Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Baba O'Reilly on Public Diplomacy

No, not the classic Who song, but my old cubicle-mate at the Pentagon, Robert (Bob) Reilly.

In the two years we sat next to each other at DoD, I lost track of how many times I overheard Bob's deep voice ranting to somebody on the phone, his face flush with indignation: "They offer religion and ideas, and what do we give them?? BRITNEY SPEARS!!!" I always thought Bob was just showing his age a little bit and was out of touch with today's youth.

So it was with some trepidation that I saw Bob had published an op-ed in Friday's Washington Post on America's public diplomacy efforts entitled "Britney v. the Terrorists."

It turns out I was not giving Bob nearly enough credit.

Although I still think Bob is overly averse to American pop culture as a tool to attract interest, he is correct that we can not rely on it to win the "war of ideas" that everybody recognizes as a critical part of the larger War on Terror. Young listeners in the Islamic world (and elsewhere) may tune in to hear pop music and provide a temporary ratings boost, but other radio networks in the Middle East will eventually copy this format and inundate their young audiences with an anti-American bias.

It may not be as sexy, but in the long run we are better off basing our public diplomacy on the substance of discussions of liberalism and individual rights rather than the flash of Justin Timberlake or Beyonce. We do not have to make the world love us, as some politicians seem to think, but rather should seek better understanding of our policies and respect for our ideals.

Whereas I think Dinesh D'Souza's argument that America's "cultural left" somehow caused 9/11 is despicable, Bob makes an articulate and intelligence argument on playing to America's real strengths in our public diplomacy.

(Although Bob, I still will take my Classic Rock -- and The Killers, Audioslave, White Stripes, etc. -- over your Classical Music anyday).