US Image Abroad Will 'Take Years' to Repair


Experts Tell Congress 'Bottom has Fallen Out' for US Support Abroad

By Tom Regan

Christian Science Monitor
February 9, 2004

In testimony last week to the House Appropriations subcommittee in Washington, The New York Times reports that Margaret Tutwiler, in her first public appearance as the State Department official in charge of public diplomacy, acknowledged that America's standing abroad had deteriorated to such an extent that "it will take us many years of hard, focused work" to restore it. "Unfortunately, our country has a problem in far too many parts of the world," she said, "a problem we have regrettably gotten into over many years through both Democrat and Republican administrations, and a problem that does not lend itself to a quick fix or a single solution or a simple plan."

Ms. Tutwiler said she agreed with the main findings of an independent panel that American outreach to the rest of the world has suffered from budget cuts and neglect since the end of the cold war. The findings mentioned by Tutwiler were the result of a bipartisan panel headed by former US ambassador to Israel and Syria, Edward Djerejian. Mr. Djerejian, speaking after Tutwiler, told the committee that the "bottom had fallen out" of support for the US abroad. The sub-committee's Republican chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf of Virginia, who had asked for the report (which was released last October and entitled "Changing Minds, Winning Hearts" to be done, said the administration's overall response to it was "lackluster" and "disappointing."

One way the US will try to change its image, particularly in the Arabic world, is the Al Hurra, or "The Free One," network. President Bush announced last Wednesday that Al Hurra will start this week, and is designed as an alternative to Middle-Eastern broadcasts often critical of the US. The broadcasts will be transmitted from a facility in Springfield, VA., and will cost the government $62 million for the first year of operation. Mr. Bush said Al Hurra will aim to cut through the "hateful propaganda that fills the airwaves in the Muslim world" and tell people "the truth about the values and the policies of the United States." The Los Angeles Times reports officials of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the agency responsible for US government-sponsored international broadcasting efforts, promise that the channel will have high-quality production and editorial independence. Norman J. Pattiz, a board member and the founder of Westwood One, the largest US radio network, has been active in the project. Al Hurra is not the first attempt American governments have made in the Middle East to change Arab opinions about the US. Benjamin Duncan of Al Jazeera (perhaps the new network's main competitor in the Middle East) looks at previous US public relations efforts in the Arab world.

Writing in the Asia Times, Ehsan Ahrari, an Alexandria, Virginia, independent strategic analyst, writes that slick marketing messages will not change America's image abroad. Changing important policies about the region, he says, would help more. And Frad Bishara, writing in The Daily Trojan, the student newspaper of the University of Southern California (a university with a large number of Arab-American and Muslim American students), says that it's silly to think that anti-American sentiment in the Arab world stems from anti-American broadcasts. Arabs, he continues are already very discriminating consumers of media with many choices. What is more naí¯ve, however, is to think that Arabs don't already have access to pro-American broadcasts. Reportedly, anyone with a satellite dish will be able to view the channel. But let us consider what else those in the region with a satellite dish are able to view: CNN, BBC, MTV, VH1, the Paramount Channel, the Orbit news and entertainment network, Sky News, European programming. The list goes on and on. When presented with more subtle purveyors of pro-Americanism, it makes no sense that the Arabs would venture to watch Al Hurra.

John Munro, visiting lecturer in media and human rights at the University of Malta, originally founded by Jesuits on the island of Malta in 1592, writes in, that he believes Tutwiler will do a much better job than her predecessor, "the hapless Charlotte Beers", as the "point-lady" in Washington's bid to win Arab hearts and minds. But he believes her task remains difficult because of Washington's misconception that Arabs are basically "sympathetic to American values and ideals and are eager to throw off their chains and embrace American values." On the contrary, he writes, the Arab attitude is much more complex.

Much has been made of the fact that demonstrating Arab youth shout anti-American slogans while wearing Levi jeans and baseball caps. In fact, the Arab desire to acquire, or participate in, some of the more obvious manifestations of American culture is quite likely to co-exist with negative attitudes towards American foreign policy and the American way of life, which is widely perceived as being Godless and promiscuous. Young Arabs may enjoy having their synapses blown apart by the latest sounds from MTV, however they are as likely to flock in equal numbers to listen to sermons by such charismatic, young Moslem preachers as Egypt's Amr Khaled whose popularity was such that the Mubarak government felt obliged to clamp down on his activities.

Ghassan Rubeiz, a Lebanese-American social scientist living in Washington, says that the US media tend to portray Islam negatively. Similarly, Arab media tend to stereotype Western Christians as "crusaders." Mr. Rubiez writes in the Daily Star of Lebanon, that as a Christian Arab-American, he is deeply concerned about the growing gulf between the societies to which he belongs – between Arabs and Americans, but also Christians and Muslims. He feels that there are several lessons for the US to be learned from the positive experiences created by educational institutions like the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. Rubiez points out that during the Lebanese civil war, while many of the country's institutions were destroyed, three that remained functioning were the Western universities in Beirut – the AUB, the Beirut College for Women (now the Lebanese American University) and Saint Joseph University.

A third lesson we can learn from AUB is that true dialogue among Christians, Muslims, and Jews is best realized through good deeds, not through a debate on God. Theologians have tried for centuries to bridge the gap between organized religions through seminars and encounters on theoretical issues – and failed miserably. These theologians have also trespassed for too long in the political arena, only to create walls of separation among people. However, Christian, Muslim, and Jewish reformers who have applied their faiths in health, education, and technology have managed to find durable common cause in the Middle East.

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