U.S. Policy and the Arab and Muslim World: The Need for Public Diplomacy

The horror of last September has awakened Americans to a startling revelation: many people in the Arab and Muslim world are resentful of the United States and suspicious of its intentions, and most harbor negative images of American culture and policies. As U.S. policymakers and nongovernmental organizations begin to address ways to narrow the gap in the way Muslims and Americans perceive world events, there are important points to recognize in the design of an effective program of public diplomacy toward the Middle East and the Muslim world more broadly.

The primary source of the widespread Arab and Muslim resentment and anger toward the United States that is consistently found by recent public opinion surveys in the region is not, it should be said, American values—it is U.S. policy, particularly toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although the United States cannot change its foreign policies solely on the basis of public attitudes abroad, the costs of our actions must be understood and factored into the policy assessment. The United States should also find a way to counter its negative image among Arabs and Muslims and to explain its policies to the people of the region.

As they shoulder this task, U.S. leaders should keep in mind several things. First, although negative attitudes toward the United Sates are unusually intense in the Arab and Muslim nations of the Middle East, similar attitudes prevail in other regions of the world, including Latin America, Asia, and even Western Europe. Just as we live with our poor images in those regions, we can live with them in the Middle East—though we should do all we can to improve matters not just regionally, but globally. Second, not only are the Arabs and Muslims of the Middle East highly diverse peoples—culturally, politically, and even religiously—but also Arab and Muslim countries are experiencing deep and growing divisions between the voices of militancy and the voices of moderation, between advocates of tolerance and advocates of intolerance. U.S. policymakers should recognize both forms of diversity and focus on nurturing the voices of moderation in the Middle East, empowering them, and helping them wage their own battle for the hearts and minds of the people in the region.

The first lesson that every good salesman learns is that if you don’t trust the messenger, you don’t trust the message. In its efforts to dispel the hostility toward itself in the Middle East, the United States should choose carefully those who carry its message. We should make full use of all resources, not only those talented and dedicated Muslim and Arab Americans who have every interest in building bridges between the United States and the nations of the Middle East, but also the voices in the Middle East who are trusted and who share our views.

We should also work with the existing news media in the region and not simply put forth our own media outlets. An information revolution in the Middle East has spawned new, more independent and diverse media outlets, especially television, such as Qatar’s al-Jazeera TV. While there is room for additional media outlets, including ones that project messages compatible with the aims of U.S. public diplomacy, we must understand why stations like al-Jazeera are successful today. The dozens of new regional media outlets now available to the public have deprived Middle Eastern governments of their monopoly on information. Any station that hopes to get a sizable market share of viewers must take into account consumer demand. Those who understand what the public wants to see, and create programming that reflects consumer demand, are the ones that succeed. In large part, al-Jazeera’s success springs from its ability to reflect public opinion, not to shape it. Any new television or radio outlet supported by the United States that does not take this reality into account would find its ability to compete in the region quite limited.

Those who carry the U.S. message into the Arab and Muslim states of the Middle East must also be aware that a primary source of regional frustration and anger toward the United States is a perceived lack of empathy by the United States toward their pain and hardship. Empathy is an issue that must transcend policy. Regardless of official U.S. policies toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, U.S. messengers must project empathy for the almost unbearable pain that Palestinians have endured, just as they must project empathy with Israelis as they endure the unbearable pain of terrorist bombings. The United States is always conducting important humanitarian projects across the Arab and Muslim world. It should increase those projects, and its messengers should highlight and bring them to the attention of people in the region.

The tendency of many in the Middle East to be suspicious of U.S. policies and to jump to conspiracy theories about them springs in part from a broad cultural and political psychology that is almost impossible for the United States to alter in the short term. But one way to begin to counter that psychology is to try to dispel the widespread feeling that the United States takes the Middle East so much for granted that it does not even bother to explain to the people of the region why it does what it does. If we have careful and credible explanations for all our important policies, including those that are controversial in the region, we will at least complicate the work of the conspiracy theorists.

Although much of America’s public diplomacy will be carried out through specific agencies of government and through specific programs, the public utterances of the nation’s highest public officials, especially at the White House and the State Department, have more power in shaping public images in the region than all our programs and the hundreds of millions of dollars we put behind them. A single word by the president or the secretary of state could outweigh months or years of efforts. U.S. policymakers understand this issue well in the conduct of domestic policy, where their statements are scrutinized by dedicated advisers whose role is to assure the projection of the right public image. With global stakes so high today, policymakers must be sure that their advisers take the same care with utterances that resonate abroad.

Narrowing the gap of perceptions between the Arab and Muslim states of the Middle East and the United States will be difficult. But it must be based on a dialogue with the region. The dialogue is important not only for the United States, in understanding the sources of resentment and anger, but also for Middle Eastern governments and elites, who must understand the United States and do their own part in bridging the gap. It is a two-way street.

One place to start is by encouraging more people-to-people contacts, educational exchanges, and media exchanges. Though such contacts are needed today more than ever, the attacks of September 11 have discouraged both Americans and people from the Middle East from participating. Centers of American studies could also be established in the major universities in the Middle East. Today so little is known about American culture and politics, even in those universities, that conspiracy theories can prevail without answer.

Although the perception gap between the United States and Arab and Muslim states is too wide to be bridged altogether, it can and must be reduced. If it is allowed to remain too wide—if the anger is allowed to grow too deep—enemies of American interests will exploit it. In the era of globalization, the costs are too high. We cannot afford not to try.