WASHINGTON (Oct. 7)
“Seinfeld” airs on Syrian TV twice a day, and teachers there use “Friends” to teach English.
In the post-Sept. 11 world, when the cultural gap between the United States and the Middle East has clear political consequences, some might think that exposure to the best of American pop culture would sensitize the Arab and Muslim world to American lifestyles and values.
Yet without the context to understand such globally pervasive American cultural phenomena, Arab and Muslim hostility to the United States will continue to grow and pose a security threat.
Those are among the conclusions of a congressional report that found that America’s public diplomacy in the Arab and Muslim world needs an overhaul.
Cold War levels of outreach are needed to explain and defend U.S. Middle East policy, the team that did the research said.
“The United States today lacks the capabilities in public diplomacy to meet the national security threat emanating from political instability, economic deprivation and extremism, especially in the Arab and Muslim world,” says the report by the panel, headed by Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria.
Panel members said Israel would benefit from such an approach, because its alliance with the United States would be seen in the context of an America that also cares about the Arab world’s future.
“The fact that the United States has been part of trying to resolve” the Arab-Israeli conflict over the years “needs to be emphasized much more,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a panelist and national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry has studied the report, and officials there took at least a little satisfaction in discovering that they are not alone in being misunderstood by the Arab world.
“It shows you can’t just press a button and be immediately understood,” one Israeli official said.
The idea that America needs to defend its policies more vigorously marks a rare convergence between longtime Arabists — some of whom were on the panel — and Israel’s most vocal defenders in Washington.
“They gave a blunt assessment of what’s gone wrong,” said Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who in the past has been harshly critical of U.S. public diplomacy policy as espoused by State Department veterans like Djerejian.
The panel said that emphasizing the U.S. commitment to a fair solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict should be just one component of a new public-relations strategy. The United States also should emphasize its role in defending Muslims from non-Muslims in Bosnia, and in intervening in intra-Muslim conflicts in Somalia and the Sahara, the report recommended.
Above all, the report, entitled, “Changing Minds, Winning Peace,” advised against “spin” and manipulations.
“Public diplomacy is about telling it the way it is, sometimes even if it means people won’t like your ideas,” said Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland Middle East expert who was on the team. “When you look at our explanation for Iraq, overthrowing a ruthless dictator and bringing about a democracy — that may have been a reason, but not the only reason or even the critical reason.”
Extolling democracy leads to unrealistic expectations about a quick transition to self-rule and further reduces trust, Telhami said. Instead, he said, the United States should have explained the war primarily in terms of its strategic interest.
Members of the panel traveled to Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Senegal, Morocco and Muslim communities in Europe. They also held video conferences with people in Pakistan and Indonesia.
Reaction to the report in the Muslim world was muted, with some saying that the perception of U.S. arrogance runs too deep to be upended quickly.
According to the panel, the crisis of perception stems from the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the belief that democracy had triumphed worldwide precipitated spending cuts of up to 50 percent in public diplomacy budgets.
The U.S. Information Agency, an organization that thrived on disseminating information, was rolled into the State Department, an organization that thrives on hoarding it.
That was a shame, Djerejian said.
Outreach to the Arab and Muslim world accounts for just $150 million of the $500 million budgeted for public diplomacy — even though, since the Sept. 11 terror attacks, it’s clear that Arabs and Muslims are probably the most urgent targets for such diplomacy.
“Remember, this is 1.5 billion people in the world,” Djerejian said. “And then when we parsed it down and looked at salaries and overhead, we realized that what’s left in public diplomacy outreach is $25 million — which is, as we put in the report, absurdly inadequate.”
The report showed that other nations were far more successful, spending far less money, in making the case as a friend to the Arab world.
“The Japanese seem to get more credit for building Cairo’s opera house than the U.S. does for building the city’s critical infrastructure,” including sewer, drinking water and electrical systems, the report said.
Making matters worse, Arabs see U.S.- and Israel-related news every day on Arab TV stations like Al-Jazeera, which often present the news with a pronounced bias and without context or explanation of the U.S. perspective.
That’s not because the Arab stations are unwilling to host Americans; its because of a paucity of Americans capable of appearing, the report found.
“Foreign Service officers who are fluent in Arabic immediately convey a sense of respect for and interest in the people to whom they speak,” the report said, “and fluency prevents the distortion of translation.”
“We’re urging a total reinvigoration of language training in the Foreign Service,” Djerejian said.
The report recommends hiring at least 600 Arabic speakers, including 300 capable of appearing on debate shows. Currently there are only five, Djerejian said.
Even apparently benign examples of American culture can pose problems, the report says.
“In Damascus, we were surprised to find ‘Seinfeld’ aired twice daily,” the report said in a footnote. “A Syrian teacher asked us plaintively for help in explaining American family life to her students. She asked, ‘Does ‘Friends’ show a typical family?’ “
The panel’s recommended remedies include dramatic increases in funding, greater monitoring of Arab and Muslim media, and educational exchanges.
The report excoriated the “feel-good” outreach that government agencies disseminated after Sept. 11, including TV ads showing Muslims praising their lives in the United States and Radio Sawa, a recently launched Top-40 radio station reaching most points of the Arabic-speaking world.
If the Bush administration takes the panel’s recommendations to heart — and the bipartisan welcome for the report suggests that it will — there still will be differences of opinion over which recommendations deserve emphasis.
The panel wants to expand existing educational outreach, while Satloff worries that the United States has sometimes sent out lecturers who disagree with U.S. policy.
Djerejian said that 80 percent of America’s image problem in the Arab world had to do with U.S. policies — for example, on Iraq and Israel. But he noted that overhauling the 20 percent that has to do with public diplomacy could temper resistance to U.S. policy.
“When you try to understand where the other side is coming from,” Djerejian said, “you have a body of knowledge that can help craft more coherent and intelligent policies.”
Arab diplomat Hesham ElNakib, director of public information for the Egyptian Embassy, said policy differences will never be obscured by public relations, no matter how effective. Nevertheless, he said, there was room for some improvement.
“The State Department has exerted some effort, but some more efforts need to be done when it comes to the differences in cultures,” he said.
Some worried that the panel’s mandate, which explicitly excluded comment on current policy, was too narrow.
Daniel Pipes, the director of the Middle East Forum who recently joined the federally mandated U.S. Institute for Peace, said the administration’s reluctance to address radical Islam muzzled effective diplomacy.
“If you don’t talk about the problem, you can’t address it,” Pipes said. “They talk about terror. Terror is a tactic, not an enemy. It would be like, in 1941, declaring war on surprise attacks.”
Still, the view among drafters of the report is that the Arab-Muslim ground is ripe for tilling.
“As one of our Iranian interlocutors put it, ‘Who has anything against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?’ ” the report asked.