It’s the Policy, Stupid

A blue-ribbon panel on U.S. public diplomacy is calling on President George W Bush not only to sharply increase funding to more effectively explain U.S. policy to an increasingly hostile Islamic world, but also to narrow the gap between U.S. values and what Washington actually does in the region.

That is the distinct – albeit partially hidden – message of a new report on how better to communicate with Muslim populations from North Africa to South-east Asia, released at the State Department Wednesday by former President George H W Bush’s top Middle East adviser, Edward Djerejian.

‘ ‘Spin’ and manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer”, according to Djererian’s report. ”Foreign policy counts”.

”Surveys indicate that much of the resentment toward America stems from real conflicts and displeasure with policies, including those involving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iraq”, the report said.

”Sugar-coating and fast talking are no solutions. . . ”, the 80-page report advised.

The message appears to be a direct challenge to neo-conservative and right-wing hawks in and around the administration who have been arguing that Washington’s policies are simply misunderstood and that the key to winning hearts and minds in the Islamic world was to implement more imaginative ways of expressing them.

As Bush himself said when asked about growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the Arab world, ”I just can’t believe it. I know how good we are and we’ve got to do a better job of making our case.”

While hardly disagreeing with the necessity of ”making our case” more effectively, the new report stresses that Washington needs to listen far more carefully to what people in the Islamic world themselves are saying.

”Public opinion in the Arab world and Muslim world cannot be cavalierly dismissed’,” according to the report, which stressed that the gap between professed U.S. values – which are widely appreciated among Muslims – and actual policy is often too deep to ignore or paper over.

”Citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing, and they are genuinely distressed by the situation in Iraq,” it said.

Publication of the report, entitled ‘Changing Minds, Winning Peace’, comes amid growing concern among U.S. policy elites about a rising tide of anti-U.S. feeling in the Islamic world.

Just last week, a second task force of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in New York reported that the rise in anti-Americanism in Muslim countries and beyond was so great that it was ”endangering our national security and compromising the effectiveness of our diplomacy”.

”Growing anti-Americanism means that foreign leaders are finding it increasingly difficult to cooperate with us,” said CFR chairman Peter Peterson, who served as Treasury Secretary under former President Richard Nixon. ”That is a sober and practical reality”.

Concern has become especially pronounced since the publication in June – immediately after the Iraq War – of surveys of predominantly Muslim countries showing a dramatic plunge in favourable perceptions of the United States compared to the similar polls taken in 2000 and 2002.

In Indonesia, for example, only 15 percent of respondents expressed favourable opinions for the United States, a steep decline from 61 percent the year before, while, in the Palestinian Territories, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey, Washington’s image was found to be even worse.

”The bottom has fallen out of support for America in most of the Muslim world”, the June report by the Pew Global Attitudes Project concluded, in a phrase that was repeated virtually verbatim at the beginning of the Djerejian report released Wednesday.

”Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels,” the new report stressed. In addition to the survey results published by Pew in June, Djerejian and 14 other members of the task force, all of them with considerable experience and extensive contacts in the Islamic world, conducted interviews and meetings in Egypt, Syria, Turkey, Morocco, Indonesia, and Senegal as part of their assessment.

Like the CFR report, the Djerejian group recommended a series of actions, including greatly increasing the budgets for the Voice of America and other broadcast networks; multiplying the size and number of exchange and scholarship programmes with Muslim countries; training more U.S. officials in Arabic; and making better use of the internet and other new communications technologies.

It noted in particular that the overall State Department budget for public diplomacy programmes had been cut by some 30 percent since the end of the Cold War, and that only 150 million dollars of the remaining money was being spent in predominantly Muslim countries.

The result, according to the task force, is that U.S. resources devoted to influencing public opinion in the Muslim world were not only inadequate; they were generally absent, particularly in satellite television which has swept through the region in recent years.

”We are not sufficiently present in that dialogue, discourse, and debate,” said Djerejian.

But the most striking recommendation was for the closer integration between policy-making and public diplomacy, including the creation of a Cabinet-level, White House post for public diplomacy that would participate in policy-making and ”new and efficient feedback mechanisms that can be brought to bear when policy is made”.

”While the United States cannot and should not simply change its policies to suit public opinion abroad”, according to the report, ”we must use the tools of public diplomacy to assess the likely effectiveness of particular policies. Without such an assessment, our policies could produce unintended consequences”.

That conclusion echoed a similar recommendation in the CFR report, which is based on the work of a much larger task force of foreign-policy and regional specialists that have been consulting on improving U.S. public diplomacy since 2000.

It called for the ”immediate integration of public diplomacy into the foreign policy-making process”. Public-diplomacy specialists should be present at the ”take-offs, not just the crash landings”, according to the report, ‘Finding America’s Voice: A Strategy for Reinvigorating U.S. Public Diplomacy’.

According to the Djerejian report, Washington should have an advantage in communicating with the Muslim world due to the degree to which Arabs and Muslims identify with fundamental U.S. values.

”Our values and our policies are not always in agreement, however,” according to the report. ”The U.S. government often supports regimes in the Arab and Muslim world that are inimical to our values but that, in the short term, may advance some of our policies.”

This was due in part to U.S. ”ambivalence about the possibility that democracy’s first beneficiaries in the Arab and Muslim world will be extremists”, as a result of which Washington is caught in a ”deep contradiction”.

”We must take these key policy challenges in the region seriously, and we must minimise the gap between what we say (the high ideals we espouse) and what we do (the day-to-day measures we take)”, the report said.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.