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The Trial and U.S. Public Diplomacy

How has the Hamdan case played out in foreign media audiences? Tony Waters has suggested in this forum that whatever the outcome, the Hamdan case is still "lipstick on a pig" – the product of an illegitimate legal forum to the eyes of the world.  But – how could the Hamdan case function as a positive element for U.S. public diplomacy?

Extensive coverage in international broadcasting (VOA, Al-Hurra, etc.) that captures the trial narrative might be productive. Indeed, Brian Glyn Williams' account made for compelling reading. This kind of story, properly elaborated, could serve to demystify for foreign audiences the domestic controversy over Guantanamo, and complicate monolithic depictions of the US government's stance towards the facility and the tribunal system. Why do I say this? I believe Marc Lynch has suggested that we should play CSPAN to the rest of the world – to illustrate the workings of democracy at its most basic (and perhaps dull) level. Perhaps a similar expose could lay bare the competing interests, actors, and values at work in the process of Hamdan's "vindication." The Hamdan case is as much a testimony to the skill of the defense team as it is to the capacity of U.S.

institutions to acknowledge mistakes.


Would factual representations and transcripts be a good way to demonstrate that the American system as (at least partially) self-correcting; that the rule of law ultimately trumps demagoguery and the politics of fear? As Edward R Murrow suggested, international broadcasting needs to show the United States "warts and all."  Hamdan, indeed, reveals some glaring warts. Williams' recounting of the emotionally charged prosecution strategy, pandering to the emotional trauma of 9/11 to construct a substantive case against Hamdan, is particularly troubling. It's not that emotional narratives and appeals are not potentially winning legal strategies. Rather, this was the strategy of first resort for the prosecution. In fact, I was amazed that the prosecution did little to dispute William's depiction of the Al Qaida army in Afghanistan, which complicated Hamdan's role in supporting a global terrorist conspiracy. It's as if the facts themselves were irrelevant. How would that alone "speak" for the values and intentions of the U.S. government?

But public diplomacy is not just about international broadcasting. It might also attempt to proactively incorporate the Hamdan case into a media advocacy campaign, into speaking engagements, and other official outlets for the government's perspective. In other words, the USFG could (and really should) publicly own the entirety of the Hamdan story. Welcome back to reality – I don't think that's a serious option under the current administration. However, there may be some material in the Hamdan case for the State Department's Digital Outreach teams, the bloggers who lurk on the frontlines of online discussion forums to present the US perspective in a theoretically open and transparent manner. The moral stain of GuantanamoBay remains a fungible resource for anti-American sentiment. A clear-eyed embrace of this episode in American legal and foreign policy is not only needed, but could signal a willingness to speak on equal terms with audiences skeptical of platitudes about the moral strengths of American democracy.

Ultimately, I think a comprehensive review of press coverage and editorials about the Hamdan verdict could shed some light on the utility of Hamdan's tale for public diplomacy. Also, I think it is crucial to see just how much coverage actually took place – and if it lingered very long in the news cycle. Finally, analysis of current anti-American discourse in international media should attend to how the Hamdan case has been used for subsequent arguments (or neglected). U.S. open source analysts may have already addressed this task, and there is much to learn here. Reaction to Hamdan could provide a clear picture of the fault-lines in narratives about the U.S. that continue to circulate across global media outlets; the enduring hurdles to an effective or at least responsible public diplomacy.

Craig Hayden, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of International Communications at the School of International Service, American University, in Washington, D.C. He is part of the International Media Argument Project (Intermap), where he also blogs.

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