School of Media and Communication

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Why U.S. Public Diplomacy Failed in the Arab World by Nancy El-Gindy

August 3, 2005

Why U.S. Public Diplomacy Failed in the Arab World

By: Nancy El-Gindy*

At the Foreign Press Center podium in Washington, three weeks after 9/11, stood Ms. Beers, chairman and CEO of J. Walter Thompson Worldwide and Ogilvy & Mather, one of the biggest public relations agency in the United States, and recently appointed Undersecretary of State for public diplomacy and public affairs, responding to a question about whether there will be a "poster child, man or woman" to represent America abroad. Interestingly enough, Ms. Beers exclaimed: "Well you know, in a way, our poster people are President Bush and Secretary Powell, whom I think are pretty inspiring symbols of the brand, the United States."

This unusual exchange was, perhaps not unexpectedly, mocked and ridiculed with questions such as: "Is it possible to sell Uncle Sam the way you sell Uncle Ben?"

Ms. Beers and Richard Boucher, Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs, outlined their program at a press conference in 2001, concentrating on the Middle East.

The plan included schemes such as using charming and important American athletes, celebrities or singers to spread the message, direct interaction with Muslim journalists, interviews with Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld or then National Security advisor Condoleezza Rice on Al Jazeera, Middle East Broadcasting or Lebanese Broadcasting, and banner ads on websites designed to tease Arab net users into coming to view websites full of inspiring information on Muslim life in America.

Not only did they discuss the newly acquired marketing plan for project America, but also explained how they would defend American policies and values. The word "freedom," Beers stated, would be defined and communicated to the outside world better, in order for those who don't have it to understand what it represents in the "land of the free." In turn, Boucher stated that they were going to do all they could to stand up for and explain U.S policy, because they believed they were doing the right thing.

Though this plan seemed polished enough to put into action, the shine of the polish seemed to blind them to all its huge flaws. It was thus no surprise to anyone when the widely publicized effort was a tremendous flop, and Beers resigned "for health reasons" in March, 2003. Said one anonymous official, "Nothing she did worked."

According to research from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, Mr. Bush Jr., who Ms. Beers believed to be the perfect 'poster man' of the values of the United States to overseas audiences, had horrible ratings in the Muslim world. From Morocco to Pakistan, Bush received disapproval rates of 60 to 90 percent.

The problem with Beers' response was of course that it was "who I think" not "who the general foreign public thinks" represents the best of America. Clearly having Bush as the "poster man" of the United States in the Muslim world did not contribute to a positive outcome.

Rather than try to better understand the grievances of Arab people against various policies, Mr. Boucher also clearly stated that they would continue to embrace such policies even though it is these political actions that are at the heart of the growing gap between the West and the Muslim world.

Results from a poll conducted by the Arab American Institution found 75 to 86 percent of people all around the Arab world blamed American policy - not American values - for their attitudes toward the U.S. For the most part, Muslims around the world understand and respect American values.

The Beer/Boucher strategy of speaking about the 'war on terrorism' and convincing Muslims that U.S policies are justified faced insurmountable odds anyway, since recent polls have shown that Muslims do not trust the U.S and its war on terror, not to mention its unshakeable support for Israel's actions at the expense of the Palestinians.

All that aside, the program's most significant flaw was probably that the main components of their public diplomacy strategy were not aimed at the right audience. By using the internet, celebrities and singers, and Al Jazeera, they were not targeting the audience who they had the greatest interest in reaching.

There have been many studies on the background of terrorists. Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim's, who interviewed Islamic extremists' detainees after attacking the Egyptian Military Academy in 1974 concluded that they were all from the middle and lower classes.

Another study by Albert Hourani on the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood in the late 1930's, also suggested that 'terrorists' or extremists usually emerge from the same social milieu.

Hence, using celebrities and the internet would not have been effective. Such programs will probably only exert influence over the minority upper educated class who, despite their opposition to U.S policies, are usually not involved in such radical activities.

If the U.S. intends to make another attempt at strengthening its public diplomacy efforts, possibly the best strategy would be to restructure the State Department's efforts so they reach the lower classes through the use of respected and trusted religious leaders and authority figures in small towns to spread moderate teachings of Islam and denounce the use of violence for political ends.

This technique will most likely be the best way to reach out to the people of the Middle East since a war on terrorism should be constructed to prevail over extremist ideologies that approve of violence for political purposes rather than simply celebrating American values and policies, as the former are already well-understood by Arab elites and the latter not always appreciated by Muslims of all classes in the Middle East.

* Nancy El-Gindy is a student at the American University in Cairo and a former participant in the Soliya Arab-American online dialogue program. This article is published in partnership with Common Ground News Service (CGNews-PiH).

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