VOA State Department correspondent Scott Stearns and VOA Kurdish reporter Motabar Shirwani conducted a wide-ranging interview with U.S. Undersecretary of State Richard Stengel about the Islamic State, Ukraine and Ebola:
VOA: Can you share with us some of your experiences with world leaders? What are the expectations from US in terms of diplomacy?
Stengel: Well, I’ve met many world leaders in my old life as editor of Time and I’ve been here at the State Department for about seven or eight months, and have traveled extensively as you’ve said and I have to say when it comes to this anti-Daesh or anti-ISIL coalition, I found that world leaders, foreign ministers, even regular people feel that there is a unanimity of effort, that there’s a commonality of interest that people see Daesh as a common enemy representing values that no civilized nation can endorse in any way. So I have felt very welcomed wherever I’ve gone because we have a great deal in common against Daesh.
VOA: And your message for the people [in the Middle East region] is what? Because people are expecting the United States to do more in the diplomatic way, explaining to people that this is a fight, we have common threats so what is your message?
Stengel: It is a common threat and to be perfectly frank, it’s not so much the United States’ message or our message, it’s the message from all the countries in the region, all of the countries that face a threat from Daesh, or from ISIL, and it’s more important to me and to us, to the United States, to have everybody message and communicate on their own and then maybe we can coordinate our communication because, as you say, there is a common threat, we have a common interest. So our message, I think, is very similar to the local, regional and national messages of the countries in the coalition.
VOA: What are some challenges in terms of dealing or confronting the ISIS propaganda machine?
Stengel: There are a lot of challenges. They are very sophisticated. They will stop at nothing, so to speak. They are not bound by the truth in any way. There are structural problems in the Middle East and the Arab world that can sometimes make Daesh’s ideology attractive, attractive to young men who don’t have jobs, who don’t see a great future for themselves, who have only heard a kind of misbegotten idea of Islam. So that is part of the challenge. What we’re trying to say, along with the coalition partners, is that Daesh is not the true face of Islam, it doesn’t represent what the prophet or the Koran stands for, and that the vision they’re creating of a caliphate is a false vision where none of the things they say are true are true.
Is it Genocide?
VOA: What is going on in Northern Iraq? Specifically when ISIS is having mass killings, and we see mass killings, mass murder of people, civilians and also abducting people, including women and children and men, for example, almost 4,000 Yazidis are still missing. Is that genocide?
Stengel: You know, it’s a very good question and they are brutal. They are ruthless they have no respect for life whatsoever. And they are a genocidal organization, I would say, in the sense that they are determined to wipe out whole groups of people indiscriminately, innocent people. So their ideology, I believe is genocidal, and what they’re doing is just despicable in every way.
VOA: What is your message for people now in the Middle East, now that they see this interview?
Stengel: Our message, is, I hope, a positive one, which is to embrace a moderate, open, inclusive form of Islam, of countries that have a strong civil society, that have strong economies, with opportunities for people. People everywhere, families everywhere, want the same thing. They want the same thing for their children. They want an education, they want a peaceful life, they want jobs. And that is the positive vision that I think everybody in the coalition wants to support, ultimately.
VOA: Kurds have been on the forefront on the ground especially, and have been very supportive of the United States in this campaign against ISIS. What is your message for the Kurds?
Stengel: America is a great supporter of the Kurdish people and Kurdish aspirations. The American people admire the courage of the Kurdish people, the fact that they are fighting no matter what the odds, that they are fighting for their values, which are democratic and common values that the American people agree with. The US is a great supporter for the Kurdish people.
VOA: Within the anti-ISIS coalition, what is the public diplomacy role in trying to combat the flow of foreign fighters which have become a big issue, and we saw the president chair that meeting at the UN General Assembly on the issue of homegrown fighters, bringing what they’ve learned about terrorism back to Europe and potentially the United States?
Stengel: The issue of foreign fighters is on everybody’s radar. The President talks about it, the Secretary [of State John Kerry] talks about it, General [John] Allen [Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL] talks about it. One of the first things that we want to do is disabuse young men of the vision that Daesh or ISIL is painting of what it would be like to fight in Syria or fight in Iraq, that it is not the paradise that they painted, it is not a democratic world, it is not a place that functions at all. And also disabuse them of the idea that Daesh’s ideology is Islamic in any way shape or form. So that is the first line of effort when it comes to that.
VOA: What is the vehicle for that message?
Stengel: The vehicle for that is all kinds along a continuum of messaging, social media, on social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, etc., to speeches, to statements by government officials, to also the harnessing and coordinating of third parties, of anti-Daesh clerics, of former foreign fighters who’ve come back and said look, it’s not at all what it’s cracked up to be. So we’re marshalling an effort all along that whole continuum.
VOA: What is the public diplomacy element of efforts to combat the spread of Ebola in Africa? There’s been some perhaps unintentional misunderstandings and misperceptions about those people involved. What is the public diplomacy component?
Stengel: The public diplomacy part is educational, in the sense to communicate the reality that Ebola is very difficult to contract, that the area in Africa where Ebola is present at all is very tiny, that it is very difficult to spread. I mean part of the disease itself is the misinformation about the disease and we just want to make sure people understand in a rational and reasonable way what the threat is.
Russia v. Ukraine
VOA: One place in the world where there’s been a lot of conflicting messages is on the conflict in Ukraine, where we’ve heard a narrative from the Russians that doesn’t match with the narrative that we’ve been hearing from the government in Kyiv. What is the public diplomacy role that you’ve taken on here at State to try to sort through that and present what you believe to be the true approach for what’s happening in those contested eastern provinces in Ukraine?
Stengel: Let’s not create a false equivalency here. The Russian narrative, you say the Russian narrative doesn’t match the Ukraine narrative. The Russian narrative doesn’t match reality. President Putin originally said in Crimea there are no Russian soldiers there. He said in Ukraine there were no Russian soldiers in Ukraine, either. These are false narratives. What we are trying to do is rebut those false narratives. We have a messaging platform here that messages in Russian, we are also trying to coordinate the other people who are disabusing people of the propaganda that the Russian thoughts and tweeters are putting out there. So it’s a vision between misinformation and reality, not through two different versions of reality.