Friday, October 5, 2012

Ambassador Stevens as a Public Diplomacy Envoy - Updated

It has been little noticed by the mainstream media that former US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, tragically murdered in the town of Benghazi, went to the American Consulate in that provincial town to open a so-called "American Space" sponsored by the State Department -- a visit that was a public diplomacy gesture par excellence. Robin Wright, a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center, and the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World," did mention in The Washington Post this purpose of the Ambassador's visit (and what an "American Space" is about):

Two days after his murder **, Chris was supposed to inaugurate the first “American Space” in Libya. That’s why he went to Benghazi. The center would offer a library, computers with free Internet access, language classes and films. In prepared remarks he never got to give, Chris was going to say, “An American Space is not part of the American Embassy. It is owned, operated, and staffed by our Libyan partners, while the United States provides materials, equipment, and speakers. An American Space is a living example of the kind of partnership between our two countries which we hope to inspire.”
American diplomat Peter Van Buren, whose blog "We Meant Well" is a must-read, does mention the "American Space" in connection with the Ambassador's Benghazhi visit, giving it its more widely known appellation:
It appears that the Ambassador was in Benghazi for the ribbon-cutting for an “American Corner.” An American Corner is, in State’s own words, a “friendly, accessible space, open to the public, which provides current and reliable information about the United States through bilingual book and magazine collections, films and documentaries, poster exhibitions, and guides for research on the United States.” Ironic of course that Ambassador Stevens and his people died in what is sadly all of a propaganda gesture, a book nook Corner that says happy things about America so that Libyans will love us.
The planned "American Corner" in Benghazi, however, never hit the MSM radar screen, despite its newsworthy potential of being a way to inform Libyans about America and carry out public diplomacy. And, so far as I can tell, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (or President Obama) has not emphasized this "American Space/Corner" opening as a purpose of the Ambassador's visit to Benghazi which led to his death. The reasons for this official silence are unknown to me, but perhaps the State Department could enlighten the public on this matter.

On American Corners, please see.

**Regarding the use of the word "murder" to describe the fate of Ambassador Stevens, please note the comment of Kim Andrew Elliott [his comment in italics] on an article in Digital Journal: "Digital Journal, 14 Sept 2012, Ted Lipien: 'Former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Victor Ashe criticizes the executive staff of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) for using a weak language in describing the death of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. Public relations officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) -- the U.S. government agency responsible for broadcasts to the Middle East and other parts of the world -- referred to the 'passing' of the U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in a statement expressing condemnation of the attacks that claimed his life and three others. Ambassador Victor H. Ashe, one of the current seven members of the bipartisan board in charge of U.S. international broadcasting, said the killings should be described as murder.' -- It was not 'weak language,' but correct use of English. The BBG mourns the passing, but condemned the attack (see the BBG statement on 12 Sept). It would seem a bit off to mourn a murder. In any case, a news organization is behooved to be restrained in its language."


It has come to my attention in a conversation with Bud Jacobs today before an off-the-record meeting at the State Department (October 4) that his commentary on the piece by former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs James Glassman ("Keep on Tweetin': The embassy debacle shouldn't end 21st-century #diplomacy," Foreign Policy, September 17) pertains to the tragic subject at hand:
Bud Jacobs [:] Jim's observations are as usual right on the money. To them I would add a concern about the likely US reaction to the embassy attacks and demonstrations. After the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998, Congress responded with legislated security requirements for embassies and other US government installations. This had an unfortunate -- I would say counterproductive -- effect on the US government's ability to conduct face-to-face engagement with foreign publics. American cultural centers around the world -- already on a declining path -- were closed and formerly public access facilities like libraries moved behind the security curtain. This resulted in a disastrous decline in their use by foreign publics -- mainly students -- in many places around the world. State responded with a number of creative but smaller substitutes, including American Corners and American Spaces (indeed, Ambassador Stevens was in Bengazi to inaugurate an American Space with a Libyan partner). I would argue that the correct response to recent events would be to step up our ability to engage in this form of diplomacy, to increase the number of such undertakings around the world, and where possible to improve public access to our remaining libraries, information resource centers, and the like.


Сразу после революции в стране как грибы стали появляться " "красные уголки", теперь вот " уголки православной культуры". Немыслимая трансформация. (Loose translation: Immediately after the Revolution "red corners" began to appear like mushrooms, and now here are "corners of orthodox church culture." ) Via/quoting NP on facebook


Bulletproof glass distorts the diplomatic view - Anne Applebaum, (October 21): "[I]t does seem that events in Benghazi were very confusing that day. As a result of that confusion, some people think the attackers were motivated by news of an anti-Islamic video, some think they were members of an al-Qaida affiliate, and maybe U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice should have waited before speaking with such certainty about what happened. To my mind, there is only one truly disturbing element of this discussion: the underlying assumptions — made by almost everyone participating in the argument — that no American diplomats should ever be exposed to any risk whatsoever and that it is always better to have too much security than too little. Since Ambassador Chris Stevens' death, it has become widely known that he did not subscribe to those assumptions. He was a popular, admired and successful ambassador precisely because he traveled around the country where he was posted, got out of his residence, spoke Arabic and understood the value of public diplomacy. He was in Benghazi on Sept. 11 to open a new cultural center where Libyans could get access to books and movies about America, something he clearly thought was important. All of this made him extremely unusual in a region where many American diplomats spend most of their time behind the guarded doors of bunker-like embassies, often far from the center of town. The U.S. Embassy in Tunis looks like a high-security prison. The U.S. Embassy in Amman is encircled by barriers of concrete and steel. Even in London, the U.S. Embassy is surrounded by so many impractical roadblocks that neighbors have protested and the Americans have decided to move. When construction is completed, the ambassador will commute from his residence in central London to the embassy in a distant suburb, far away from the events and people he is supposed to monitor. This is not merely an aesthetic problem (though it is that as well) or a question of convenience. Diplomats who have no contact with ordinary people get things very wrong and are liable to be badly misunderstood themselves. Remember Iraq's Green Zone, the high-security U.S. compound in Baghdad where American soldiers and diplomats had access to discos, bars and a shopping mall — but rarely met any local residents?"


US cultural diplomacy put back on the map - Curtis S. Chin, Christopher Merrill, F. William Smullen III and Charles H. Webb, Jr., "Somewhat lost in the ongoing media coverage of the deaths of US ambassador Christopher Stevens and three American colleagues killed in Benghazi, Libya, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks is the reason why the top diplomat was in that city that night. According to an account by President Obama, Stevens was there in part reviewing plans to establish a new cultural center. Such centers can provide people with greater access to American culture, literature and information, particularly important at a time when the US remains a country that many around the world can only dream of visiting. ... Just over seven years ago, in September 2005, an eight-person bipartisan Advisory Committee on Cultural Diplomacy, on which we served, issued a report to the then-US Secretary of State underscoring the importance of strengthening US engagement internationally as positive perceptions of the US fell, particularly in the Arab and Muslim world. With the original 9/11 terrorist attacks and their immediate aftermath still fresh in people’s minds — not to mention the Bali bombings of 10 years ago — the US Congress authorized the establishment of our committee in 2004, drawing from both Republicans and Democrats in the world of academia, culture, business and government. In our report, 'Cultural Diplomacy: The Linchpin of Public Diplomacy', we urged the Secretary of State to consider a number of recommendations that would serve to add to America’s 'soft power' in the ongoing battle of ideas, and create a cultural diplomacy infrastructure and policy for the 21st century. While the mandate and work of our committee has long finished, we believe many of our recommendations are worth revisiting today. ... Back in 2005, we wrote that 'cultural diplomacy can enhance our national security in subtle, wide-ranging, and sustainable ways,' but such diplomacy efforts require a generational commitment of funds, expertise, courage and time. That’s as true today as it was then. Let’s not let the tragic deaths of four Americans in Benghazi prevent the US and US diplomats from continuing to engage and reach out, when working to win the hearts and minds of reasonable people everywhere. Perhaps more than ever, it is time for the US to double down on diplomacy — cultural, commercial and educational. This will be as important in Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia, as it is all around the world."

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