Fwd: Campaign to alter Muslims' image of US falls short

From: Wade T. Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Wed Dec 26 2001 - 16:43:56 GMT

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    Subject: Fwd: Campaign to alter Muslims' image of US falls short
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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
    Eastern audience.

    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
    tarnished.

    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
    than systematic.

    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
    resentment.

    ''How are you going to overcome that?'' one veteran State Department
    official said last week. ''Public relations alone is not about to do
    that.''

    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
    branch.

    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
    affairs.

    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
    newspapers.

    ''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
    yet.''

    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
    high.

    ''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
    wasn't bad.''

    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
    attacks.

    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
    Hezbollah.''

    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
    Studies.

    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
    employees.

    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
    proved wrong.''

    This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 12/26/2001. Copyright
    2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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