American Public Diplomacy is Now Selling Suleimani

Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty is an American outfit originally tasked with anti-Soviet propaganda, currently tasked with broadcasting to nations where the media is not free.  This week, RFE/RL explains to its audience in the Middle East and Eastern Europe that Qassem Suleimani, the Quds Force commander who is responsible for a thousand American deaths in Iraq, is just misunderstood.

Although run by a quasi-independent 501(c)3, RFE/RL is funded by the United States government and overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors.  The Broadcasting Board of governors includes as one of its members chief Iran Deal salesman (and US Secretary of State) John F. Kerry, although he is generally represented by an Under Secretary.  Eight other members are personally appointed by the President.

Historically, the Broadcasting Board of Governors belonged to the United States Information Agency, founded in 1953 to conduct anti-Soviet and anti-Communist messaging as part of the Cold War.  The USIA was dissolved in 1999, but two parts of it were retained in existence:  the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which was given a quasi-independent status but kept under State Department control via the Presidential appointment of its leadership, and the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which was transferred to the Central Intelligence Agency.  Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s independence from the State Department is therefore chiefly symbolic.  It is very much a tool of the United States’ executive branch, intended to convey a viewpoint that is much less independent than it claims to the nations of the Middle East, Central and Eastern Europe.

The Broadcasting Board of Governors claims its mission is to provide independent news media in areas where a free press is limited by tyrannical states.  However, its mission includes what the State Department calls “public diplomacy,” that is, diplomacy aimed directly at the citizens of foreign nations instead of their governments.  Secretary Kerry’s representative on the board is the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, Richard Stengel.   Public diplomacy is often hard to distinguish from propaganda:  compare the definitions the US Army uses for “public diplomacy,” “psychological operations,” and “propaganda.”

For these reasons, it is astonishing to see a Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty piece on one of Americans chief enemies that describes him in glowing terms.   It is worth excerpting at length.

Qassem Soleimani, a top military commander in Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is a wanted man….  Since 2007, he’s been formally labeled a supporter of terrorism by the United States….

In fact, what he really is, according to an unusual interview with his younger brother, is misunderstood.

“He’s a serious person, but very kind and emotional,” said Sohrab Soleimani… Those who don’t know him well can’t believe what kind of personality he has….  Haj Soleimani has been born in our family, but he doesn’t belong to us, he belongs to the country and to the Shi’a,” Sohrab Soleimani said, referring to his brother by the honorific to describe him as devout….

In January, more than 200 Iranian lawmakers praised Soleimani and his Quds Force for playing a “determining role” in what they described as defending Muslims and regional security, and also fighting terrorist groups, namely “the criminal and evil [Islamic State group].”

Meanwhile, hard-line Iranian officials have paid tribute to the 58-year-old Qassem Soleimani through songs, social media posts, and documentaries amid rumors that he could enter politics.

The piece represents itself as a report on an interview, but no analytic filter has been placed on the claims being made by the Iranian propagandists.  For some reason, we are uncritically re-broadcasting Iranian propaganda using America’s “public diplomacy” outfits.  It is clear that the editorial environment at RFE/RL has been shaped in a way that makes this acceptable to them.

Suleimani does have a poetic side, of course.  Here he is describing war:

“The battlefield is mankind’s lost paradise—the paradise in which morality and human conduct are at their highest,” [Suleimani] says. “One type of paradise that men imagine is about streams, beautiful maidens, and lush landscape. But there is another kind of paradise—the battlefield.”

Reports this week indicate that Suleimani’s Quds Force is already stepping up rocket attacks on Israel.  See also our backgrounder on his career as Iran’s leading figure in unconventional warfare.