War Stories

Barnes & Noble Goes to Baghdad

A brilliant plan to send American books to the Middle East.

Last month, speaking at the Army War College, Donald Rumsfeld said, “If I were grading, I would say we probably deserve a ‘D’ or a ‘D-plus’ as a country as to how well we’re doing in the battle of ideas that’s taking place in the world.”

Rumsfeld may have meant his remark as a swipe at Condoleezza Rice, who, as secretary of state, is in charge of America’s “public diplomacy” program. (Can anyone doubt the two despise each other?) Still, there’s no denying that he’s right. How can it be that, in the war of ideas, the world’s most advanced democracy has made so little headway against a medievalist with a laptop in a cave?

The problem isn’t so much, as Rumsfeld claimed in another recent speech, that Bin Laden and al-Qaida spread their ideas through mass media more skillfully than we do. The problem is that to the rest of the world, we appear to have no ideas at all.

Juan Cole, a blogger and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, has come up with an intriguing idea for how to fill this gap. He wants to hire skilled linguists to translate into Arabic the classic works of American political thought—especially those works that deal with freedom of religion, division of powers, sovereignty of the people, and equal rights. He has in mind the essays and speeches of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Tom Paine, Benjamin Franklin, Martin Luther King Jr., and Susan B. Anthony; a solid history of American Jews and other minority groups; maybe a few good books, written by American historians, about Iraq. Cole also wants to subsidize Middle Eastern publishers to print these books in large numbers and at low prices, and he wants to pay fees to book dealers throughout the region—just as publishers pay Borders and Barnes & Noble here—to display the books prominently.

This isn’t just an idea. Cole has established the Global Americana Institute and the Library of Americana Translation Project. Since he outlined the idea in his blog late last year, readers have sent him $13,000. He claims that some foundations are “jumping-up-and-down enthusiastic” to pour in the big bucks, once he obtained the legal status of a nonprofit organization. The federal government just gave him this status two weeks ago. He’s filling out the grant applications now. He also recently returned from the Beirut international book fair, where he says several Middle Eastern publishers and dealers expressed great interest in the project (and, no doubt, in the prospect of the money).

Long ago, the federal government did on its own just what Cole proposes to do. The United States Information Agency—then an independent agency—maintained libraries in Amman, Istanbul, and elsewhere, filled with translations of American political and literary classics. The Franklin Book Program, a nonprofit company with funding from the State Department and private foundations, published hundreds of titles and stocked them in libraries and bookstores all over the world. The Franklin Book Program shut down in 1977, its international board having determined—prematurely, it turned out—that its mission was accomplished. In the 1990s, under pressure from the Republican-run Senate (especially Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee), the USIA was absorbed into the State Department; its budget was whacked and its agenda politicized; its libraries were shut down, their books remaindered.

As Cole put it in a recent blog:

Frankly, we have been failed by our government and foundations in getting the message of what America really is out to the rest of the world. … Folks, we mostly are going to have to do this ourselves.

The USIA, retrenched as it is, still does have some translation programs, and, though most of its projects are business books, some are political anthologies. But Cole says distribution is poor; he has never seen any of these books in libraries, stores, or book stalls in his extensive travels throughout the region. Nor does the U.S. government seem interested in hawking these products.

Karen Hughes, President Bush’s trusted friend and adviser, is the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy. After a couple of disastrous trips to the Muslim world—which she took on the bizarre assumption that she should not only run public diplomacy but be the public diplomat, despite a lack of background in the area’s languages and cultures—she’s been mainly staying stateside. By some accounts, she’s getting better at the job. She’s hired Arabic-speaking assistants to monitor the region’s satellite-TV newscasts. When lies are told about us, she issues rebuttals or directs our diplomats or other officials to do so on the air. Good idea. Amazing we hadn’t already been doing this. But this is a tactical approach, the stuff of an election campaign’s rapid-response teams. It is not strategy; it does not present a program, vision, or image on our own terms.

Will Juan Cole’s Library of Americana project do that? By itself, no. At best it’s the kind of effort that takes years to germinate. It’s aimed more at students and intellectuals than at “the street.” Whatever impact it has will be trickle-down, not head-on. More to the point, public diplomacy can never be more than an adjunct to the other sorts of diplomacy. Not even the USIA, in its heyday, could ward off the vast damage inflicted on our image by the war in Vietnam. George W. Bush can talk all he wants of freedom and democracy, but it’s what he does—and what effects his policies have—that will sway hearts and minds.

Still, Cole’s project is a start down a path that’s been abandoned for too long. In pivotal parts of the world, a whole generation has seen nothing from America except soldiers, rifles, tanks, bombs, and—at best—mediocre movies, pop songs, and consumer products. It might be useful to let them know that we have a wealth of ideas, too.