When the State Department launched a propaganda TV campaign in the Arab and Muslim world last year, two of its Muslim-American stars were Rawia Ismail, a public school teacher born in Lebanon, and Abdul Hammuda, a bakery owner originally from Libya. Both live in Toledo, Ohio, and spoke lovingly of their adopted country in the ads, part of the "Shared Values Initiative."
"I wear a hijab in the classroom where I teach. I have never had any child that thought it was weird or anything like that," Ismail says in the TV spot. "Islam in the United States could be followed just as well as I can follow it in my village where I was raised." Adds Hammuda in the commercial: "Religious freedom here is something very important, and no one ever bothered us. Since 9/11, we've had an overwhelming sense of support from our customers and clients."
But Hammuda and Ismail, America's goodwill ambassadors to the Arab world, have little good to say about the U.S. war with Iraq. "Everyone knew ahead of time that so many people were going to die, so no, I didn't want it to happen," Ismail tells Salon. While she opposes Saddam Hussein, she says the loss of life -- whether of U.S. soldiers or Iraqis -- was not worth the price. Through her satellite dish, she sees Arab news reports of the war: "All the locals and all the kids that died. And it hurts."
"I don't think war was the answer," seconds Hammuda, speaking on the phone while serving baklava to his customers. "America has to do more positive steps to build bridges. Now they say, 'You guys don't care about us, you're just here to kill us and take our oil,' especially since we haven't found any weapons of mass destruction, any chemicals."
Asked if the negative opinion of the U.S. throughout the Muslim world is unfair, Hammuda says, "I had one view before the Iraq war. Now I have another."
However much they love their adopted country, neither Hammuda nor Ismail would probably make good spokespeople in the U.S.'s elaborate planned media campaign in Iraq. But their criticisms offer an insight into America's image problem as officials at the White House and State Department try to sell the benefits of democracy to the Muslim and Arab world. The American instinct is to try to sell it like a brand. But that approach -- maybe best captured by a frustrated Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who asked a House International Relations Committee panel on Oct. 10, 2001, "How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?" -- misses the point. The problem isn't that the United States is misunderstood; it's that we're understood quite well. Diplomacy can only be as effective as the policies it's trying to sell -- and there are some fundamental policy differences between America and the world that no spin can gloss over. By not acknowledging that, America's international P.R. campaign hasn't helped our image in the Middle East and elsewhere it may actually have hurt it.
Instead of honestly confronting these issues and trying to come up with ways of addressing them, the plans to build our image abroad seem to mirror an advertising blitz -- or maybe a sophisticated political campaign, complete with an information infrastructure and the top spinners in the business. The U.S. has already been funding Radio Sawa, which broadcasts music and news throughout the Middle East (95.7 FM on your Kuwait radio dial), and the White House recently asked Congress for $62 million to fund a new 24-hour Middle East Television Network to do the same. Additionally, in January, the White House birthed the Office of Global Communications to coordinate with other government agencies to formulate "messages about the United States, its Government and policies, and the American people and culture." Heading up that office is Tucker Eskew, the Bush spokesman perhaps best known for helping to effectively demolish the candidacy of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., during the 2000 GOP primaries, and ridiculing recount efforts in Palm Beach County, Fla., during the contested presidential election.
Back then, at least, Eskew had almost half of the voting public on his side at the start. But, as indicated by a Gallup poll of nine Muslim countries released on Feb. 26, 2002, the overwhelming negative impression of the United States seems rooted in policy differences that can't be spun. According to the Gallup summary, the people of the Muslim countries polled -- Indonesia, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- "believe that Western nations do not respect Arab or Islamic values, do not support Arab causes, and do not exhibit fairness toward Arabs, Muslims, or in particular, the situation in Palestine."
Calling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad a Sore Loserman isn't going to work this time.
Without making a judgment on these policies one way or another, it's nearly incontrovertible that the U.S. government displays far more support for the Israeli government than for its Palestinian counterparts. The United States was widely blamed in the Arab world for the harsh sanctions on Iraq that contributed to a humanitarian crisis there, and it is seen as hypocritical for preaching democracy while supporting autocratic and corrupt regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
It's also quite clear the U.S. doesn't respect the way Muslim nations run their affairs (many undemocratically and with a dubious regard for human rights). There are also the stories of Muslim or "enemy combatants" from the war in Afghanistan held contrary to international law in Guantánamo Bay. Post-9/11 immigration law revisions have meant that visa applications for young men from Arab and Muslim countries have been slowed down so much that not one of the 32 recipients of the 2002 Fulbright Scholarships from Arab countries received approval to enter the United States before their fall semesters began.
Some of the reasons for such rampant hatred of the U.S. aren't fair -- 61 percent deny that Arabs had anything to do with 9/11, Gallup says. But the overwhelming reason for America's tarnished image in this world is because of our foreign policy. And efforts to spin that, thus far, have only been met with skepticism and hostility.
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Asked at a Feb. 27 hearing about the need for the United States to do a better job explaining its foreign policies, the then-undersecretary of state for public diplomacy, Charlotte Beers, pointed to research indicating that foreign affairs was merely the No. 9 priority of "thousands of people in the Middle East and Southeast Asia," behind "my family, my children's right to thrive, the opportunity to practice my faith." Thus, Beers said, with limited funds and, hopefully, embassies already explaining U.S. foreign policy, she chose to focus her attention on "mutual understanding" and "the things that unite us."
Beers -- the former chairwoman of two of the nation's top advertising agencies, J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather -- had had no previous experience in public diplomacy. When he announced the Texan's official nomination for the post in October 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell said that Beers "got me to buy Uncle Ben's rice. So there is nothing wrong with getting somebody who knows how to sell something."
Beers' grand vision was the Shared Values Initiative. The $15 million ad campaign began appearing on Oct. 28, 2002 -- during Ramadan, when TV viewership its at its highest in that area of the world -- in Indonesia, Kuwait, Malaysia, Pakistan. But the governments of Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon refused to air the ads, and they stopped running in December after only approximately $7.5 million had been spent.
To many, the ads seemed quaintly from another era, relics of a different propaganda campaign: that of the Cold War. Back then, the American way of life -- not just democracy and freedom but also capitalism and its resulting consumerism -- were the chief selling points against communist Russia and its conquered satellites.
Our way of life is seen in a more complicated context in today's Muslim world. As Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, told a Senate hearing in February, "the Muslim publics continue to mostly shun our pop culture" in regions where there is conflict. "But even when America's products are well-received, there's a view in the Muslim world -- and there's a view all around the world -- that there's too much America in the lives and cultures of Europe and the entire globe." Or, as John "Rick" MacArthur, publisher of Harper's magazine and the author of "Second Front: Censorship and Propaganda in the Gulf War," says, Shiite Muslims in the region "aren't interested in promoting Western values or Western ideas of democracy; it's anathema to them. These are not feminists."
That of course complicates the mission of anyone trying to "sell" brand America. Beers' Shared Values ads tried to counter the impression that America is hostile to Islam, while also selling the U.S. as "a land of opportunity, of equality," as Hammuda says in one vignette. "We are happy to live here as Muslims and preserve our faith." But Jean AbiNader of the Arab-American Institute, who sneeringly refers to the ads as "the happy Muslim tapes," says that they "missed the point -- that's not why the United States is resented." The reasons, he surmises, have more to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the violations of human rights by the Arab and Muslim governments that the U.S. supports.
In January, the Wall Street Journal wrote that the ad campaign had been pulled because it was failing. The Journal quoted Youssef Ibrahim, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, as calling the effort "extremely poor" and comparing the ads to government commercials "showing happy blacks in America" during the 1930s. (State Department spokesman Richard Boucher claimed that the campaign was stopped because officials "generally felt that we have had the impact on the people we wanted to talk to.")
The Shared Values campaign "did not do anything," says Khaled al Maeena, editor in chief of the Arab News, an English-language daily newspaper headquartered in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Al Maeena says that the U.S.'s role in bombing Iraq and its inaction in trying to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinian territories are far more significant than any television commercials. "Actions speak louder than words," he says.
Then there are other complications -- ones rooted in policies. Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., suggested to Beers at the same February hearing that "some developments at home may be undermining your work abroad," citing national security measures that in his view "in some cases unfairly target Muslims for harsher treatment by law enforcement officials." Those included the post-9/11 "roundup of hundreds of Arab and Muslim individuals," the interviewing of "8,000 male visitors from Arab or Muslim nations for questioning," last year's announcement of "a special call-in registration program that selectively targets male students, businessmen and tourists from two dozen Muslim or Arab nations plus North Korea." Feingold asked Beers what her office was doing to respond to concerns about these policies.
Beers cited the new stringent visa regulations as "a symbol of the tension that we will have to live with ... We have to put security first. We can make no apologies for it." That said, Beers pointed out that she had recently met in Kuala Lumpur with Marie T. Huhtala, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia, and learned that while the "huge backlog" of visa applications was causing a controversy in that Muslim nation, Huhtala nonetheless approves 92 percent of the applications. "We need to get that word out, that we are open and we make no apologies for being secure."
For the so-called queen of branding, this was hardly a bumper-sticker-worthy slogan.
In an interview with Salon, Harold Pachios, chairman of the State Department's Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy -- who opposed the war in Iraq -- agrees that our foreign policy has a great effect on the perception of the U.S., but he argues that U.S.-run communications operations will be an essential tool.
"If, in fact, it was reported by Radio Sawa, let's say, 'American diplomats arrived in Israel yesterday to try to put pressure on [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon to try to start dismantling settlements,' I think that would resonate in the Arab world," he says. "If it was reported that 'the U.S. Congress is looking at an aid package for the Palestinian territories tied to the reform of its government I think that would resonate. And it might not get reported on Al Jazeera the same way."
Is the U.S. doing those things? he is asked.
"I don't know," Pachios says. "I don't think so. But when we do, if we report that on Radio Sawa and report that on the American Middle East Network, I think it will have a great effect." But Pachios, of course, is correct: The U.S. isn't doing any of the hypothetical acts he mentions.
When policies loathed in the Arab world are ignored by people running information campaigns, it creates a disdain for -- and a distrust of -- anything U.S. officials say. After Beers announced that she was stepping down from her State Department job because of health reasons, for instance, an editorial in the Straits Times of Singapore speculated that "maybe she was sick of all the spin she doctored."
Compounding the resentment of U.S. policies is the constant denial by the U.S. government that it is dirtying its hands with spin at all. Nancy Snow, a communications professor at the California State University at Fullerton, and the author of "Propaganda Inc.: Selling America's Image to the World," says that U.S. officials "should acknowledge that we do propaganda. It might be better propaganda, it might be closer to the truth, but it's still propaganda."
To be sure, not all of America's image problems are of its own making. The U.S. is caught in a perpetual Catch-22. Some critics of the U.S., for instance, decry the lack of law and order in Iraq and call for more soldiers to ensure the peace, while others call for an immediate end to the "occupation." Some criticize the U.S. military for allowing museums to be looted -- but isn't it possible that had armed U.S. soldiers guarded every museum and government office, some pillaging Iraqis would have been killed, arousing even greater international ire? "You might ask why were the museums still standing," notes Stuart Holliday, coordinator of international information programs at the State Department's public diplomacy office. "Why were all these wonderful and important sites essentially untouched in the midst of a major military campaign? It's because the United States took great care to avoid bombing the historic treasures of Iraq."
Moreover, while Muslim and Arab-American civil rights groups may have issues with certain policies, the United States is clearly a far better place to practice religion than virtually anywhere else in the world. "Look how the Muslim religion is treated in France!" a clearly frustrated Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, exclaimed at the Feb. 27 hearing. "It is outrageous. If we treated the Muslim minority ... like the French do, we would be justifiably vilified in the whole world. So why is it that France gets no criticism in the Muslim world?"
Biden asked one witness if he could name "one European country where the treatment of Arab Muslims, citizens or those on visas ... are treated as well?" Biden went on to wonder why French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen -- a "virtual Nazi" expressing "anti-Arab sentiment" -- received nothing like the saturation critical coverage in the Arab and Muslim worlds extended to anti-Muslim remarks made by Christian religious leaders like the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. "We have some idiot preacher mischaracterizing the Islamic religion and he's treated in the Middle East as if he were a presidential candidate," Biden said. (Of course, in 1988 Robertson -- who in September 2002 told Fox News Channel that Mohammed "was an absolute wild-eyed fanatic" plus "a robber and a brigand" and called Islam "a monumental scam" -- was a presidential candidate.)
So no, not all of the criticism against America is fair. But that is surely beside the point now, when hatred is boiling up and the larger critique is based on American foreign policy. So what sort of campaign to win the hearts and minds of the Arab and Muslim world will actually work? "Arabs aren't born to hate Americans," says Samer Shehata, an assistant professor of politics at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies at Georgetown University. "But we are fighting almost a losing battle unless some policy changes take place." Shehata suggests that the U.S. should push Arab governments toward democracy and help them with educational initiatives so Arab and Muslim youth have hope.
Arab-American Institute's AbiNader agrees that to blame the United States for "all the problems they have in the Middle East is unconscionable, to think Israel is a client state of the United States is unrealistic, and to think somehow the U.S. can wave a magic wand, and somehow all these countries will have human rights and the empowerment of women is unfair." That doesn't, however, mean that the U.S. shouldn't acknowledge that its worldwide supremacy gives it certain obligations -- and that meeting them will ultimately benefit the U.S.
The political left and right seem to agree with the importance of bringing democracy and human rights to Arab and Muslim governments, though the ways this will be achieved are in dispute. Both the Bush administration's conservative idealists and some liberal Arabists hope that a democratic and prosperous Iraq will have a domino effect on the backward regimes in the region. But while Shehata and AbiNader suggest increasing economic aid to Arab and Muslim countries, in addition to more pressure on Prime Minister Sharon, from the other end of the political spectrum come quite different ideas. Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation says that the Bush administration incorporated some of his thoughts on the subject in its National Security Strategy, issued last September. Cohen says that in order to encourage moderation in the Middle East and East Asia, the U.S. needs to keep closer tabs on the competing ideology of radical Islamism by creating a worldwide database of those who incite murder against the West.
"In many, many cases, the preachers, the mullahs, the mosques and the media doing this are government sponsored," he says. The U.S. needs to take a stand, so "when you preach the murder of infidels, then we start taking measures diplomatically and economically to start shutting them down." And while Shehata and AbiNader discuss providing more educational opportunities to Arab and Muslim children, Cohen talks about "addressing the systemic problem of jihadi education in Islam." All three do agree on one thing: "Beyond broadcasting, which is just starting, we're not doing very much," Cohen says.
Will that change anytime soon? Last week, Margaret Tutwiler arrived in Kuwait City. The U.S. ambassador to Morocco, Tutwiler served under former Secretary of State James Baker III in a variety of positions, including as State Department spokeswoman during the 1991 Gulf War. She is now serving as spokeswoman for the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for Iraq, headed by Lt. Gen. Jay Garner. It stands to be a posting of limited duration; Tutwiler is in talks with the State Department to replace Beers as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.
If Tutwiler gets the job, it won't be a bad thing that she put in some time in Baghdad. Because it is there that many observers see a make-or-break opportunity for the United States. Pachios sees the image of America coming back "if we, as the administration has pledged, minimize our stay in Iraq, have a very effective humanitarian aid program in Iraq," as well as aggressively push for a satisfactory peace between Israel and the Palestinians -- and better publicize our good deeds. Bush's rhetoric about a free Iraq is good, says Bathsheba Crocker, a fellow with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, "but until we follow through ... the messages ring a bit hollow."
Hammuda, one of the stars of the "Shared Values" ad, has an even more pessimistic take. "If we don't succeed in establishing another Japan in Iraq, as Mr. Bush presumed we will do, if we leave the country halfway done, I don't think it [the U.S. image in the Arab and Muslim worlds] will be reparable."
Coming Monday: Former U.S. information veterans grade current efforts -- and slam the White House