August 23, 2012
Of all the cyber-pools into which a modern-day Narcissus might gaze, surely the least likely would be the State Department's long-running series of "Background Notes" on foreign countries. Yet in recent months, the Obama administration has taken to transforming these documents from straightforward reference items into PR puff sheets for the president.
About a third of the old notes have been converted into new "Fact Sheets" since the switchover began in May. How do they stack up? They're Fact Sheets short on facts and long on the visits, programs and pronouncements of a certain president. Call them brag sheets.
Compare the nearly 1,200-word Fact Sheet published last week by the U.S. Embassy in Brazil with the last Background Note written during the George W. Bush administration. The 4,100-word Bush document was full of information and statistics about Brazil—that it's a constitutional federal republic, for example, with 196 million people of whom 74% are Roman Catholic, and annual economic output of nearly $2 trillion. The section on U.S.-Brazil relations was 300 words long, or 7% of the total.
By contrast, 70% (or 830 words) of the new Brazil Fact Sheet is dedicated to U.S.-Brazilian relations—and most of that either discusses President Obama directly or in the context of the educational, scientific and cultural programs he launched during a March 2011 visit to the country.
The Bush-era document noted similar joint efforts, but it did so briefly and after offering thousands of words of historical context. (Both the Bush and Obama administrations failed to include information about the costs of these foreign-aid programs to U.S. taxpayers—a bipartisan weakness.)
Then there's the difference between the Fact Sheets' treatment of left-wing and right-wing governments. While the government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff warrants buckets of praise from the State Department, Chile—led by the center-right government of President Sebastian Piñera—gets only 522 words, or less than 50% of the attention. And Chile's first paragraph dwells on the country's bad old days under Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s. Although Mr. Obama visited Chile on the same trip he made to Brazil, the new Fact Sheet doesn't mention it.
About a dozen Fact Sheets on countries in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere boast of the benefits of Pepfar (the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) and related initiatives to fight tuberculosis and malaria. The South Africa entry highlights the Obama administration's follow-on "Partnership Framework" to battle HIV/AIDS. But not one of the documents mentions that Pepfar dates from 2004 and was one of the signature achievements of George W. Bush.
On Pakistan, a country into which vast amounts of American treasure have been poured for decades, the 8,100-word Bush-era Background Note has been reduced to a 740-word Fact Sheet disproportionately focused on U.S. actions since 2009.
The Obama administration's 327-word blurb on Iran would barely qualify as a footnote in the Bush-era 5,300-word report on that country. And although it manages to squeeze in, early on, negative musings about U.S. and British support for an Iranian coup in 1953, the new document omits any reference to the fraudulent 2009 elections through which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad maintained his grip on power.
Then there's China. Human rights abuses, lack of religious freedom, corruption and territorial claims in the South China Sea all received serious treatment in the 13,000-word note published in January 2009. All these concerns are lightly brushed aside in Mr. Obama's 556-word Fact Sheet, which promises that the "United States seeks to build a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China" as part of a "reinvigorated U.S. engagement with the Asia-Pacific." Reinvigorated compared to what? Absent context, the new page on China is one step removed from a "friend" request on Facebook.
In simpler times, the hot fires of domestic political polarization were said to stop at the waters' edge. Americans agreed that it made sense to project a united front abroad, both to our enemies and our friends. The State Department's stodgy Background Notes were a reflection of that old consensus, in addition to being a valuable source of information to the American public.
Such information shouldn't be reduced to just another taxpayer-subsidized campaign commercial. But that's just what the Obama administration is doing.
Mr. Roberts, a research fellow for the annual Heritage Foundation/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom, was a Foreign Service Officer at the State Department from 1982-2007, where his work included writing many Background Notes.
First appeared in The Wall Street Journal.