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Analysts Debate Failures of US Public Diplomacy in Muslim World - 2004-03-22

A recent poll indicates that mistrust and resentment of the United States remain strong in the Muslim and Arab world a year after the Iraq war began. Analysts are debating what is to blame. One possibility is a failure to convey the American message abroad -- the responsibility of so-called public diplomacy. VOA's Brent Hurd spoke with analysts about how this effort can be improved.

The latest figures from a Pew Global Attitudes Project survey confirm a continuing trend -- that the US image worldwide is at an all-time low. For more than two years -- since the United States declared war on terrorism in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks -- support for the United States has dropped, especially in the Muslim world. While some officials blame the decline on America's failure to effectively communicate its policies through public diplomacy, Shibley Telhami, a Middle East professor at the University of Maryland, makes a distinction: “It’s clear that a lot of the problems in the relationship between the United States and so much of the world are really not so much a function of public diplomacy as such. We can say this because we have seen over a very short period of time a change of global public opinion toward America.”

Relations between the United States and the Muslim world have never been more strained, according to Professor Telhami. He says this is due to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq and above all, to the continuing Israel-Palestinian conflict, what he calls the prism of pain through which Arabs and many Muslims in general see the world.

According to the Pew survey, significant majorities of people in Pakistan and other Muslim countries think the US-led invasion of Iraq undermined the struggle against terrorism and diminished their trust in America. Majorities in Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and Turkey believe the United States is using the war on terror to control Middle Eastern oil and dominate the world. Even larger majorities in Jordan and Morocco -- Arab states led by pro-Western governments -- call suicide bombings against Americans and other Westerners in Iraq justifiable.

Professor Telhami says that although public diplomacy is not a cure-all for controversial policy, it can and should lead to better understanding between the United States and other countries, but as failed to do so in the Middle East. “It is clear that public diplomacy is broken in the following way: it is very hard today to communicate what we stand for and who we are. There are clearly gaps of understanding. We have had very few exchanges, particularly between the United States and Muslim countries. If you strip the budget from what it is now, only about 60 million dollars is dispersed to specific programs for the 1.2 billion Muslims around the world. And it has been exacerbated in recent months by the war on terror. Security concerns are making it difficult for people to come. So at a time when we desperately need more exchanges, there are actually fewer.”

Mr. Telhami served on a high-level advisory commission that reviewed US public diplomacy efforts in the Muslim and Arab worlds and published a report last October. Known as the Djerejian panel, it recommended a dramatic increase in funding for outreach and exchanges in Arab and Muslim areas.

The Egyptian Ambassador to the United States, Nabil Fahmy, agrees that more exchange of students, professors and specialists will help. At a recent panel discussion on public diplomacy held in Washington, he says both sides must work harder. “We looked at our own system and we found out there wasn't a single university in all of Egypt that actually offered American studies. There were courses here and there but not a single program where the average Egyptian could sign up for American studies. So all we were getting was what's on the news the day before, today and the day after: that's always the Israeli-Arab conflict.”

Ambassador Fahmy says Muslims and Americans need to learn much more about each other. Greater knowledge leads to greater understanding. “It is not a one-way street, either. We should develop a public diplomacy program for the Arab and Muslim world here in America. People in America want to know what is in the Arab and Muslim world. Unless you start explaining that part of the world to your own people, they will never be objective in dealing with the other side of the story.”

While some analysts say public diplomacy is limited by policy, ambassador Fahmy believes public diplomacy can influence it. “In reality, policies do affect the success or the failure of public diplomacy. When American diplomats come to us and say we have a problem with your policy, we listen, and sometimes we take their recommendations. It works the other way, too. I come here to the United States, and raise issues with the administration and say, frankly, we have a problem with this. In a positive, bi-lateral relationship, that happens all the time. People don't like to call it pressure. I don't, but I think it is part of the positive relationship between countries.”

James Larocco, a former US ambassador to Kuwait, agrees with Egyptian Ambassador Fahmy that public diplomacy can help lead to change and even important reform. That is happening, he believes, in the Middle East. “I could review every country in the Middle East from Morocco to Oman and there is a lot of reform that's going on - an extraordinary amount. The fact is we have worked very closely with Egypt on reform. Without us (the United States) pushing, it is probably not going to happen.”

But critics say this kind of advocacy can lead to hostility toward America. It's almost unavoidable, says Larry Schwartz, US State Department Director of Public Diplomacy for South Asian Affairs. “The fact is, Americans remain and always will be sources of controversy for people around the world. We are not running a beauty contest here. We are not trying to be popular. We are trying to explain what we think needs to be done in the world, and we are trying to defend American policies.”

Judy Milestone, a former senior vice president at the CNN network also served on the Djerejian panel that evaluated U-S public diplomacy in the Muslim world. She says that in addition to a sharp increase in funding, the commission suggested the creation of a top-level advisor to the president who will direct public diplomacy efforts. “You need someone at the cabinet level who can organize all those agencies that speak out for the American government -- the State Department, the Pentagon and the White House. This way we understand what we're saying when we say it. What has happened in the last year or two is that we have had many voices speaking for the US government, creating a kind of cacophony in the Arab and Muslim world, and giving people an opportunity to focus on that isolated word -- like crusade -- when this is not really what you are about.” Judy Milestone believes such reforms can lead to more genuine two-way dialogue between America and the Muslim world but concedes public diplomacy can only do so much.