The author has been a career U. S. diplomat for the past twelve years. After four posts in the Middle East, he is now assigned in Washington, DC. Ed.
The terrorist attacks on the U. S. of Sept. 11, 2001, jolted Americans with the realization that young men filled with hatred of the U. S. could, with limited training and guidance, become focused instruments of mass terror, willing and able to kill thousands of Americans. Soon thereafter, Americans grew more aware of another baffling fact: prevailing sentiment in the Arab and Muslim world explained away the attacks in an absurd collection of conspiracy theories, and viewed them as an inevitable, even justifiable, reaction to American hegemony.
True, there were only a few instances of outright cele-bration over the events of Sept. 11 in the streets of the Arab and Muslim world, and few serious public demonstrations following the launch of Operation Enduring Freedom in October. And most Arab and Muslim governments and wide segments of the population expressed horror at the attacks and sympathy for the victims. Those who knew us mourned, and our embassies overseas received heartfelt expressions of shock and sympathy from governments and publics alike.
Yet the general public reaction in the Arab-Muslim world highlighted a problem that has festered for over a decade: a deep and abiding resentment of the United States. This is clear to anyone who reads the Arab press, or watches television coverage of street demonstrations in Pakistan or Indonesia. It leaves most Americans puzzled how can such large segments of the world sympathize with terrorists, lionize Osama bin Laden, and exhibit such hatred of the U. S.? New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman accurately described the current situation as "an iron curtain of misunderstanding separating America and the Arab-Muslim world." The challenge to U. S. public diplomacy is to break through that iron curtain.
The Engine of Anti-Americanism
These concepts are the engine of anti-U. S. terrorism. As the Sept. 11 attacks showed us, widespread misunder-standing and resentment can be deftly manipulated by ruthless individuals, preying on a plentiful supply of young people drifting through societies mired in economic and political stagnation. These ideas are reinforcedbut not necessarily created byunpopular U. S. foreign policies in the region.
The ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians provides opportunities for adversaries of the U. S., but we must remember that Osama bin Laden made his public call for the killing of Americans in 1998, at a time when the Middle East peace process was showing great promise. Not surprisingly, bin Laden has attempted to link his cause to that of the Palestinians, as did Saddam Hussein during the 1990-91 Gulf War. There is no doubt that the raw emotions generated by the ongoing violence between Palestinians and Israelis create an environment in which messages of incitement and extremism can more easily gain traction. However, even if a quick and easy solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict were somehow imposed tomorrow, that does not mean that the threat of international terrorism would fade away. Nor does it mean that our public diplomacy problems in the Arab and Muslim world would be resolved.
The campaign in Afghanistan has demonstrated that Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida operatives can be rooted out, their networks disrupted and their assets frozen. But how do we root out and discredit the deeply held beliefs that provide moral and intellectual cover for terrorists, their sympathizers and apologists? How do we deprive enemies of the ability to gain ground with their ideas, while providing young and rapidly growing Arab and Muslim populations with alternative visions of the future that are as compelling as bin Ladens vision, but based on tolerance, security, stability and prosperity? Or at the very least, how do we blunt this damaging antipathy toward the U. S.?
The U. S. Response
Our message is clear. But the challenge is to be heard and understood in an atmosphere rife with criticism, resentment and suspicion of the U. S.
One effective way of addressing both mass and elite audiences in the Arab world has been through the Arabic-language satellite TV networks popular among Arab viewers dissatisfied with state-owned television networks that have long been their only viewing option. Secretary of State Colin Powell has been interviewed by Al-Jazeera, Egypt TV, and the Moroccan "2M" TV network, and held a roundtable with representatives from the major Arab print publications. Other senior officials from State (Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage, Under Secretary Marc Grossman, Under Secretary Alan Larson, and many more), USAID and the Defense Department have also appeared in recent months on news and information shows to present the U. S. point of view. In addition, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice has met with a major Arab media outlet every week since January, and other administration officials have reached out to major international Arabic-language newspapers and international Arabic-language TV networks such as Al-Jazeera, the Middle East Broadcasting Centre, Abu Dhabi Satellite TV, and Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation International. These efforts are ongoing.
Recognizing the need to speak directly to the Arab world in Arabic, retired Ambassador Chris Rossa former U. S. ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a fluent speaker of Arabicreturned to the State Department as a senior coordinator in October. Amb. Ross has given dozens of interviews to Arab TV and radio networks and newspapers, and continues to engage in direct dialogues in Arabic via digital video-conference with opinion leaders in the Middle East.
One of the most important aspects of U. S. public di-plomacy in the Arab and Muslim world is an untold storythe work of our U. S. embassies overseas. U. S. am-bassadors and diplomats have appeared on television talk shows, hosted roundtables and seminars on U. S. policy and society, aggressively disseminated information and argued our points face-to-face not only with host government officials, but with academics, journalists, editors, and studentson camera and on-the-record, at college campuses and in private homes.
To list just a few highlights of the creativity of Americas diplomats in the field:
Does It Matter?
U. S. pundits and commentators have been quick to weigh in with their criticisms and prescriptions of what Washington must do to win over hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim world. It is not surprising that most of the opinions have been highly critical of our efforts, and some have questioned the point of public diplomacy at all. Some have argued that our quick military success in Afghanistan is the best public diplomacy we can have. True, but military victories can go only so far, and their impact fades over time. We need to build on our military and political successes, and translate them into long-term public diplomacy gains.
This requires sustained efforts involving academic, professional and cultural exchanges that build under-standing of core American values. It includes expanding existing programs that have shown true success, such as the Fulbright scholarships and the International Visitor program, and creating new programs that focus on youth, education and dialogue among civilizations. As one Egyptian alumnus of the Fulbright scholarship program explained in an article in the Washington Post of Jan. 20, his scholarship to study in the United States accounted for "How I Became a Recruit for America." More recruits are sorely needed.
While it is vital to get our message out quickly and consistently, public diplomacy does not consist only of delivering information. It involves convincing the peoples of the Arab and Muslim world that our information is accurate and truthful, that we share core values of tolerance and respect, that our policies flow from these shared values, and that these policies are ultimately good for the world. It is a task requiring immense creativity, dedication and above all, patience.
Republished by permission from the Foreign Service Journal, April 2002, Vol. 79. No. 4.