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Enduring Public Diplomacy
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American Quarterly 57.2 (2005) 335-343



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Enduring Public Diplomacy

On April 11, 2003, over the caption: "Palace of Rubble: American soldiers yesterday inside a ruined palace in Baghdad that belongs to president Saddam Hussein's son Uday," the front page of the New York Times featured a picture of what had been a grand piano, reduced to rubble. Glancing at the demolished piano, two American soldiers ascended the palace's winding staircase, which had survived amid the surrounding wreckage.1 The photograph appeared during an international outcry after U.S. troops had neglected to safeguard museums and priceless archaeological artifacts from extensive looting and destruction. As the seeming triumph of Saddam's overthrow was followed by chaos, I recalled from my research a moment forty years prior when U.S. officials in Iraq described a strikingly different (if far from unproblematic) relationship with that country. In November of 1963, the Duke Ellington orchestra performed in Baghdad under the auspices of the State Department. What turned out to be a very eventful visit to Iraq began with the band's performance at a reception celebrating the founding of the United States Marine Corps held at the home of U.S. Ambassador Robert C. Strong. A U.S. embassy staffer later noted that the party for the 188-year-old Marine Corps took place in a 1,200-year-old city, further apprising the State Department that "the ambassadorial residence rocked," as four hundred Iraqis and Americans danced to "such old favorites as 'Take the "A" Train,' 'Mood Indigo,' 'Sophisticated Lady' . . . or crowded around the orchestra for a closer look at the ageless Duke."2 Local concert promoters had feared a lack of interest, but the first concert on November 12 not only sold out but was broadcast live in its entirety by Iraqi state television. According to the embassy, an enthusiastic first-night audience watched the concert at Khuld Hall near the presidential palace, while "all over the city thousands sat around television sets in open air cafés and restaurants or in the comfort of their own homes and enjoyed the artistry of one of the great contemporary figures in American music."3 While we cannot know the depth of the American official's appreciation of the ancient cultural heritage of Iraq, it is evident that he appreciated the richness of the tradition enough to revel in the comparison with the less [End Page 335] venerable U.S. Marines. Here, the juxtaposition of ancient Iraqi civilization with a military institution with extensive involvement in U.S. imperial policies was as striking as the official's portrayal of a vibrant modern Iraqi public culture, in which those unable to attend the concert partook of the experience through broadcast television in cafés, restaurants, and in one another's homes.

The story of Duke Ellington in Iraq opens with a birthday party, but will continue with jazz concerts, nightclub appearances, a coup d'etat, and the U.S. sale of military helicopters to an allied Iraqi regime; and points us forty years ahead to all-too-familiar scenes of bombings, civilian casualties, looted museums, the torture of Iraqi detainees, and smashed pianos. I begin with this story not to suggest that the United States once had a better, or even a more complex and nuanced, relationship with Iraq, but because I think the story of Ellington in Iraq highlights the valuable challenges raised by Liam Kennedy and Scott Lucas for practitioners of American studies, and especially those concerned with transnational American studies: what are the implications of the troubled history and present of American public diplomacy and the "state-private network for political warfare" for our endeavors to forge a critical American studies?

Given the entanglement of public diplomacy in U.S. hegemonic projects of the past fifty years, and taking as a point of departure Kennedy and Lucas's compelling discussion of the distinctiveness of the contemporary regeneration of public diplomacy, we might begin with the obvious absurdities in the term "public diplomacy." The term, Kennedy and Lucas explain, was defined...