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Bush Administration Finds Challenge in Improving America's Image in Arab World - 2001-11-10

The top State Department official in charge of public affairs is acknowledging her job of improving America's image in the Muslim world is made difficult by the widespread view that the United States has a pro-Israel bias. The war against terrorism is also a public relations battle to win the support of Muslims around the world.

The former Madison Avenue executive who used to be in charge of marketing Uncle Ben's Rice is now trying to sell America, and by her own admission, Charlotte Beers has her work cut out for her. Hired by Secretary of State Colin Powell, she's now taken the lead role in trying to improve the image of America and its people overseas. It's an image that President Bush believes could use some improvement.

"Too many have the wrong idea of Americans as shallow, materialist consumers who care only about getting rich or getting ahead. But this isn't the America I know," he said.

And, according to Charlotte Beers - who holds the title of Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy - the fact that many Muslims do not consider the United States an even-handed broker in the Arab/Israeli conflict is making it harder to sell America's message. This, at a time when the Bush Administration wants to show the world the war against terrorism in Afghanistan has nothing to do with Islam.

"We know that in many countries where our messages are sent that often they are distorted, they are one dimensional or they simply are not heard," he said.

To take just one example, a forum published last month in the English-language Egyptian Gazette included discussion of what the newspaper calls America's blind support for Israel and the injustices against Palestinians. Osama bin Laden has played on that very message to rally Muslims, a message that Charlotte Beers aims to counter through a multi-media effort that will be taken directly to newspapers, television stations and internet sites throughout the Muslim world.

"We're going to try to get a different set of messages that will have a wider audience, that will begin to address some of those people who are acting against us, who have a lot of anti-West point of view," she said.

In rare public criticism from a close Arab ally, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister tells the New York Times the frustration felt by President Bush's refusal to meet with Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat can make a "sane man go mad," as he put it. Mr. Bush has yet to meet with the Palestinian leader, despite several White House meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Sharon.

Nabil Shaath, a top Arafat aide is convinced Washington could go far toward turning public opinion in the Muslim world against Osama bin Laden simply by becoming more involved in an even-handed search for Middle East peace.

"Because what is better than a peace between Christian and Muslim Palestinians and Jewish Israelis now as a response to "bin Ladenism" as a response to all those who want to see a clash of civilization ?" he said.

But the White House insists both sides in the conflict need to do more to end the continuing Arab/Israeli violence before there can be any new high-level American involvement.