I had an interesting insight into the mutual misunderstanding between the U.S. and Muslim world that’s lamented today to the point of cliché. It really DOES stem almost entirely from a lack of credibility.

Let me explain: I was getting falafel for lunch. The man at the counter, who I buy falafel from several times a week, greets me warmly and gives me some tea. I’m the only one in the shop, so he starts talking to me as he puts the pita into the grill. You’re American, right? he asks in accented German. Yes, that I am. Are you working for the CIA? He wants to know. No, I’m working for a nonprofit organization that promotes multilateralism in international affairs. He nods thoughtfully, then shrugs. Well anyway, the U.S. has destroyed the whole world, he tells me, ticking of the warpath of destruction. Germany. Japan. Cambodia. Korea. Vietnam. Yugoslavia. Afghanistan. Iraq. Where are you from? I ask him. Palestine, he tells me, shrugging. Most of all, MY country has been ripped apart.

Now hold on, I say. This wasn’t all America’s fault. We were there, but that doesn’t make the outcome our doing. He shrugs, his smile looks pained. What were the bombs for, then? Why kill innocent people? I open my mouth to answer, but he continues before I can. And September 11th, that wasn’t Osama Bin Laden.

What?! Who was it then? I demand. How can I know? He asks. Probably, the CIA.

That’s a conspiracy theory, I mumble. He looks down, uncomfortably, asks me if I want spicy sauce. I’m racking my brain for a foolproof argument about why 9/11 was definitely not an American plot all along and then I realize: I don’t really KNOW who was behind the September 11th attacks, I BELIEVE I know. In my mind, I have very good reasons for believing that the attack was led by Al Quaeda; most of all the reports from media outlets and governments that I trust, if not always to make the right decision, at least to tell the truth.

However, if each and every one of these sources is delegitimized in the eyes of my Palestinian friend, I have no way to argue, because all of my arguments are based on sources I consider credible.

Joseph Nye has famously argued for the importance of soft power in U.S. foreign policy, or “the ability to get what you want by attracting and persuading others to adopt your goals.”

The credibility gap shows just how important our use of soft power is to realizing any kind of peaceful co-existence with those regions of the world in which our credibility–and, by extension that of press outlets, governments or organizations associated with us–is utterly at ground zero. Because if you can’t agree on basic points of legitimacy and credibility you can’t possibly carry out a productive discussion of goals and interests (a.k.a. diplomacy) and if you can’t employ diplomacy in conflict resolution, there’s really not many appealing options left.

Think about it. At base, these questions of war and peace, hard and soft power, are really just questions of credibility and legitimacy–or the lack thereof.

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