State Dept. Tries Blog Diplomacy

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By Walter Pincus
Monday, November 19, 2007

T he State Department, departing from traditional public diplomacy techniques, has what it calls a three-person, "digital outreach team" posting entries in Arabic on "influential" Arabic blogs to challenge misrepresentations of the United States and promote moderate views among Islamic youths in the hopes of steering them from terrorism.

The department's bloggers "speak the language and idiom of the region, know the culture reference points and are often able to converse informally and frankly, rather than adopt the usually more formal persona of a U.S. government spokesperson," Duncan MacInnes, of State's Bureau of International Information Programs, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on terrorism and unconventional threats on Thursday.

"Because blogging tends to be a very informal, chatty way of working," MacInnes said, "it is actually very dangerous to blog." So State has a senior experienced officer, who served in Iraq, acting as supervisor and discussing each posting before it goes up. "We do not make policy," MacInnes added.

The State Department team's approach is to join a blog's conversation, often when it turns to the motivation for U.S. policy toward Iraq, and when others are claiming that the U.S. occupation is meant to help Israel or to secure oil. "Our job is to address that motivation issue and show them that that's not the motivation," MacInnes said.

"You can't just say, 'Well, here's our policy,' and drop it into the blog. You have to have what I call a bridge," MacInnes said. He then described using a sporting or current event or even poetry that would "allow one to get to be in a conversational mode with people."

Even though the State Department employees were not going into hard-core terrorist sites, the worry, MacInnes said, was that after identifying themselves and using their own names, "we would be, in the parlance of the Internet, 'flamed' when we come on" -- meaning their entries would be subjected to intense attacks.

They were not, and there were such posts as, "We don't like your policies but we're sure glad you're here talking to us about it," MacInnes said. As a result, State is expanding the team to six speakers of Arabic, two of Persian and one of Urdu.

To prove that it, too, can plug into the modern media world, the Pentagon's Central Command has a blogging operation at its headquarters. Its Joint Forces Command also has the capability and has even written a brochure on how to do it. "It's an area we're moving into," Navy Capt. Hal Pittman, acting deputy assistant secretary of defense for joint communications, told the House panel. He added that Central Command may not be using its own Arabic or Farsi speakers, but rather contract personnel. "We're sharing with State and trying to, you know, better our knowledge on how to do it."

The State-Defense communications approach is also turning to a more sophisticated message, one that moves away from trying to change perceptions of the United States, focusing instead on the self-perceptions of its target audiences. "Our core message must outline an alternative future that is more attractive than the bleak future offered by the terrorists," said Michael Doran, deputy assistant secretary of defense for support of public diplomacy.

Another step they described to the House panel, in what they called "counterterrorism communications," is having a greater awareness of the impact of what U.S. speakers are saying. "When we say 'Islamo-fascism,' whether the term has a meaning or not, what they hear is 'war on Islam,' okay -- 'attacking my religion,' " MacInnes said.

He described the phrase as "a verbal equivalent of poking a stick in somebody's eye . . . and [Osama] bin Laden has been very good at taking our words and turning them around to his advantage by saying, 'See, they're actually at war with Islam.' "

President Bush has not used the phrase recently.

National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them tofineprint@washpost.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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