Even as the United States prepares for a possible war with Iraq, some key members of Congress are warning that unilateral military action could make it more difficult to blunt a rising tide of anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.
At his Thursday news conference, President Bush was asked several times to respond to peace demonstrators around the world who want to give Iraq more time to disarm. "For those who urge more diplomacy, I would simply say that diplomacy hasn't worked," he said. "We've tried diplomacy for 12 years. Saddam Hussein hasn't disarmed. He's armed."
Public opinion polls indicate that message plays better with domestic audiences than those overseas.
Senator Joseph Biden is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He says the Bush administration's stated willingness to unilaterally disarm Saddam Hussein could do lasting damage to relations between the United States and some of its longtime allies. "We kind of act as if we are not going to need any help again," said Senator Biden. "We kind of act like we are not going to need any alliances in the future. This is not, in my view, how you win friends and influence people."
The growing concern over the declining U.S. image abroad and what to do about it was the subject of a recent hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Among those testifying was pollster Andrew Kohut from the Pew Research Center here in Washington. He cited a recent Pew poll, conducted in 44 countries, that found positive views of the United States have fallen sharply since the September 11 terrorist attacks. "I think improving America's image is a tough charge unless we can prove that our critics in the Muslim world are wrong about the intentions and consequences of our policies," said Andrew Kohut. "Until that happens, U.S. communications efforts in that region can only be defensive and do the best it can with a bad situation."
Republican Richard Lugar, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wants the Bush administration to devote more money and time to shoring up the U.S. image abroad. "Americans are troubled by examples of virulent anti-American hatred in the Islamic world and they are frustrated by public opinion in allied countries that seems increasingly ready to question American motives or to blame American actions for a host of problems," he said. "In an era when allied cooperation is essential in the war against terrorism, we cannot afford to shrug off negative public opinion overseas as uninformed or irrelevant."
Charlotte Beers is the undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and for the past year and a half has coordinated the effort to improve the U.S. image abroad, especially in the Muslim world.
Ms. Beers has announced she will soon leave her post for health reasons. But she says U.S. public diplomacy efforts are beginning to have an impact. "We no longer wait for people to produce our stories," said Charlotte Beers. "We went into Afghanistan and we did an 18-minute documentary on the reconstruction of Afghanistan and my proudest moment was when that ran on Pakistan TV on the six o'clock news. So one of the important lessons of this year is that the television channels, which are more crowded every year, and the radio channels, will be very thirsty for programming."
But critics of U.S. outreach to the Muslim world say that U.S. officials would do well to talk less and listen more.
Professor R.S. Zaharna, an expert on public diplomacy at the American University here in Washington, also testified before the Foreign Relations Committee. "With such an intensive and concerted effort, one would expect positive results," she said." Instead, support for America has declined and anti-Americanism has grown. America can trengthen its communication with the Muslim world by thinking how it can build relationships instead of relay messages."
Part of the effort to counter anti-American sentiment involves expanding U.S. government radio and television broadcasts to the Middle East.
Ken Tomlinson chairs the U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent board that oversees all government broadcasting including the Voice of America.
He is asking Congress to fund Arabic television programming that would compete with the popular Al-Jazeera network. "Al-Jazeera should not go unanswered in the Middle East," said Ken Tomlinson. "We need to present to the Arab world the kind of pluralism of opinions and openings to a broader world that [New York Times columnist] Thomas Friedman says will 'act like nutcrackers to open societies and power Arab democrats with new tools.' "
Pollster Andrew Kohut cautions that changing attitudes can take a long time. But he also says that his polling data does suggest opportunities for the right approach on public diplomacy. "We show a very substantial level of democratic aspirations among the Muslim people," he said. "People in these countries place a very high value on freedom of expression, multi-party systems, freedom of the press and equal treatment under the law. In fact, higher than in some of the nations of Eastern Europe where we conducted some of our polling."
Senators Lugar and Biden both urged the Bush administration to spend more on public diplomacy. Senator Lugar noted that for every dollar spent on the military, only seven cents is spent on diplomacy, and only a fraction of that goes toward public diplomacy efforts.