Steps the US Should Take

James Zogby’s Column

Washington With the United States’ standing in the Arab world at an all time low, President George W. Bush met with Arab leaders at Sharm el Shaikh and renewed his pledge to implement his vision of a viable Palestinian State. The President’s commitment, while viewed with skepticism by many Arabs, comes with great political risk to his Administration.

Despite having the support of the majority of the American people, many components of Bush’s electoral base oppose his Middle East peace plan.  Already significant pressure has been forthcoming.  Republican congressional leaders have harshly criticized the “Road Map” and fundamentalist Christian spokespersons have termed it the “Road Map to Death”.

So far, Bush has showed a dogged determination to advance his Middle East plan.  His public comments both at Sharm al Shiekh and after the next day’s U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian summit in Aqaba set a positive and constructive tone.  And the comments made by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, having been carefully negotiated with Bush Administration emissaries, laid out each side’s initial steps which, though modest, were balanced and reciprocal.

And so, while some skepticism can be justified, support is also in order.  The Bush Administration may face some domestic political fallout if it continues to press Israel on the Road Map.  But it risks even more dangerous fallout internationally and especially in the Arab world if this process fails.  With Afghanistan in tatters and Iraq in chaos, there are those in the Administration who recognize the necessity of getting this one right.

It was in this context that I was honored to accept an invitation to address the “Secretary’s Open Forum” (SOF) at the U.S. Department of State.  The SOF, founded in 1966 by then Secretary of State Dean Rusk, was created to gather broader information and inject independent thinking into foreign policy formulation and decision-making. Through presentations of differing viewpoints, visions and ideas solicited from both inside and outside the State Department, the SOF encourages free expression and democratic debate.

I have had the opportunity to address the Department of State’s SOF on a number of other occasions during the past 25 years.  In the late 1970s after the signing of the Camp David Accords, I was invited to speak on Palestinian rights.  Again in the midst of the long war in Lebanon, I addressed the critical issues affecting that country.  Shortly after Oslo, I was invited to speak to economic measures that were needed to bring the benefits of peace to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.  And in the dark days that followed September 11, I was asked to discuss how the community had fared in the wake of the tragedy. 

But, as I noted in my remarks during this appearance, at no other time, in my recollection, had the U.S.-Arab relationship been so troubled or had the stakes been so high as they are now.

A new global attitudes poll conducted by the Pew Charitable Trusts, released just this week, makes clear the degree to which unfavorable attitudes toward the United States have dramatically risen in many counties around the world-and especially in the Arab world.  What the Pew study also establishes is that a principle factor behind these negative ratings is not hostility to America or Americans, but the policy of the Bush Administration.

And so in the face of continuing global antipathy to U.S. policy, concern over the U.S.’s handling of the war and post-war situation in Iraq and combination of renewed hope and skepticism with which many are greeting the Road Map, I offered my State Department audience a few recommendations, some of which were:

On Iraq

At this point, the U.S. should find ways to lower its profile in Iraq.  It is time to bring the United Nations and our regional allies into the effort to rebuild post-Saddam Iraq. 

Miscalculations were made in the lead up to the war.  The neo-conservative fantasy of a quick war, stability and a flowering of democracy did not pan out.  Our friends in the region cannot afford a further unraveling of the situation in Iraq.  Inviting other countries in this critical nation building and reconstruction exercise, under the auspices of the United Nations, would create legitimacy for the effort.  Such an action would receive strong support from the American people, the international community and the long-suffering people of Iraq.

Public Diplomacy

At this point, U.S. public diplomacy (PD) efforts should be reconfigured.  We should listen more.  Too often PD efforts are only supply driven.  We have sent out messages that are not well received because they are unresponsive to the concerns of those with whom we are seeking to communicate.

Instead we should lower our own rhetoric and do more listening.  Fortunately, the United States is blessed with a group of career diplomats who know the Arab world and who are invested in rebuilding the U.S.-Arab relationship.  On too many occasions they have not been provided the opportunity to develop communication strategies they know would contribute to better understanding.

Instead of pursuing a top-down approach, if we listened more and developed more regional partnerships we would be better able to build ties that would serve the long-term objective of improving U.S.-Arab relations.

For example, instead of creating an American TV channel for the Arab world-a project that will waste millions and be of limited use-it would be far more beneficial to promote joint productions between U.S. and Arab TV networks and to make available already existing U.S. facilities and programs to Arab companies in order to assist them in developing their capabilities.

Finally, the tried and tested visitors programs and educational grant programs ought to be enhanced and better focused to assist each country in the region.  Teachers, social workers, journalists, legislators, and individuals in other critical sectors can be better served by such efforts.  And these types of programs can better achieve the objectives of public diplomacy than the wasted advertising efforts used in the recent past. 

Another observation: it is important to recognize that what others in the Administration do and what friends outside of the Administration say has had a devastating impact on U.S. public diplomacy.  Everything we say and do in the U.S. reaches worldwide audiences.  For example, the immigration practices and civil liberties violations of the Department of Justice have taken a real toll.  So too the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim comments by those allied with the White House, when left unchecked, have done real damage.

All this must be factored into any refurbishing of a public diplomacy effort.

Israel-Palestine Road Map

When all is said and done, however, what is central to rebuilding the frayed U.S.-Arab relationship is a just resolution of the Middle East conflict.  What is needed, at this point, is not merely a “vision”, or a “process”, but an actual outcome.

Having begun on this path, the President cannot now fail to bring it to a just conclusion.  The risks of failure are too great not only to the Palestinians and Israelis, but to U.S. allies in the region and to the United States itself.

What is clear is that neither side can do what is required of them to move this process forward without both support and pressure from the United States.  But the pressure and support must be balanced-not support for Israel and pressure on the Palestinian Authority.  The strongest party in this equation, the United States, must press the strongest party in the regional equation to undo the damage done since September of 2000.  For the Palestinian Authority to be an effective agent for governance and progress, the benefits of peace must finally come to the Palestinian people.

Throughout the entire decade of the 90s, while Palestinians achieved limited freedoms, they lost more land to settlements (that more than doubled in size) and to road construction, they lost jobs (unemployment increased), became poorer and lost hope.

Israel can’t have peace and keep settlements, the roads that connect them, the resources of the West Bank and control of the external borders of the Palestinian lands.

To make this process work and to press Israel to relinquish control and grant real sovereignty to a viable Palestinian State will require an enormous effort from the United States.  In the end we will be judged not by our vision or intentions, but by our follow-through and the final outcome.  It may be risky-but it is even more of a risky if we fail.

Dr. James J. Zogby is President of Arab American Institute in Washington, DC.