Obama’s Impressive First Week in Strategic Communication with Muslims

by Steven R. Corman

In November of last year I published an op-ed piece expressing my hope that President Barack Obama would follow-through with his campaign pledges to use humility to help repair the country’s image with Muslims abroad.

In his first week in office, Obama has made two important moves in this direction.  First, he pledged to close the Guantanamo prison within a year.  The Dana Priest of the Washington Post reckons that this means “he effectively declared an end to the ‘war on terror.'”

Well, I don’t know about that.  One Bush-era war buzz phrase was clearly alive and well in Secretary Hillary Clinton’s answers to questions from the Senate committee confirming her nomination:

President-Elect Obama and I believe that Afghanistan and the Pakistani border are the central front in the war on terror (p. 2)

As the President-Elect and I have stated, Afghanistan and the Pakistani border are the central front in the war on terror (p. 6)

As we have argued, this “war” framing creates a self-set rhetorical trap.  It doesn’t really fit the effort: Where is this “front” Clinton describes, with only good guys on one side and bad guys on the other?  War framing also makes it difficult to describe success in a way that can sustain public support over the long haul.  Those things are just as true for the Obama administration as they were for the Bush administration, and I’d dearly like to see them let that metaphor ride off into the sunset.

Nonetheless, the Gitmo closure was well received in the outside world.  Afghan President Hamid Karzai assessed the move this way:

This decision by the United States is a major step toward bringing more international support to the struggle against terrorism and enlisting all nations in this war.

Today there is news of another gesture by Obama to the Muslim world.  In an interview with al-Arabiya Network in Dubai, Obama said

Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries.

In describing his directive to Envoy George Mitchell he said

And so what I told him is start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating — in the past on some of these issues — and we don’t always know all the factors that are involved.  So let’s listen.

And on the notorious U.S. say-do gap, there was this:

But ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions and my administration’s actions. And I think that what you will see over the next several years is that I’m not going to agree with everything that some Muslim leader may say, or what’s on a television station in the Arab world — but I think that what you’ll see is somebody who is listening, who is respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and a lack of opportunity. I want to make sure that I’m speaking to them, as well.

These are important statements at a time when the Bad Guys seem mighty concerned about the traction Obama is getting with their prime audiences.  The first sign of this was the “house negro” insult hurled by Ayman al-Zawahiri last November as a capstone to his dubious 2008 accomplishments in AQ strategic communication.

As Joby Warrick points out in a WaPo article earlier this week, the attacks have continued in more recent statements and videos.

The torrent of hateful words is part of what terrorism experts now believe is a deliberate, even desperate, propaganda campaign against a president who appears to have gotten under al-Qaeda’s skin. The departure of George W. Bush deprived al-Qaeda of a polarizing American leader who reliably drove recruits and donations to the terrorist group.

With Obama, al-Qaeda faces an entirely new challenge, experts say: a U.S. president who campaigned to end the Iraq war and to close the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and who polls show is well liked throughout the Muslim world.

In his interview Obama acknowledged that the Bad Guys seem “nervous” then poked them in the eye:

Well, I think that when you look at the rhetoric that they’ve been using against me before I even took office- what that tells me is that their ideas are bankrupt. There’s no actions that they’ve taken that say a child in the Muslim world is getting a better education because of them, or has better health care because of them.

Good job Mr. President!  Keep it up.  And while you’re at it, why not put that war language under review?

UPDATE January 28, 7:00 MST

Here are some related articles and posts:

UPDATE January 30, 7:53 MST

For an interesting perspective on this, see the comment by mregypt on this post at Arab Media Shack.

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  1. [...] media front. Beyond the fact that his campaign leveraged the social web for an amazing victory, Obama’s interview with al-Arabiya Network in Dubai showed a policy of dialogue rather than dictation – certainly a format more appropriate for social [...]