Do a Google search in the last 24 hours on the word "arrogance" and you'll find over 800 articles devoted to the remarks of a senior U.S. diplomat who dared to speak the truth about Iraq. A regular commentator on Al Jazeera, Alberto Fernandez, director of press and public diplomacy for Near Eastern Affairs, told the Arab-language network in a 35-minute interview: "We tried to do our best [in Iraq] but I think there is much room for criticism because, undoubtedly, there was arrogance and there was stupidity from the United States in Iraq."
Finally, a U.S. Government official stated the obvious. It is possible for the world's sole superpower to be arrogant and stupid in its policy. What is refreshing, though improbable, is that these words were not those of Cindy Sheehan or the Dixie Chicks but came from a senior State Department official. For his astute frankness, Fernandez in short order had to backpedal from his earlier statement and declare his mea culpa: "Upon reading the transcript ... I realized I seriously misspoke by using the phrase 'there has been arrogance and stupidity' by the US in Iraq. This represents neither my views nor those of the State Department. I apologize."
Blame it on poor translation, says the State Department. Fernandez, who has given dozens of interviews to Middle East media in Arabic, is suddenly showing a decline in his personal mastery of the language, despite what Reuters reports is an official whose "popularity with the Arab news media has been bolstered by his command of Arabic and his willingness to speak passionately about issues."
We don't expect our government spinmeisters to be all that frank and open. We expect them to blindly support the administration and speak from a text like bureaucratic news readers. Staying 'on message' is how they hold onto their jobs. Fernandez's very popularity with the Arab media and Arabic-speaking public was not just because of his ability to converse in the regional language. It was also because he could deliver the administration line with something akin to a pulse. One Iraqi Kurdish lawmaker, Mahmoud Othman, told the New York Times he wished that there more like Fernandez in the U.S. Government: "I have been expecting American officials - someday, last year, this year - to say something about this, that this policy has not worked. It has been a failure. They should admit it before it is too late."
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As an official who is tasked with bringing more understanding about the United States to the Near Eastern region, you would think that Fernandez would be given just a little more elbow room than usual to explain U.S. policy to a very skeptical public that is more likely to expect propaganda and spin than truth to come out of official Washington.
But official Washington cannot see the broader view, which is why for years I've advocated that we rescue public diplomacy from official speak. Get it away from the concentrated control of Washington, D.C. and into the civic society where people are freer to exchange their views with their overseas counterparts. Fernandez, the State Department guy who is popular in the Arab press, went too far, according to his superiors. He spoke the truth, which for the Bush administration is like playing not just with fire, but in a bonfire. It kills. In acknowledging a failed policy, Fernandez got burned, but he is unlikely to get sacked because we have so few Arabic speakers in government and State needs him to continue to present the U.S. point of view to the Middle East.
Were Fernandez free to speak openly and frankly, he would likely be the best official representative we have on public diplomacy in the Middle East. Because he cannot, we have no choice but to reach out and around the clutches of the State Department and Pentagon to continue to speak the unspun truth and confront the insanity one-by-one, citizen-to-citizen. An arrogant and stupid policy campaign in Iraq has failed us. Let's do what we can now to stop the bleeding.