable that the administration would want to put this page in the past. Nor should we be too unforgiving if the Cairo embassy panicked and put out an ill-considered statement to try to stem a story that was spinning out of control. But it’s a mistake to bury this history too quickly and not reflect about what was fundamentally wrong with what was written.

The State Department’s job is to explain to the world what America is all about, not just express convenient sentiments. The Cairo statement condemned defaming religion. Fair enough. But Americans also reject mindless violence against innocents.

Americans believe in legitimate freedom of speech—no matter how personally offensive. These is an essential element of what makes the United States an exceptional nation, a country constructed for the purpose of pursuing liberty. In failing to articulate who we are, the Cairo statement is a perfect example of a failure of public diplomacy.

Pick a Value

The statement might not just be an ill-considered, knee-jerk response. Someone at the embassy may have thought they were simply following the party line.

Last year, the administration pushed through a huge about-face in U.S. policy at the United Nations. After years of opposing a resolution against “religious intolerance” in December, the United States played a key role in the passage of U.N. Resolution 16/18. The shortfalls in the resolution perfectly parallel the problems with Cairo statement. While the resolution condemns the “stereotyping, negative profiling and stigmatization of people based on their religion,” the real purpose behind it was to create an “anti-blasphemy” stick that could be used not to protect religion but to clamp down on freedom of expression.

Even before the current wave of violence in the Islamic world, Human Rights First documented more than fifty cases in fifteen countries “where the enforcement of blasphemy laws have resulted in death sentences and long prison terms as well as arbitrary detentions, and have sparked assaults, murders, and mob attacks.” In backing the UN resolution, the United States did the same thing as the scribblers at the Cairo embassy: cherry-pick one set of values over another, which creates gaps in the defense of freedom.

The White House practiced selected values again when it asked YouTube to “review” its policy for posting the controversial anti-Islamic film that prompted the Cairo statement. This high-profile request from the White House, by the way, completely contradicts the State Department’s campaign promoting Internet freedom, where “Secretary Clinton called on the global community to protect freedom of expression, association, and assembly in the online world.” This kind of behavior makes it appear as if the United States is just promoting values of convenience.

Advertising Over Advocating

The State Department seems overly fixated on protecting the reputation of the administration rather than protecting U.S. interests. The Cairo statement reads as a desperate attempt to salvage the sentiments of Obama’s famous 2009 Cairo speech declaring the United States no threat to Islam.

This too is not a one-off practice from Foggy Bottom. Earlier this year, the State Department started scrapping its authoritative background notes on individual countries and replacing them with fact sheets that like little more than cheerleading for White House policies. The “fact sheet” on Libya, for example, is a terse one-page replacement of a detailed five-thousand-plus word analysis that leaves the impression that the U.S. intervention was a foreign-policy success with just a little mopping up required. Purged are all the facts on the threats in the country that led to the bedlam in Benghazi.

U.N. ambassador Susan Rice also seemed to be struggling to get her priorities straight. She adamantly asserted that the attack on embassy staff was not premeditated, and if the attack was “spontaneous,” that takes off the table the notion that the administration might be in any way at fault. But even as Rice continued to peddle that line, Libyan officials confirmed the attack was deliberate. Selfless promotion over selflessly serving the nation’s interests undermines the State Department’s credibility.

The Gang That Couldn’t Speak Straight

The State Department is just not very good at this global communications stuff. The timeline of the Cairo embassy’s reaction, for example, shows how it pathetically tried to tweet its way out of the crisis, posting and then deleting posts. There may be some utility in Twitter diplomacy, but managing a full-blown crisis probably isn’t it.

The trouble isn’t only with Twitter. It’s hard to find a public-diplomacy program that isn’t problematic. For instance, according to a survey by the White House’s own Office of Personnel Management, the Broadcasting Board of Governors that oversees all U.S. government nonmilitary international broadcasting has one of the lowest employee-satisfaction ratings in government.

Plain Speaking

What have we learned after more than a week of global anti-American violence and protests?

It can’t be all George Bush’s fault. When President Obama came to power, he said the problem was the way American engaged with the world. He would do things differently and things would get better. They have not.

In part, the Obama made a bogus promise. The world gets to decide what it thinks. It is not just advertising—if we package it right, they will buy America.

And in part, Obama has the wrong message. Rather, than selling what America has to offer, all too often the president makes it sound like the United States is in withdrawal and retreat. That just invites aggression.

But in part it is also because we have State Department that looks more and more like a Tower of Babel that cannot effectively speak to the world.

Even if the world were willing to change and Washington tailored its policies accordingly, this would not be enough. Unless we get our megaphone right, the U.S. government will remain a confusing voice among the chaos.

James Jay Carafano is deputy director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.