A study group chosen by the Bush administration has just spent the public’s tax dollars reaching a conclusion worthy of Rip Van Winkle: “Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels.” And their recommendation for a remedy is to spend even more government money enhancing and revamping U.S. public relations efforts among Moslems. Unfortunately, putting lipstick on a U.S. government pig is difficult. A better solution is to do the difficult soul-searching needed for a change in U.S. policies toward the Islamic world.
What is troubling is the panel’s use of public funds to conduct a study that stated the obvious and downplayed the root cause of the anger among Moslems. If the U.S. government really wanted to find out what the people in Islamic countries really thought about America, rather than commissioning a study, it would have been much cheaper to have asked John Zogby, a prominent pollster and study group member, and other prominent independent pollsters for the results of their numerous polls in those nations. Those polls show that people in those countries like American culture and political and economic freedoms, but despise U.S. foreign policy toward the Islamic world. Another of the panelists, Stephen P. Cohen of the Israel Policy Forum, admitted that many of the Moslems interviewed by the study group in Islamic countries held “a great deal of regard for American values.” The Moslem elites interviewed also clearly indicated that the problem was U.S. government policy, not its public relations.
Instead of using polling results directly, the government paid for the panel to filter their message-“that is, to acknowledge, but downplay, policy causes of anti-U.S. hatred and to conclude that Washington could do much to make its case and counter widespread misinformation among Moslems overseas. The study group warned that the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the U.S. invasion of Iraq had spiked anti-American hatred, but then reached the curious conclusion that people throughout the world are ignorant or misinformed about U.S. polices. The panel further concluded that in the last 10 years, American unilateral disarmament in the weapons of public relations had contributed to the widespread anti-American sentiment, which threatened the nation’s interests and safety.
But any Arab or Moslem-“or anyone else with a newspaper, radio or TV-“could see the one-sided American policy favoring Israel and the conquest of a sovereign Islamic nation that posed no imminent threat to the invading country. In fact, from a Moslem perspective, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq might appear similar to what Saddam Hussein perpetrated in Kuwait in 1990. One could forgive Moslems for being “misinformed” or “ignorant” of the “benefits” of U.S. policy for their part of the world.
The twin problems here are a lack of introspection on the part of U.S. policymakers and the desire of a government bureaucracy for more funds. The inability of the American government to see what is now painfully obvious to the rest of the world is not new. Last year, the Bush administration, to spruce up the American image in the Islamic world, created a program called “shared values.” The program consisted of television commercials showing Moslems in the United States enjoying dignified lives of equality. The administration gave up on the ads after several Arab nations nixed them. Even many in the administration privately agreed with Moslems who thought that they ignored Islamic unhappiness with U.S. policies toward Israel and Iraq. The study group’s conclusions continue the American tendency to avoid honest self-examination.
Also, the results of the panel’s report were warmly greeting by high-level State Department officials-“and undoubtedly by the congressional requesters of the study-“who see dollar signs dancing in their heads. The report dutifully notes, “To say that financial resources [for public diplomacy] are inadequate to the task is a gross understatement.” The panel recommended creating a new bureaucracy and undertaking additional public diplomacy projects, all of which require more tax dollars. The study advocated creating a new White House office of public diplomacy that would be redundant to the State Department’s existing function. The panel also urged that the government translate more Western books into Arabic, train more Arabists and public relations specialists, enhance U.S. activity on the internet, hand out more scholarships and fellowships, and construct libraries and information centers in Islamic countries.
But people in the Islamic world have grown skeptical of governments’ affinity for propaganda. And they will regard the intensification of the U.S. government’s spin as much of the same. If the study group’s recommendations are adopted, the added bureaucratic heat in Washington will undoubtedly fall on cold ears in Islamic nations. Only American policy changes that are in the interests of both the United States and the Islamic world-“for example, taking a more neutral stance toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and rapidly returning Iraq to Iraqi governance–will begin to soften Moslem ill-will toward America.