School of Media and Communication

Phil Taylor's papers


The US public diplomacy hoax: Why do they keep insulting us? by Rami G. Khouri

The US public diplomacy hoax: Why do they keep insulting us?

The serious controversy over Washington's use or misuse of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program is not an isolated phenomenon. It reflects a much deeper weakness in how the United States interacts with cultures such as those of the Middle East. We can watch this clash of cultures taking place before our eyes in other fields, such as the US government's use of broadcasting and print media to influence attitudes to the US in the Arab-Islamic world.

The basic problem is that the American penchant for clarity and neat, explicit, black-and-white classification of people's identities and intentions clashes badly with the Middle East's traditions of multiple identities and sometimes hidden aims, as well as the frequent imprecision in stated intentions. I do not claim that either tradition is better or worse, just that each offers very different ways of dealing with the world. Arabs and Americans are like ships passing in the night, sounding their horns, firing their guns, making known their views, but having no impact on the other.

The epitome of this is the widening gap between Arabs' perceptions of the US and many Americans' flawed interpretations of those Arab perceptions.
This reflects the lingering childishness of President George W. Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, when he suggested that those who attacked the US, and their many supporters, were motivated by hatred for American freedom, democracy, tolerance and other such fine values. The American president's intellectual gangsterism ("they hate our freedom") is simplistic, wrong and dangerous, and an inappropriate and ineffective retort to the worldviews of the criminals who have terrorized and killed thousands of Americans and other nationals.

Scores of public opinion polls, focus groups and other kinds of credible social science research have confirmed a thousand times over that most Arabs and Muslims admire basic American values, but are angered primarily by American foreign policies and, to a lesser extent, the arrogant manner in which the US presents its views and dictates policy to the world. A common intellectual, cultural and political response to this in the US is that something is deeply wrong in Arab and Islamic societies, and must be fixed, including education curricula, governance systems, economic trends, women's conditions and the mass media. A predominant Arab-Islamic counterview is that such American analyses are part of the problem, not part of the solution ­ i.e. if the US really wanted to make the Middle East a better place and the US a safer place, it should start by examining the impact of its own and Israel's policies on the Arab-Islamic world, as well as exploring faults within Arab-Islamic societies.
The views of Christian Arabs, by the way, provide a fascinating and compelling counterfoil to all the paint-and-think-by-numbers theories in the US about why Islamic societies are deranged. If folks in the US really want to get to the bottom of this issue, they would do well to eliminate the religious Islamic factors that confuse them, and do an in-depth study of Christian Arabs' views of the United States. The results would be a real eye-opener; they would probably show that Arab sentiments toward the US are mostly a reaction to perceived US policies and biases, rather than a function of Arab-Islamic culture or values.

At many levels today ­ Palestine/Israel, Iraq, the "war against terror," mass media, public diplomacy, democratic reform, religion and secularism ­ Americans and Arabs are interacting, but not communicating. This frustrating reality is about to be sharply aggravated when the United States next week launches its Arabic-language satellite television channel Al-Hurra. The chair of the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, Harold C. Pachios, in explaining the need for Al-Hurra television, has said that "creating a credible communication channel from the United States to the Arab World is the greatest diplomacy challenge since the end of the Cold War."

Wrong again. People in Washington who think like this are offering counterproductive projects, reflecting inappropriate policies, based on inaccurate analyses, stemming from faulty diagnoses. Perhaps not since the Emperor Nero blamed the fledgling Christians for Rome's domestic troubles in the mid-1st Century AD has a world power so flagrantly engaged in misguided policies that scapegoat others, instead of rationally analyzing the collective mistakes and responsibilities of all concerned.
The Middle East is a mess, America has been attacked and anti-US and anti-Israeli sentiments are at an all-time high in the region and the world, because of the cumulative faults of Arabs, Israelis, Americans and others. By arguing that our region is troubled and violent because Arabs and Muslims hate American values, and then attempting to correct this by launching television, radio and magazine efforts in Arabic, the US government perpetuates a fatal combination of political blindness and cultural misperception that is only going to exacerbate the gap between Americans and Arabs, rather than close it.
In public diplomacy as in its Iraq intelligence analysis, Washington suffers from occasional technical incompetence that is then magnified grievously by the distortions of extreme political ideology, woefully inadequate cultural understanding of Middle Eastern societies and a rigid refusal to examine how American foreign policy impacts on Middle Eastern perceptions of the US. I predict that if Al-Hurra television does offer Arabs and Muslims a better understanding of American society and values, its main impact will be to heighten Arab anger and irritation with US policy in the Middle East ­ because the gap between American values and American foreign policy conduct will become even more obvious to newly enlightened Middle Easterners.

Al-Hurra, like the US government's Radio Sawa and Hi magazine before it, will be an entertaining, expensive, and irrelevant hoax. Where do they get this stuff from? Why do they keep insulting us like this?

Rami G. Khouri is the executive editor of The Daily Star

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