Martha Bayles Responds to “Instead, We Played Music”

It is gratifying to see such an appreciative review of my book Through a Screen Darkly from Robert Reilly, who is a tough critic of the usual discourse about U.S. public diplomacy. Especially pleasing is the attention he pays to the contributions of the many veteran public diplomats I interviewed. He was one of them, and I learned more about the topic from these individuals than I possibly could have from any book.

Nonetheless, I hope that neither Mr. Reilly nor your readers will be put off by a little pushback.

First, my book does not say it was a “conscious decision” to let the entertainment industry take over the job of communicating U.S. interests, intentions, and ideals to the world. On the contrary, it describes the decision as a heedless drift, driven by the prevailing assumptions of the 1990s: a triumphalist view of the free market; an awareness of the role played by popular culture, especially jazz and rock, in promoting Western freedoms; the lure of new markets in the former Soviet bloc; and a bipartisan desire to reap a budgetary “peace dividend.”

Second, I wish Mr. Reilly had mentioned an important point made in chapter 6: that while the post-1960s counterculture had a welcome subversive impact in Moscow and Prague, its impact in places like Cairo and Tehran was mostly corrosive. In particular, I cite evidence from Arab and Iranian informants that the coarse, amoral direction of American culture in the 1970s was a contributing factor to the growing appeal of radical Islamism to many young Muslims, including a generation of university students.

In this connection, I find it dismaying the way many reviewers, not just Mr. Reilly, omit any mention of the material that constitutes the heart of my book: namely, the insightful, challenging, often eloquent testimony of more than 200 foreign interlocutors whom I interviewed in eleven countries over the course of six years. It’s hard not to read this omission as evidence of a stunning insularity.

The third item on my list is Mr. Reilly’s selective view of the book’s treatment of military “strategic communication.” He ignores my whole discussion of U.S. military personnel abroad, which ranges from the offensive behavior of inexperienced troops and contractors during the early days of the Iraq invasion to the superb counterinsurgency work done by more seasoned soldiers during the surge.

Further, Mr. Reilly provides an explanation of the military’s reluctance to do public diplomacy in a way that implies there is no such explanation in the book. This is misleading: the book contains testimony on this topic from a Marine major who corresponded with me about it, and from John Carman, who was serving at the time as civilian deputy director of strategic communication for Joint Forces Command.

Also regarding strategic communication, Mr. Reilly oversimplifies my view of such controversial matters as the Office of Strategic Information (OSI) and the prospects for democracy in Muslim countries, while at the same time presenting his own opinion as fact, backed up not by argument or evidence but by telling the reader “I was there.” Other people were there, too, and they do not all agree!

Fourth, Mr. Reilly and I see eye-to-eye on the waste of resources that went into Radio Sawa and Al-Hurra TV, the two government-sponsored but commercial-style channels launched in the Arab Middle East after 9/11. It is still amazing to consider the dearth of substantive U.S. international broadcasting in that region. But I confess to being somewhat taken aback by Mr. Reilly’s statement that my recommendations for reform are the same as those set forth in H.R. 4490, the bill currently languishing in Congress. They are not.

Fifth and finally, Mr. Reilly misrepresents my discussion of the gay rights issue in Uganda. He asserts that I take the side of the U.S. embassy staff in Kampala who joined a march protesting the murder, under dubious circumstances, of the gay-rights activist David Kato. This is precisely the opposite of what I say. My point is not to take sides but to deplore the role of the embassy, and by extension the State Department, in exporting America’s culture war to places where it quickly turns deadly. Here is the relevant passage:

“What the embassy in Kampala should have done is speak forcefully about the history of gay rights in America and stress that while some Americans oppose homosexuality on religious grounds, our society does not countenance hate-mongering and violence. But to do this, we need public diplomats who can look past their own ideological blinders and see that the job is not simply to explain what divides Americans but also to impart what we cherish in common – for example, the capacity to disagree vehemently but not violently.”