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February 4, 2005

Winning hearts and minds, but how? America’s public image in the Arab and Moslem world

On my way back to Washington, DC from California, after covering the election of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Autumn 2003, I sat next to a Texan man on the plane. When the man inquired about my profession, I told him I was a journalist working for an Arabic satellite TV station, and he immediately adjusted his position, leapt forward in his seat, and asked me abruptly: ‘why do they hate us’?

‘Why do they hate us’, is also a question which seems to trouble the US Administration, to a degree, and it has accordingly allocated $1 billion a year in order to polish America’s battered image around the world. But no matter how much America spends, it’s not a surprise that anti-Americanism is on the rise, and that the United States is viewed with suspicion and contempt in most parts of the Arab and Moslem worlds.

A new report by a Pentagon advisory panel noted that the United States is failing in its efforts to explain its diplomatic and military action to the Moslem world. The unusual harsh criticism of US policies comes at time when America’s public diplomacy is at its weakest.

‘America’s negative image in the world opinion and diminished ability to persuade are consequences of factors other than the failure to implement communications strategies’, explains the report, compiled by the Defence Science Board. ‘Policies matter. Interests collide. Leadership counts. Mistakes dismay our friends and provide enemies with unintentional assistance’, the report continues.

America’s image problems are less about marketing and more about foreign policy. The war in Iraq was the latest misadventure of ill-thought out plans for the region.

That war has served as a catalysts for those who seek to discredit Washington and portray it as a greedy, arrogant Superpower, one that wants to dictate its policy and vision on the world by advocating regime change, installing US-friendly governments in the Middle East, and securing the sources of the largest crude oil reserves in the world. All this, they argue, would allow Mr. Average America to live comfortably and afford to pay his gas and electricity bills.

Bush may have convinced 59 million Americans who elected him for a second term that his reasons for going to war were aimed at freeing the Iraqi people from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein. But it was much harder for him to persuade the already suspicious larger audience in the Arab and Moslem world that indeed his ultimate aim was to free the Iraqi people.

After all, wasn’t his defense minister, Mr. Donald Rumsfeld the same man who shook hands with the ruthless dictator? Wasn’t it the West that supplied Mr. Hussein with arms and took his side in the war with Iran so he could keep the lid on the Iranian Mullahs who wanted to export the Islamic revolution? And haven’t the original reason for going to war, Saddam Hussein’s weapon of mass destructions and his alleged link to Al Qaeda, been entirely discredited?

In addition, the Arab world sees hypocrisy and double standards when it comes to US foreign policy. Wasn’t it US Secretary of State Colin Powell who went to the UN to convince the world body of the evilness of the Iraqi regime, and its ability to pose a threat to the entire civilized world? Wasn’t Mr. Bush the one who stated on so many occasions that Saddam Hussein has defied the UN so many times and refused to comply with UN resolutions? Mr. Bush’s way of teaching the dictator to respect the UN was to invade Iraq, capture Saddam and throw him in jail, all this without UN sanction.

In the aftermath of 9/11, this might sound like a legitimate argument to many Americans, who are so busy making a decent living that they have put their trust in the hands of Mr. Bush to protect them from future terrorist attacks. These same Americans are not particularly interested in world affairs, nor do they subscribe to the New York Times, or listen to NPR radio, where they might learn about contrary opinions.

The majority of the people in the Arab and Moslem world, on the other hand, have alterative means for getting news, and they do care about what happens in the world around them. Many of these citizens do not buy into the argument that by invading Iraq, America is somehow more secure.

How can Mr. Bush or his Administration win the hearts and minds of Arabs and Moslems when another country, Israel, clearly violates every single UN resolution and continues to disregard them? Mr. Bush calls Israel the only democratic country in the Middle East. While most people agree that Israel is a democracy, surely, its troops in the West Bank and Gaza do not behave like democrats, on the contrary, they are brutal and nasty.

The US-bias towards Israel is viewed with dismay by the Arab public, and when the United States talks about human rights abuses and suffering, they cannot pick and choose. Sharon is no Saddam, but suffering is suffering, one cannot measure it by how many mass graves were found nor by how many bystanders were killed by an Apache helicopter gunship, which may have been provided to the Israeli Army by the Americans. The Americans need to apply the same standard to everyone so they themselves will not be accused of hypocrisy.

If the United States is really serious about addressing priorities and wants to eliminate support for groups such as al-Qaeda and its affiliates, then it has to invest its political capital in solving the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. If Mr. Bush cannot listen to advice from his closest ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair, and appoint a Middle East Envoy with clout, or call for an international conference, nor put aside his evangelical Christian support for the Jewish state and apply a little pressure on his friend, Mr. Sharon, if he cannot do all of these things, then I guess, there is no hope.

The prison abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib, the continuation of detention of around 600 of what the United States calls ‘enemy combatants’ in Guantanamo, and their subsequent mistreatment - tantamount to torture according to an ICRC leaked report to The New York Times, along with the discrimination suffered by Arab and Moslem Americans as a result of the Patriot Act can only help to erode America’s image in the world.

As senator Ted Kennedy remarked, the picture of the Iraqi prisoner standing on a wooden base, hooded, with his hands and feet attached to an electric wire, will replace the Statue of Liberty’s image of America in the world. The blind-folded prisoners at Guantanamo, in their orange jumpsuits with shackled feet, will hurt America as long as these men are not brought to a fair trial.

The Pentagon’s use of military courts are dismissed by human rights organisation as a sham, and travesty of justice. It will leave more deep scars on America’s already wounded image. Add to all of these the latest killings of a wounded, unarmed insurgent at a Faluja mosque by a US marine. While the Marine was defended by most US media, what he did outraged most of the Arab and Moslem worlds. It will no doubt help recruit more to the side of the insurgents.

The US needs to deal seriously with all of the above-mentioned abuses. It should not brush them aside, as the outrage accumulates in the psyche of the people in the Middle East. While the administration set up an investigation committee to look into the abuses, which has been seen as an attempt to unravel the truth, more is needed to prove that the acts were those of isolated individuals rather than a systematic abuse, approved by the Pentagon at the highest level.

The role of the media

One picture speaks a thousand words, and the United States certainly understands the role played by the media. The emergence of pan-Arab satellite TV stations, such as Al Arabiya and Al Jazeera, has taken over more traditional western coverage of conflicts and wars in the Middle East.

While, the previous US civilian administrator for Iraq, Mr. Paul Bremer, shut down both Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya in Iraq on different occasions, the US Administration resorted to a further outdated response to counter these stations. It created its own alternative media. Congress approved $60 million of US tax payers’ money to set up Al Hurrah TV, an Arabic speaking station broadcast throughout the Middle East. Al Hurrah is seen as a failed project: its ratings do not exceed 4 per cent, according to a poll conducted by Maryland University. While, in principle, it could be a successful enterprise if it followed the best tradition of American journalism, it is sadly viewed as a mouthpiece for the US Administration.

Using the media as an effective tool of public diplomacy can work, but the United States still needs to understand the changing world and not repeat mistakes of the past. Radio Free Europe or Voice of America appealed to suppressed nations in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe, and their people yearned for freedom from totalitarian regimes. In contrast, most of the people in the Middle East view America as the threatening empire. In addition, America’s continued support for dictatorial regimes in the Arab world is seen as another indicator that the United States is not really serious about spreading democracy as it lays out in its Greater Middle East Initiative, launched last summer at the G8 meeting in Sea Island, Georgia.

‘Why do they hate us?’ The response in fact is that they do not, but they do hate US policies. In many respects, people in the Middle East view the US as a truly fair and transparent society, a country of opportunity, where dreams can be achieved. America is seen as a refuge for all those who suffer injustice in the world.

The United States is perceived as a technologically advanced society, with sophisticated medical research, space programs, excellent universities, and business opportunities, a country that has united its people under the concept of simply being an American, something hard to achieve for immigrant communities across Europe.

It is therefore a shame that the ‘sweet land of liberty’ is at odds with so many people in the world and appears to be heading for the much feared clash of civilisations.

Nadia Bilbassey-Charters is the Senior Washington Correspondent for Al Arabiya TV.

With the collaboration ofSafe Democracy Foundation
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