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The Issue is Policy, Not Diplomacy! by S I Mufti

The Issue is Policy, Not Diplomacy!

By Siraj Islam Mufti
Freelance journalist - USA

Seizing the opportunity provided by 9/11, the United States, as the world's sole superpower, aggressively embarked on a project to further its hegemony and secure world dominance. This policy, enunciated in such documents as the "The National Security Strategy of the United States of America," targeted, among others, the Arab Gulf, and especially Iraq. While the invasion of Afghanistan was projected as retaliation for terrorist attacks against the US, the invasion of Iraq was based on the Bush Doctrine of pre-emption, and built on the pretext of an imminent threat from Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.

Since the invasion of Iraq was based on unfounded allegations, with not a shred of evidence, and was carried out unilaterally against world opinion, and without the approval of the United Nations, it clearly showed Arabs and Muslims in general that the US had every intention of consolidating its regional and global hegemony. Their apprehensions were further confirmed by the US' threatening Syria and Iran.

After two years of US aggression, there is a corresponding worsening of Arab and Muslim attitudes towards America. A recent Pew Global Attitudes survey puts it succinctly: "The bottom has fallen out of Arab and Muslim support for the United States." For example, in Indonesia, a country with the world's largest Muslim population, only 15 percent view the US favorably, compared with 61 percent in early 2002. And in Turkey, a secular non-Arab democracy and a stalwart member of NATO, favorable opinion towards the US dropped from 52 percent three years ago to 15 percent in the spring of 2003. In other Muslim and Arab countries the situation is even worse.

The thinking that prevails within the US administration is that, regardless of what it does, the situation can be remedied by adopting appropriate diplomacy. But the problem is more the reality of its policies towards the Muslim people, which have caused this alienation, rather than an issue of perception.

Prevailing Assumptions

Two years of US aggression caused a worsening of Arab and Muslim attitudes towards America.

In the September/October edition of Foreign Affairs analyst Marc Lynch lists assumptions that underlie US policies towards Arabs, and more or less, all Muslims. A basic assumption, particularly with a Bush administration intent on unleashing its military arsenal, is that Arabs respect power, and that the way to implement US policies is to cow them into submission. Another assumption is that in reality Arab public opinion does not matter, because co-opted authoritarian states that maintain the status quo can control or ignore any discontent. A third assumption is that anger is intrinsic to Islamic or Arab culture, and represents the envy of these weak and failed states, or otherwise is simply cooked up by unpopular leaders to deflect attention from their shortcomings. A final, increasingly popular notion is that it is the result of misunderstanding US policies.

Together these assumptions have resulted in an approach that advocates strong military intervention and dismisses local opposition thereto. There is then an attempt to offset this through a patronizing approach to getting the American message out - carried through public diplomacy and strategic alliances with the local authoritarian regimes - and recently, by adopting a variety of PR methods. For example, the State Department spent $15 million on an advertising campaign called "Shared Values" that tried to depict religious tolerance by presenting brief profiles of Muslims living in America. These advertisements were ultimately dropped after test audiences said that they did touch on any of the main issues that divide America from the Muslim world.

Additionally, an Office of Global Communications was created by the White House to counter hostile depictions of the US in Middle Eastern media. One approach was to get US civilian and military officials to speak on Al Jazeera and other satellite networks so that they could project the American viewpoint. This was seen a crude attempt to influence newly emerging press freedoms in the Middle East.

Yet Another Approach in Diplomacy

In July 2003, the US Congress mandated a bipartisan 13-member Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, chaired by Edward P. Djerejian, former ambassador to Syria and Israel. The group traveled to Egypt, Syria, Senegal, Morocco, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom, and had video-conferences in Indonesia and Pakistan, eventually coming up with a proposal for broader restructuring of US public diplomacy programs.

Its report, released on October 1, 2003, calls for a new White House office with a cabinet rank, backed by an advisory board of experts, to manage strategic direction and the government-wide coordination of public diplomacy in promoting national interests by informing, engaging and influencing the global community, in particular Arabs and Muslims.

The report concludes, "America can achieve dramatic results with a consistent, strategic, well-managed, and properly funded approach to public diplomacy, one that credibly reflects US values, promotes the positive thrust of US policies, and takes seriously the needs and aspirations of Arabs and Muslims for peace, prosperity, and social justice."

The New Muslim Public Sphere

Arab public opinion is a more complex phenomenon than conventional notions of a cynical elite and a passionate, nationalistic "Arab street" suggest. The street, or mass public, is real and its views (expressed or anticipated) can indeed affect government policies. But what now matters more than the street, and sometimes more than the rulers, is the consensus of elite and middle-class public opinion throughout the Arab world. Articulate and assertive, combative and argumentative, this nascent public sphere increasingly sets the course for the street and the palace alike& It [the Bush administration] needs to recognize that the elite Arab public can speak for itself, deeply resents being ignored or condescended to, and is more than capable of directly observing American words and deeds for inconsistencies.1

The advisory panel and other suggested improvements in public diplomacy ignore the new public sphere that has emerged in the Muslim world. Lynch (although still emphasizing diplomacy) addressed this reality, stating: "The Bush administration's tone-deaf approach to the Middle East reflects a dangerous misreading of the nature and sources of Arab public opinion."

While in the 1950s public broadcasting served as the mouthpiece of entrenched authoritarian regimes, in the 1990s a genuinely new public sphere emerged. This happened because of the availability of satellite television, which brought Arab locals and the Arab Diasporas together in a remarkably coherent, common and ongoing public debate that was accessible to almost everyone. Also, the elite Arab press based overseas was able to escape direct government control while drawing on writers and journalists from all over the world. Thus, regular news roundups broadcast on the new satellite stations, together with the availability of news on the Internet, with a small but vocal following, have allowed this debate to reach larger audiences.

Arabs and Muslims recognize US propaganda; they've seen enough of it from their own regimes.

And because they dealt with serious subject matter rather than focusing on belly dancing and soap operas, Al Jazeera and its counterparts had a revolutionary impact. Al Jazeera, for example, has put politics first since its launch in 1996, and its talk shows pointedly brought together representatives from across the spectrum, a fact that promoted sharp arguments and made for good television, exciting its audiences on issues of broad concern to the people and transforming Arab political culture in the process.

Many intellectual luminaries and influential political figures from across the Islamic and Arab world appear regularly on these satellite TV programs, or contribute essays to newspaper opinion pages. The news media are often a communal affair and spark arguments among viewers and readers, especially during crises.

Arabs and Muslims can therefore easily recognize current US efforts at public diplomacy as no more than propaganda; they have seen enough of it from their own regimes. For them, the words must be matched by deeds to have meaning.

Thus, following Bush's speech at the National Endowment for Democracy on November 6, 2003, TV shows, newspaper editorials and columnists across the region commented that the US would not seriously help freedom and democracy flourish in the Arab world, pointing to Washington's double standards with regard to Muslims, and its pursuit of a narrow, hegemonic agenda, in collusion with Israel.

For example, Bush's praise of the rudimentary, and in the eyes of most, farcical progress towards democracy in the Arab countries he named was roundly denounced as hypocritical. His criticism of Iran, one of the region's most democratic countries, elicited the following response from Hamid Reza Asefi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman: "No individual, or group, has ever commissioned Mr. Bush to safeguard their rights& and basically, keeping in mind the dark record of the United States in suppressing the democratic movements around the globe, he is not in a position to talk about such issues."

Policy - The Real Issue

Indeed, the Muslim world looks at the US' actions rather than its rhetoric when judging the United Sates. The issue is not the lack of proper public diplomacy, but rather the policies pursued by the US administration; a fact that cannot remain hidden regardless of how skillfully these policies are presented.

This feeling is not unique to Arabs and Muslims, who are the primary target of these policies. Even the European public and its leaders are opposed to many of the US' current policies, and anti-Americanism is running high in these countries. Additionally, several American leaders have severely criticized the current administration's mind-set. What troubles most is its arrogance, (though strangely enough, Bush said, during his presidential campaign that "If we are arrogant, people will hate us."), its unilateralism and its policy of pre-emptive strikes.

Even the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy admits "Foreign policy counts," adding that

[W]e must make an effort to separate questions of policy from questions of communicating that policy. Surveys show clearly that specific American policies profoundly affect attitudes toward the United States. That stands to reason. For example, large majorities in the Arab and Muslim world view US policy through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arabs and Muslims overwhelmingly opposed the post-9/11 US military campaign in Afghanistan, as well as the use of force against Iraq, and the US war on terrorism in general. It is not, however, the mandate of the Advisory Group to advise on foreign policy itself.2

The US' policies must be formulated with uniform standards.

It also adds its own perspective: "In our trips to Egypt, Syria, Turkey, France, Morocco and Senegal, we were struck by the depth of opposition to many of our policies. Citizens in these countries are genuinely distressed at the plight of Palestinians and at the role they perceive the United States to be playing, and they are genuinely distressed by the situation in Iraq. Sugar-coating and fast talking are no solutions, nor is absenting ourselves." [Italics added for emphasis.]

It also said that "We must also confront the contradictions that troubles believers in democracy and liberalization. They see official US diplomacy as frequently buttressing governments hostile to freedom and prosperity."

But it skirted the real issue because the US Congress and administration mandated the Advisory Group to advise only on diplomacy, not foreign policy, in yet another abortive attempt at remedying the problem.

Thus, it is time the US elite and administration understood that spin, manipulative public relations and propaganda are not the answer, and that despite the fact that America's core values are admired and respected worldwide, it is the reality of unbalanced and counterproductive policies that negatively impacts global public opinion. It is these policies that must be formulated with uniform standards of international law, political equity, social justice, and respect for human rights.

It is time for the US administration to correct its course and realize that if it wants to win the hearts and minds of Arabs and Muslims it must formulate its policies, based not on double standards or hegemonic neocolonialist designs, but on the basis of justice and honest, impartial equitability that will befriend rather than antagonize the world's 1.3 billion Muslims - and that this would ultimately be in America's lasting interests.

Siraj Islam Mufti Ph.D., is a researcher and freelance journalist. He frequently contributes articles to the Islamic Circle of North America, Muslim American Society, and United Association for Studies and Research.

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