Can it get any worse? The State Department seems to be missing every chance it gets to improve the image of the US internationally. A few days ago, P.J. Crowley was nudged out after commenting on the way Corporal Manning is being treated. Mr. Manning is accused of having leaked documents to Wikileaks. Allegedly, Mr. Manning is subjected to “Abu Ghraib” treatment, including 23 hour solitary confinements, nudity and deliberate humiliation.
The facts of the matter are of little relevance. The relevant point is that yet again a significant decision was made on the wrong foot: First, office politics and internal squabbles reigned over the quality of P.J. Crowley’s work as a press officer in State. Second, while his comments were costly at home, they were nothing short of a treasure abroad. Comments like those made by Mr. Crowley (on a quasi off-the-record basis, no less) make more powerful tools for the image of the US abroad than most of the banal, tried-and-tired, failing schemes that State has been trying for years. No amount of schoolbuilding across the world can replace such statements.
From what I hear, Tomicah Tillemann, (who has a brilliant mind, an astronomical IQ and a good heart) has taken over as Clinton’s advisor for relations with civil society. I’m confident that his attitude will push State a step or two beyond the cold war approach to winning foreigner’s hearts. Hopefully, he will be heard.
What Americans in general, and State in particular don’t seem to understand, is that when they talk about “human rights”, “democracy”, “freedom” and “dignity”, they don’t come across as a moral superpower but as something quite the opposite: pretentious, self-righteous, dishonest hijackers or lofty ideals. It is, in fact, difficult and dangerous for foreigners to explain to their compatriots that Americans actually do mean it when they talk about these things.
But in the US few people seem to get it.. The only viable defense for the US in foreign societies, is that the Americans (and their administrations, there’s no difference for the general public) are guilty of arrogance and myopia, not hypocrisy and a compulsive addiction to conspiracy.
Even this defense -which I think is closer to the truth than anything- is hard to sell. The reason is that policy decisions are more convincing than moralistic statements. At least in lower middle classes and above, statements are hardly ever taken seriously.
Now, I don’t mean to belittle the domestic politics element in all of this. Although I have not lived in the US for a few years now, I think I can imagine the reactions to Mr. Crowley’s statement, especially as Tea Party nationalists seem ready to pounce at every step. But something short of a resignation (or acceptance thereof) would have won people over the way State thinks that building schools, giving scholarships and making statements would.
In fact, all that State and the administration have achieved, at least abroad, was to send a variety of messages: Hillary is playing favorites in State and moving people around based on her personal alliances and her planning for her next political moves. This may be true, or not. But it is the image projected. The President himself, who ushered in a new era of hope with the implicit but powerful promise that his administration would inject a powerful dose of benevolence into the international system, has yet again failed to live up to expectations. In fact, his statement that he has been assured that the treatment of corporal Manning is in accordance to minimum rules, rings of statements that waterboarding is not “torture”. When Obama becomes painfully reminiscent of Cheney, you have a major problem.
And supporting NGOs won’t solve it. Don’t forget that what happened last week with Mr. Crowley, is the kind of event by which you set the bar on your great ideas: Next time Obama speaks of human dignity abroad, expect the Abu Ghraib “statue of liberty” photo to appear across the board in foreign media.
Indeed, the message given, albeit inadvertently, is that human dignity is restricted to those we like. And, with my obligatory Greek reference, I would point that these attitudes break empires. Neocons love Thucydides; nicer people could learn from him, too.
Crowley was a brilliant press secretary because the foreign press felt that he was a professional that did his job (support US policy) but that he was a decent man, honest as far as his job allowed, graceful under “fire” and respectful to the concerns of foreigners. I felt obliged to write an oped about him after a day in his briefing room, lauding his professionalism.
I apologize for ranting. But Crowley was a person who inspired respect in this cynical commentator who was so disillusioned by the US after seven years in the country, but who always believed that America will again rise to the occasion and better manage the protracted but very real decline of the country.
Now I wonder if even the Hillary State Department can get it.