WASHINGTON--For the past month, the United States has been dropping bombs on Afghanistan and losing friends in the Arab world. The news that the U.S.-led coalition is getting serious about that other war--the competition for support of the people in Muslim countries--is as welcome as it is overdue.
On the same day that my Washington Post colleague Karen DeYoung was being briefed on plans to open round-the-clock "war rooms" in Washington, London and Islamabad to challenge Taliban propaganda about the casualties of our effort to dislodge Osama bin Laden, I was meeting with four retired American diplomats with decades of experience in the Arab world. Every one of them voiced alarm that we were not winning--and were barely competing in--the battle for public support.
Unlike most of us, who have been dismayed to discover the hostility to the United States in that part of the world, they understand very well why there have been anti-American demonstrations in Pakistan and the West Bank and why many governments in the region have been cool to the U.S.-British operations in Afghanistan.
That antagonism, they said, has many roots, from ancient Islamic history to contemporary policy toward the Palestinians. But I also was told that it was at least in part a matter of default by our government--a simple failure to engage those populations and make a good-faith effort to inform them of what this country is and the goals we are seeking in the world.
My instructors were three former ambassadors and a senior public affairs officer who collectively had represented this country abroad for 127 years, mostly in the Arab world. Walter Cutler, Kenton Keith, William Rugh and Marjorie Ransom were joined by Joseph Duffey, the director of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) during the Clinton years.
Their concern that we are losing the battle for public opinion in that crucial part of the world, stretching from the Middle East through Pakistan, was matched by their frustration with the bureaucratic obstacles they say have been hampering our efforts.
During the Clinton administration, the USIA, which was the principal agency for telling America's story abroad, was subjected to a series of budget cuts and finally was eliminated as a separate organization. At the insistence of one of its persistent critics, Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, it was folded into the State Department. Then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went along with the deal, either to placate the man who was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee or--as some suggest--in order to expand her department's domain.
The result, these officials said, is that "public diplomacy," the polite term for our efforts to counter anti-American propaganda, which was once handled by a cohesive team of professionals, was dispersed within the State Department bureaucracy and downgraded in importance.
"It is a struggle," I was told, to get programs aimed at vital overseas audiences approved and funded, because the State Department "is not a program agency," and its own professionals often look down on the former USIA employees as marginal to the diplomatic missions on which the Foreign Service is focused.
The problem is compounded by the fact that, once the Cold War ended, Congress cut the budgets for both the State Department and the old USIA so drastically that literally hundreds of overseas offices, where American information officers could interact with local populations, were closed.
Our broadcast efforts in Arabic are meager. Until recently, U.S. officials were not appearing on al-Jazeera, the independent all-news channel with the largest Arab audience, one that has carried hours of interviews with anti-American speakers.
Although State Department officials insisted to me that it is not currently the case, the former ambassadors told me they had been under orders from Washington higher-ups not to give on-the-record interviews to news organizations in their host countries.
All these arrangements, they said, muzzled America's voice and restricted our ability to rebut the claims that this is a warlike, intolerant country.
Equally damaging, they said, has been the shrinkage in programs that bring promising young people, prospective future leaders, to this country as students or visitors, so they can learn about the United States firsthand. Only 5 percent of the foreign students in this country, I was told, come from Arab countries, "and the number of Americans studying in those countries is miniscule."
The struggle against terrorism, much of it launched from Arab countries, will be a long one. It will be longer--and less successful--if we don't learn to reach the people of those countries more effectively.
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