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Campaign to alter Muslims' image of US falls short
By Anthony Shadid, Globe Staff, 12/26/2001
WASHINGTON - A determined American effort to win the hearts and minds of
a skeptical Muslim world has scored far fewer victories than its military
counterpart, US officials acknowledge.
The public relations campaign, undertaken by the Pentagon, White House,
and the State Department, was motivated by a realization that became
acute after Sept. 11 of the lack of US credibility throughout much of the
Muslim world. It was aimed mostly at Arabs and Muslims and sought to
compensate for anger in the region over a perceived anti-Muslim bias and
US support for Israel.
There were some successes: US officials, for a time, inundated
Arabic-language television and newspapers; the State Department upgraded
its Web site and made it more accessible; and a US diplomat was brought
out of retirement to argue the American case in fluent Arabic to a Middle
But after three months, the administration can claim few other victories
- and many setbacks and lost opportunities. Some analysts and officials
say the US image is no better than before Sept. 11 and perhaps even more
Administration officials attribute the failure to years of neglect of the
country's propaganda tools, a lack of appreciation among some in
Washington for the depth of anti-US sentiments in the Muslim world, and a
program that got started too late and has tended to be more scattershot
One senior official who requested anonymity termed the effort an utter
failure. Others charged with carrying out the task contended that too
much was expected from the public relations campaign. And some overtures,
like appearances by the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, were
needlessly provocative, highlighting US positions that already fuel
''How are you going to overcome that?'' one veteran State Department
official said last week. ''Public relations alone is not about to do
Some US officials see a more far-reaching problem. They say diplomacy has
become a lost art since the end of the Cold War because of a steady
deterioration in funding for the State Department and its related
agencies and the demise of the US Information Agency as an independent
Even those diplomats who don't serve in the current administration agreed
with the gloomy analysis of those inside.
''I would say the vigor and the funding for [public diplomacy] have been
drawn down considerably after the Cold War,'' said Philip Wilcox, a
former diplomat in the Middle East and the State Department's
counterterrorism chief during the Clinton administration.
As a result, Wilcox said, ''We're taking a bad beating, particularly in
the Arab and Muslim world, where there are a lot of deep suspicions and
antagonisms toward the United States.''
Hopes too high for centers that cater to news media
A centerpiece of Washington's attempts to improve its image in the Muslim
world was the creation of its Coalition Information Center, a
quick-reaction public relations office that caters mostly to the press -
both American and international media - with branches in Washington,
Pakistan, and London.
At the State Department, Charlotte Beers, a former advertising executive
who ran two of the biggest ad agencies - Ogilvy & Mather and J. Walter
Thompson - was appointed undersecretary for public diplomacy and public
The creator of ad campaigns for Uncle Ben's Rice and American Express has
referred to the United States as a product that she wants to sell
overseas. This month she unveiled one of her biggest projects: newspaper
and radio ads appealing for information on accused terrorists that will
run in the United States and that the State Department plans to translate
into Arabic, Spanish, and other languages for use overseas.
In addition, the department fetched from retirement in October
Christopher Ross, a former ambassador and fluent Arabic speaker, to help
make the US case in the Arab media. And a long line of US officials -
from Secretary of State Colin Powell to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld
and Rice - have appeared regularly on Al-Jazeera and other
Arabic-language channels and have given interviews in leading Middle East
''I think we have been active,'' Richard Boucher, a State Department
spokesman, said at a briefing when asked about the campaign. ''We have
had some success. I am sure there are a lot of people we haven't reached
Others in the administration take a harsher view.
A senior US official argued that the State Department's effort is more
focused on crafting ad slogans than on plotting a thoughtful strategy. He
added that the information centers rely on staff with little foreign
experience who spend more time with US journalists than with reporters
from other other countries - a point echoed by foreign journalists.
American officials also acknowledge that the campaign started too late.
Beers herself wasn't sworn in until October, and some at the State
Department are frustrated by what they see as expectations being set too
''We probably did as well as we could,'' said a veteran diplomat, who
contended that some administration colleagues were naive about US
unpopularity abroad. ''We need to keep things in perspective. You can't
have unrealistic expectations. Given the climate in which we operate, it
But the view from abroad seems different.
Hafez al-Mirazi, the Washington bureau chief for Al-Jazeera, the Arabic
satellite channel that won wide attention by airing taped statements of
Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants, called the American outreach effort
''a lousy job.''
''More people were discussing public diplomacy than doing it,'' he said.
He pointed, in particular, to the handling of the bin Laden tape, in
which the Saudi exile appears to acknowledge a role in the Sept. 11
Mirazi's bureau tried to persuade the White House to provide an advance
copy of the tape so the network could add Arabic subtitles for its
audience. Instead, it was forced to air a largely inaudible version
provided to CNN with English subtitles, dramatically reducing its impact
in Arabic-speaking countries.
He argued, too, that the initial rush by US officials to appear on
Al-Jazeera were all ''one-shot interviews.''
''Now you don't hear from them at all,'' he said.
US officials have said they are seeking a broader audience after an early
effort that many said focused exclusively on Al-Jazeera, whose popularity
derives largely from its reputation as an independent outlet in a region
filled with government-controlled press agencies and publications.
Even then, some appearances seemed to backfire.
A story about an interview with Rice published last week in Al-Hayat, a
leading Arabic newspaper based in London, carried this headline: ''No
coexistence with Saddam, and Syria and Lebanon must end their support for
Neither position is popular with many of Al-Hayat's readers.
Rather than feeling anger at Saddam Hussein, most Arabs sympathize with
the plight of the Iraqis - and fault the United States for decade-old UN
sanctions that, according to UNICEF, have raised Iraq's infant mortality
rate. And, while the United States, the chief foreign supplier of Israeli
arms, considers Lebanon's Hezbollah a terrorist organization, it remains
popular in the Arab world, where it is credited with forcing Israel to
withdraw from southern Lebanon last year.
While Rice was repeating long-held US positions, one specialist wondered
whether a more nuanced delivery would have better served US purposes.
''You have to train people to know their audience and to be able to speak
to it,'' said Tony Blinken, a former National Security Department staff
member and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International
Others pointed to lost opportunities in addressing that audience.
A Washington-based firm involved in the public diplomacy effort urged the
Pentagon to make Muslim clerics serving in the US military available for
interviews in the Arab and Muslim world, and to grant Arab networks like
Abu Dhabi TV and London-based MBC access to US flights dropping aid in
Afghanistan. The firm says it did not get a response.
One US official said the lapses pointed to the need for a more concerted
strategy. ''No one in the government believes that public diplomacy is
like an ignition switch on an automobile,'' he said.
Cold war ends; resources dwindle
But resources have diminished. The apparatus geared toward public
diplomacy - or in wartime, propaganda - little resembles the sprawling
effort dedicated to winning the Cold War.
For instance: In Karachi, Pakistan's largest city, the United States had
five officers conducting public diplomacy in 1968 with a staff of 100
Pakistanis. Today, it has one office with a staff of about a dozen
Former United States Information Agency officials say the US Information
Agency's merger with the State Department in 1999 has yet to gel, and its
resources had dwindled even before that.
''If you look at it, public diplomacy has been in decline since the Cold
War. We thought that, with the ideological war won, there was no longer a
need to shape America's image abroad,'' Blinken said. ''I think that has
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/26/2001. © Copyright
2001 Globe Newspaper Company.
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