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Official: US Intensifying Effort to Dispel Negative Image Among Arabs

  • Leta Fincher

The Bush administration's outreach program to the Arab world is getting off to a slow start, with delays in new officials taking up public diplomacy positions. Meanwhile, critics say the United States has failed to adequately deal with widespread anti-Americanism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

In March, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced that Karen Hughes would take charge of U.S. public diplomacy, to help dispel the negative image of the United States in the Arab world.

But Ms. Hughes has yet to take up her position as Undersecretary of State, and reportedly may not start work for several months.

Despite the delay, Gerald Feierstein, an official with the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the U.S. State Department, argues that the Bush administration is intensifying its public diplomacy contacts with the Arab world. He says, “The more people understand the United States, the more experience they have with the United States, the more positive their attitudes are towards us and the more understanding they have of our policies. So we're doing a lot more of these outreach programs."

Mr. Feierstein says the U.S. programs are helping to counteract anti-American sentiment. He points to increased exchange programs between U.S. and Muslim students.

He adds that government research suggests more people are watching the US-funded Arabic satellite television network, Al Hurra. And the State Department is opening more "American Corners" in the region, which provide libraries and Internet access where there are no U.S. embassies.

"These are ways for us to use modern technology to reach out into regions and into cities where it's not the capital, there's not an American embassy, there may not be much of an American presence, but it's an opportunity for people to come in and have a resource they can use to learn more about the United States," says Mr. Feierstein.

But some Arab scholars and journalists say it is the United States that needs to learn more about the Arab world, and that misunderstanding of American values is not the main cause of anti-Americanism.

Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper in London, spoke at a recent conference at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. He says, "Please don't behave like the Arab dictators, to set up American media in order to talk to the Arab world and invest one billion and 300 million dollars for PR [public relations] campaign. The problem is not actually in misunderstanding or something like that. We know the facts very well, the problem [is] in the foreign policies."

Mr. Atwan argues that many Arabs want the same democratic freedoms that Americans enjoy. But he says Arabs are angered by what he calls a lack of credibility in the U.S. government. Mr. Atwan points to U.S. support for Israel, which Arabs perceive as unfair, and U.S. ties to what he calls corrupt leaders in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Hussein Hassouna, League of Arab States ambassador to the United States, says that U.S. public diplomacy might play a role in repairing damaged relations with the Arab world. But Mr. Hassouna adds that Americans need to go beyond merely selling their image, because many Arabs feel that the United States is trying to impose hegemony over the region.

"I think it [the United States] has to change its tone sometime, not to be patronizing, to listen more to what others have to say, to engage in this kind of dialogue, not to resort to threatening tones, not to, through Congress, to adopt sanctions against countries with which the United States might have differences but to settle those through dialogue," says Hussein Hassouna.

Critics say that US-Arab dialogue is impeded by visa restrictions for Muslims who want to visit or study in the United States. Arab and American analysts say that in the long run, people-to-people contact, between students, scholars and executives, is crucial to changing negative perceptions.

Nada Mourtada-Sabbah teaches political science at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. She says, "In terms of exchange programs, for the students to come here, for instance, to get to know Lincoln memorial, the Supreme Court, the U.S. government, all of these institutions that speak to due process, to democracy, this I believe is likely to leave some very lasting and very important impressions."

Still, the impressions that most Arabs have of the United States, according to polls, are negative.

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