The Obama Administration has been seeking advice on how to calibrate its messaging on the 10th anniversary of September 11, conscious of how it may play in the media both domestically and internationally. The conclusion that seems to have been reached by the White House speechwriters is that prudence calls for two different messages, one domestic and one foreign.
Now, most politicians speak differently depending on whether their audience is domestic or foreign, but those who speak from conviction do not speak from both sides of their mouths. This momentous anniversary is an occasion for U.S. public diplomacy to project a clear message to the world that Americans have suffered but remained strong in the years that followed the tragedy. This would not preclude an appropriate recognition of the suffering and loss inflicted by terrorists on citizens of many other nations—including Muslims, by the way—nor a commitment to future cooperation.
According to Alexis Crow of the British think tank Chatham House, the White House has been sending out two different messages, one for domestic audiences and one for its overseas allies:
The first message is aimed at rallying political support, and is likely to tout the killing of Osama bin Laden as an operational victory in the midst of a larger strategic campaign. The second message emphasizes that the anniversary of 9/11 is—according to one official—“not just about us.” The Obama administration seeks to transmit what it calls a “positive, forward-looking narrative” to its allies.
In the information age—when we can all follow each other’s media and read each other’s Web sites—it does not seem to be a winning idea to bifurcate your messaging. Americans and the world will be watching President Obama on Sunday as he visits the three sites of the terrorist attacks and in the evening delivers his commemorative speech at the National Cathedral in Washington. His message should be seamless, compassionate, respectful, and strong.