By Patricia Lee Sharpe
This hasn’t been a good week for U.S. public diplomacy, though I strongly suspect that savvy PD people had little input vis-à-vis the situations that turned out so badly.
Not all U.S. policy was popular when I was in the Foreign Service and tasked with explaining it to foreign journalists and other contacts. Even so, I mostly enjoyed the challenge. But policy has been so badly botched in Afghanistan (the subject of my next piece) and elsewhere, that I couldn’t, in good conscience, have put a good face on it, even if I were still an American diplomat. On top of that, this week has brought us two totally unnecessary public relations disasters involving the U.S. President:
1. The globally-projected image of President Barack Obama getting names mixed up in the U.K. Prompt: it’s George, not Jeffrey Osborne, who occupies the important position of Chancellor of the Exchecquer in the current Conservative government. Trying for the appearance of first-name intimacy, which obviously doesn’t exit, Bert — oh! sorry! — Barack mucked it up and created alienation instead. Note to President and staff: sometimes it’s useful to have a discrete little crib sheet on the podium.
Remember “Ich bin ein Berliner”? That was JFK’s unforgettable gaffe. Kennedy was more or less forgiven for calling himself a jelly donut (or some other pastry) at the Brandenberg Gate, but the failed effort to ingratiate himself with his audience dogged him ever after. Years of sniggers.
The Osborne gaffe is worse. Confusing names is far more insulting than muddling language.
Was Obama on auto-pilot? Often, it seems, when he’s been rolled on stage to communicate with his inferiors in the press or the general public, his body is there and his mouth emits sounds, but his mind soars in the empyrean far far away from such mundane obligations. Are his official duties that boring? If so, why did he want a second term?
And why don’t his press and public affairs advisors call him on it, whether he’s in the U.K or Germany or at home? He may despise the obligation to explain and seek support, but he might learn to put up a better front.
2. The U.S. President speaking behind bulletproof glass in Berlin, hardly the most dangerous place on earth. And, no, the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens under very different circumstances in Benghazi doesn’t justify the glass barrier between Barack Obama and his audience on this very important European (!) site. Further, please note: the new Pope Francis has stopped using the glass cage known as the Popemobile. He wants to be able to reach out to people.
At best the glass-wall idea is a triumph of timidity over sense, even though it is remotely possible that an essentially friendly crowd in an allied country could harbor an ill-wisher. Look at it this way: pretty soon, emulating the U.S. reliance on death-dealing drones in its war against terrorism, unmanned aerial killers will be in everyone’s arsenal. So what’s next? Glass boxes for speakers? Or maybe no prominent speaker should be allowed out of a building. Whoops! Buildings can be targeted, too. So, how about a bunker? But there are bunker busters! Aha! A cardboard Obama, which will be only slightly less animated than the real thing! Borrow one from the photographers catering to tourists in D.C.
In short, exaggeration aside, there is no absolute safety. Leadership involves risk. When the U.S. President cowers behind bulletproof glass, the cringing posture doesn’t make him look like a world leader to be taken seriously.
Adding (1) and (2), here’s the unstated message that went out to the world this week, thanks to President Obama and his advisers: the U.S. is ignorant, contemptuous and cowardly. Not a great stance for a superpower.