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U.S.: Study Urges Efforts To Improve America's Image In Arab, Muslim Worlds

  • Jeffrey Donovan

A new report mandated by the U.S. Congress and released in Washington on 1 October says the United States must drastically overhaul its public diplomacy efforts to stem a tide of surging anti-American sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Washington, 2 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Drafted by a panel of 13 independent experts, the 81-page report urges a radical overhaul of the way Washington communicates U.S. values and policies to the Arab and Muslim worlds.

Titled "Changing Minds, Winning Peace," the study was led by Edward Djerijian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel who is now with Rice University in Texas.

Djerijian told reporters at the State Department that if "America does not define itself" to the Muslim world, then "the extremists will do it for us."

"This report is a wake-up call. I think it is a wake-up call for the United States to face effectively the challenge of the battle for minds that we have out there," Djerijian said.

The study, citing recent polls, says anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab and Muslim worlds -- fueled in part by the Iraq war and the Arab-Israeli conflict -- has reached what it calls "shocking levels."

For example, 1 percent of people in Jordan viewed the United States favorably in the spring of 2003, compared with 25 percent in the summer of 2002. In Egypt -- the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid -- only 6 percent of people had a favorable impression of the United States in 2002.

While acknowledging U.S. foreign policy is at the heart of the image problem, the panel made no recommendations on policy changes, since their mandate was only to examine how the United States presents its policies to Arabs and Muslims.

The report calls for structural changes in the management of U.S. public diplomacy, including the creation of a White House coordinator for public relations efforts abroad. It also urges more language training for diplomats and spending more money on programs such as scholarships, translating books, and U.S. broadcasting.

Djerijian said all public diplomacy programs, especially broadcasting, would need to instill what he calls a new "culture of measurement" to be able to prove that they are positively affecting the U.S. image abroad.

Quoting filmmaker Woody Allen, who once said that "90 percent of life is just showing up," Djerijian said America's side is simply absent in most public debates about politics and society in the Arab and Muslim worlds.

As an example, he said a recent program called "The Americanization of Islam" on the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya had no voice to represent the U.S. side in the debate on the two-hour show. Djerijian said the program amounted to a one-sided attack on U.S. policies and values.

"During that whole discussion, there was not one person who could represent the American context and content of American values -- for example, freedom of religion, or American policy. And that's just one example," Djerijian said.

The report also blames a drop since the Cold War in funding for programs to advocate U.S. values and explain U.S. policies.

Djerijian said funding for such programs as U.S. international broadcasting, scholarships, and fellowships for foreigners to study in the United States and information programs about America at U.S. embassies were all major priorities during the Cold War.

But since the 1980s, under former President Ronald Reagan, Djerijian said U.S. funding has fallen in real terms by more than 50 percent, even if America now faces what he called a vital battle in the war on terrorism to win Muslim hearts and minds.

"We call, in this report, for a dramatic transformation in public diplomacy, in the way the United States communicates its values and policies to enhance our national security. That transformation requires an immediate end to the absurd and dangerous underfunding of public diplomacy in a time of peril," Djerijian said.

He noted that total funding for public diplomacy -- just over $1 billion a year -- amounts to about three-tenths of 1 percent of the Pentagon's budget. In real terms, Djerijian says that a mere $25 million is spent on programs that actually touch lives in the Muslim and Arab worlds.

The panel's recommendations come as Washington has already spent tens of millions of dollars since the attacks of September 2001 in a bid to improve its image in the Middle East, through radio broadcasts, magazines, and television advertisements on Muslim life in America.

Some U.S. officials acknowledge that some of those efforts have been ineffective, such as a series of television commercials in 2002 called "Shared Values" that sought to depict Muslim-Americans living happy and prosperous lives. Several Arab countries refused to broadcast the commercials.

The report is the latest of several recent studies seeking to address the U.S. failure to explain its foreign policies to Muslims, who tend to see Washington as Israel's best friend, an ally of authoritarian governments and a bully that threatens to attack countries it dislikes.

That point was made by a reporter at yesterday's briefing. Eli Lake of United Press International asked: "How can you credibly persuade an Egyptian, Pakistani, or Saudi that the United States is in favor of gender equality or women's rights when those governments -- that are in many ways totally authoritarian -- are strategic partners for the United States in the war on terrorism?"

Djerijian agreed that it is a "reality of the region" that many governments are authoritarian while their people are struggling to achieve greater democratization.

"One of the most principled positions of the United States is the promotion of democracy and broadened political participation and human rights. This is something that we can boldly defend in our public diplomacy and in our bilateral diplomacy with these countries," Djerijian said.

By invoking the Cold War and its similarities to the war on terrorism, the report could provide a spark to real changes in U.S. diplomacy, its backers and State Department officials say.

The State Department has asked for increases in financing for its public-relations activities, requests so far rejected by the White House's budget office.

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