February 14, 2011

A Case of Hard- and Soft-Power Mismatch

The U.S.'s efforts to win hearts and minds of the Muslim world are stymied by a killing machine that is remotely controlled from Langley, Virginia, but blows out targets in a remote corner of Pakistan. In the process of taking out al-Qaeda targets in Waziristan tribal belt that borders Afghanistan, the drone attacks deal a blow to the U.S. image across Pakistan.
Despite pumping billions of dollars in strengthening Pakistan's army and shoring up its dwindling economy, the U.S. has so far failed to sell its soft power in Pakistan. Not only that, U.S. public perception of Pakistan has also sunk to a new low. Only 18 per cent saw Pakistan favorably and 76 per cent viewed it negatively, according to a survey by Gallup.
This shows that the peoples of Pakistan and the U.S. are at cross-purposes with their respective governments. However, since the U.S. has embarked on and spends billions of dollars to sell its soft image to the Muslim world, public perception of America in Pakistan is a grim reminder that something is wrong on public diplomacy front.
The drone attacks have killed many high-profile al-Qaeda and Taliban militants, but it has increased anti-U.S. feelings because of the collateral damage that they exact. For every single al-Qaeda/Taliban leader, a number of women and children also get killed in the missile strike fired by the un-maned drone called Predator.
The air raids also go to the heart of the resentment that Pakistanis feel against the United States, seeing them as an assault on the nation’s sovereignty. The New American Foundation, which tracks drone strikes, estimates they have killed a total of 2,189 people from 2004 through January of this year. Of those, 1,754 were militants.
Only 16 per cent of residents of the tribal areas think the strikes accurately target militants, 48 per cent believe they largely kill civilians and another 33 per cent feel they kill both, said a study by the think tank.
Another survey, which was published by the New York Times on February 12, says that 67 per cent of journalists in Pakistan think that drone attacks is an act of terrorism itself instead of an anti-terrorism campaign. Since journalists drive public opinion, their perception of the U.S. and its war-on-terror shapes public perception of the U.S.
No less than 84 per cent of the journalists are of the opinion that the U.S. is "unjustly meddling" in Pakistani politics. Journalists with this perception of the U.S. feed the media, obviously, with kind of narratives that run counter to the Obama Administration policy of winning hearts and minds in the Muslim world.
The perception of Pakistani journalists, 77 percent of whom view the U.S. unfavorably, influence opinion of Muslims in other countries too. Afghanistan and Pakistan, being theater of the war-on-terror, is the epicenter of war-related news. The local Pakistani journalists also feed international media organizations. Thus they disseminate their view to a wider public across the borders of Pakistan.
The survey report says, "Pakistan’s tumultuous news media is the prism through which United States policy is reflected to the people, who have found themselves at the center of America’s struggle against terrorism."
"So far, the picture has not been pretty: the George W. Bush administration demonized the Muslim news media; Muslim journalists returned the favor. But research shows that the Obama administration has the opportunity to take a more sophisticated approach to those who drive public opinion throughout the Islamic world."
Soft power is embedded in hard power, but the latter should not overtake the former. Hearts of the Muslims cannot be won by smashing their heads.


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