Wednesday, November 3, 2010

IraQVC : Oversell Edition

The AP questions the limits of U.S. traditional diplomacy, asking: "Is US overselling diplomacy in Iraq?"

The article cites a State Department audio concluding that the Obama administration may be overstating the impact of U.S. diplomats there, and that diplomatic work may be harder to pull off without military backing or protection. It quotes Stephen Biddle of the Council on Foreign Relations saying, "Normally, stabilizing a situation like this requires peacekeepers ... Peacekeepers are soldiers. That doesn't say there aren't important and valuable things that government civilians can do. But ... security protection is important in this environment, and that's not something State Department civilians do."

The concerns highlight one of many differences between the U.S. approach in Iraq and Afghanistan, where, as this blog recently reported, the U.S. is trying to mix military action and political dialogue. There is, after all, great wisdom in the infamous Will Rogers quote: "Diplomacy is the art of saying "Nice doggie" until you can find a rock." That is to say, words carry more weight when backed by strength.

Iraq may not be the "graveyard of empires," but with a relentless stream of scandals--from Abu Ghraib and Blackwater to mismanaged funds and the UN's oil-for-food scandal--Iraq has presented itself as a formidable public diplomacy challenge, a situation that has not been aided by the ambiguity of what, exactly, the U.S. was trying to communicate there. Was it an anti-WMD message? A pro-democracy message? A demonstration of force against terrorism? A show of solidarity with Arabs?

Traditional and public diplomats alike are going to struggle to communicate in the years ahead. It's unclear how much the presence of the military would help, but it's certain that their absence will add one more challenge to an already difficult task.

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