Senior US diplomat's candor gets play in the Middle East, ire at home

Alberto Fernandez has recanted comments that US moves in Iraq show 'arrogance' and 'stupidity.'

When senior State Department official Alberto Fernandez said in an interview on Al Jazeera Saturday that US policies in Iraq have been marked by "arrogance" and "stupidity," he was expressing a sentiment widely held in the Arab world.

To many Arabs, it was a stunning moment of candor. It led front pages of newspapers across the region. Mr. Fernandez – whose fluent Arabic and dozens of regional television appearances have made him the voice of American policy to millions in the Middle East – struck the sort of tone that public policy experts say the US needs if it is to regain some of its credibility in Arab eyes.

The only problem was, his comments were immediately disavowed by the Bush Administration. Now the future of Fernandez – one of America's most potent public diplomacy weapons in the region – is clouded, and the Arab view of an America that admits to no mistakes has become more entrenched.

Fernandez's primary job is to book American officials on Arab programs, but with most officials reluctant to appear on Arab-language television, particularly on Al Jazeera, which many US officials view with barely disguised loathing, he's been mostly booking himself, doing at least 100 interviews this year.

In a laudatory piece on his efforts in Newsweek this August, Fernandez poked fun at himself. "I'm Cuban,'' he told the magazine, referring to his heritage. "We can't close our big mouths."

But after his latest foray, State Department officials in Washington say Fernandez has, in effect, been told to recant his remarks. At first, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Fernandez's comments were mistranslated.

Then, when an unimpeachable translation of his remarks was produced by the Associated Press, Fernandez was told by his bosses to disavow his comments. In a statement released by the State Department, Fernandez is quoted as saying: "I seriously misspoke by using the phrase 'there has been arrogance and stupidity by the US in Iraq.' This represents neither my views, or those of the State Department."

Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert and political science professor at Williams College whose latest book, "Voices of the New Arab Public," examines the role Al Jazeera and other media play in shaping Arab views, says it appears that Fernandez is being slapped down by the administration for his comments. He worries that could end up seriously undermining American outreach efforts in the region.

"If you can say: 'Yeah, the security situation in Iraq isn't very good and we've made a lot of mistakes, but now we have to get everyone on board to find solutions,' you're going to be much more effective," says Lynch. "The real impact to worry about here is whether future public diplomacy people take away the message that if they display the slightest amount of honesty, they're doomed."

By now, the view that the US has made major mistakes in Iraq is hardly news. It's something that's been acknowledged in print by former senior officials of the US administration there, and retired military generals who served there.

Lost in the furor over Fernandez's remarks – from right-wing blogs calling for his head to those on the left using it as fodder to claim that US policy in Iraq has been a disaster – has been the meat of his comments, which were designed to encourage constructive engagement in the region.

"There is no doubt that there is plenty of room for blame ... but we haven't focused enough on the future and the possibility of failure in Iraq,'' Fernandez told Al Jazeera in remarks later translated by the Associated Press. "We must all focus on saving Iraq for the sake of the Iraqi people and for our sakes, us in the West, and also you in the Arab world. I know that sometimes there is a kind of gloating in the Arab world that America has problems in Iraq ... [but] we must think of the Iraqi people, the Arabs, the Muslims, and the citizens of Iraq more than gloating about the United States."

"[Fernandez] has developed a reputation for being candid and blunt, and he'll often say things that aren't particularly popular at home, but that's earned him a reputation for being a little looser and a little more honest, and I think that helps him to get his point across," in the Middle East says Mr. Lynch. "The stuff he's getting pilloried for was setting the stage for getting across a message that's very important for the United States."

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