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Another Surrender in the War of Ideas

Monday, August 13, 2012

A look at the significance of our shrinking Turkish diplomacy.

It is the most important country in the Muslim world. Its economy is already the 16th-largest on the planet, and—in marked contrast to those of its sluggish neighbors in Europe—continues to grow by leaps and bounds. And its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was recently ranked the most popular politician in the entire Middle East.

So what is the Obama administration doing to engage Turkey? The answer, sadly, is “not much.” In fact, diplomatic niceties aside, Washington’s formal outreach to Ankara today is marginal at best—and about to shrink even further.

Nothing illustrates this quite as eloquently as the current, sorry state of the Voice of America’s (VOA) Turkish service. The current budget for the office, which conducts the U.S. government’s formal broadcasting toward the country in question, is something like $400,000—a pittance in an era of bloated government programs. That sum funds seven staffers who, in addition to producing online content, generate 15 minutes of original TV content (broadcast via a Turkish carrier) four times a week.

Yet even this paltry figure is in danger of being slashed still further. As part of anticipated federal budget cuts now on the horizon, the staff of VOA’s Turkish service is expected to decrease by more than half—to just three people—by early next year. Such a constriction would make it practically impossible to continue the current rate of output, keep up its quality, or both. And as a result, U.S. messaging toward Turkey is poised to wither on the vine.

This sort of institutional neglect might be understandable if Turkey was a marginal player in Mideast politics, or if it didn’t factor prominently into the Obama administration’s plans for the region. But the White House has made it abundantly clear that it sees Turkey as the model of choice for the countries of the “Arab Spring”—and that America, currently suffering an acute crisis of credibility in the region, hopes Ankara will use its clout to promote pluralism in the region in ways that we cannot.

Today, the formidable informational infrastructure that helped Washington win the ideological battle against the Soviet Union during the Cold War is all but a thing of the past.

The implosion of our Turkey diplomacy is symptomatic of the larger problems that plague U.S. outreach toward the Muslim world. Today, the formidable informational infrastructure that helped Washington win the ideological battle against the Soviet Union during the Cold War is all but a thing of the past. Indeed, over the past two decades, the instruments of U.S. messaging have suffered death by a thousand cuts, as important agencies have been dismantled and the skilled bureaucratic corpus that successfully waged ideological battle against Soviet Communism has departed the government for greener pastures. The sad state of affairs was perhaps best described by the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, a blue-ribbon panel chaired by former U.S. envoy to Syria Edward Djerejian, which outlined in its 2003 report that a “process of unilateral disarmament in the weapons of advocacy…has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interests and our safety.”

Indeed, not even the 9/11 terrorist attacks succeeded in arresting the terminal decline of our messaging. Over the past decade, even as America has struggled to burnish its global image amid the War on Terror, U.S. public diplomacy has undergone steep cuts to the scope and capabilities of its instruments of outreach. And because it has, America still struggles to be heard in the contest of ideas taking place in the volatile Middle East.

The results speak for themselves. According to a new poll released in June by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, America’s image in Muslim nations has continued to deteriorate over the past three years—plummeting from a 25 percent favorability rating at the tail end of the Bush administration to just 15 percent today. This decline has occurred despite President Obama’s lofty 2009 pledge to launch a “new beginning” in relations between the United States and Muslim nations.

Today, fresh thinking about a serious “war of ideas” against radical Islam—and a new, reinvigorated strategic communication effort toward the Islamic world—is sorely needed. Getting serious about our outreach to Turkey, currently the Middle East’s most dynamic actor, seems like a very good place to start.

Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

FURTHER READING: Michael Rubin discusses “What To Do with Turkey?,” “Is It Time for an Anti-Turkey Coalition?,” and “The Trouble with Turkey.” Lazar Berman contributes “Four Ways America Can Lead in Syria.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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