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U.S. public diplomacy fails to win Iraqi hearts, minds by T Sadahiro

U.S. public diplomacy fails to win Iraqi hearts, minds

Takashi Sadahiro / Daily Yomiuri Online, 26 March 2004

With less than 100 days to go before sovereignty is transferred from the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority to the Iraqi people, the United States and its allies are entering a crucial phase in their public diplomacy campaign to present a favorable image of themselves.

In mid-February, an Arabic-language satellite television station named Al-Hurra, or the free one, began broadcasting.

Launched to a great fanfare of publicity, Al-Hurra's broadcasts are mainly targeted at the Middle East and northern African regions.

Shortly after it started broadcasting, the station featured two series of interviews with U.S. President George W. Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and other high-ranking U.S. officials.

Al-Hurra is funded by the U.S. government and is headquartered in Virginia.

The U.S. Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) has spent about 62 million dollars getting Al-Hurra up and running.

Commenting on the raison d'etre for Al-Hurra, BBG Chairman Kenneth Tomlinson said it would "stand out like a beacon of light in a media market dominated by sensationalism and distortion."

The television network, in the eyes of the U.S. administration, is the visual personification of U.S. efforts to breathe fresh life into its public diplomacy campaign in the region.

Public diplomacy is a form of diplomacy in which government organs act directly on the people of a foreign country, instead of on its government. Conventional diplomacy, which is centered around foreign governments, does not reach out directly to the people of a foreign government.

U.S. public diplomacy is designed to expedite interchanges between the United States and other countries through making the best possible use of media.

It is different from diplomatic public relations in that public diplomacy is intended to reach not only intellectuals but also the masses, including young people, with priority placed on two-way communication between the broadcaster and the public.

The concept of public diplomacy dates back to the 1960s. But it has recently become the focus of attention in the United States and Europe because there has been a surge of distrust among people in the Middle East toward these countries.

The United States, however, has found it an uphill battle promoting Al-Hurra.

The majority view in the Arab world is that Al-Hurra is nothing other than a propaganda tool of the U.S. government.

Charlotte Beers was appointed first undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs at the U.S. State Department just after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists attacks on the United States. However, she was forced to step down after a BBG-sponsored television commercial was aired that extolled the United States' "religious magnanimity" in such a clumsy way that it turned the BBG into a laughing stock.

Beers' successor, Margaret Tutwiler, came under fire in February at a public hearing session of a House of Representatives committee over the government's failure to make its public diplomacy campaign attractive enough to win an audience.

A committee member referred to the Japanese government's building of an educational-cultural facility in Cairo about 20 years ago, saying that while most Egyptians know that Japan built the opera house, they know almost nothing about what the United States has done for them.

How does Japan fare in this regard, then?

Japan's assistance package to Iraq includes a wide variety of items, ranging from soccer balls and tatami mats for judo training, to repairing the Iraqi National Museum and even exporting the hit television drama series "Oshin."

Seiichi Kondo, head of the international cultural exchanges promotion bureau of the Foreign Ministry said, "While what is needed most urgently for the Iraqi people is, of course, a restoration of the country's economic infrastructure, assistance conducive to winning their hearts and minds also is necessary."

But when it comes to the assistance Japan can offer in Samawah, local people have unreasonably high expectations of the amount of jobs the deployment of Self-Defense Forces troops there will create. The inevitable disappointment could give rise to anti-Japanese sentiment.

As for Japan, the idea has yet to take root that mounting a public relations exercise in Iraq should be a vital part of Japan's reconstruction work there. The concept itself of public diplomacy has yet to become widely known in this country.

Why, then, are the public diplomacy projects being mounted by the United States and its European allies falling short of success?

A Japanese diplomatic source noted that the U.S. and European approach to public diplomacy is based on the assumption that they should "rectify misunderstandings" on the part of Arab people that Americans and Europeans are arrogant and self-righteous.

"The self-centeredness in that Anglo-Saxon way of thinking is considered by Arabs as representative of the arrogance and self-righteousness of Americans and Europeans," he said.

Japan, for its part, should be as aggressive as the United States and European countries in staging public diplomacy. meanwhile the United States and European countries should work hard at becoming humble enough to form heart-to-heart relations with the Arabs

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