Testimony

Public Diplomacy

Shibley Telhami

It is important to begin our discussion of public diplomacy toward Arab and Muslim countries by putting regional perceptions toward the US in broader perspective.

First, it is clear from recent public opinion surveys across Arab and Muslim countries that there is much resentment, anger and mistrust toward the United States and especially toward its policies. But it is important to know that these attitudes are also pervasive in other regions of the world, including Latin America, Asia, even Western Europe. While the intensity of these feelings in the Middle East may be at a higher level, it is important to highlight the prevalence of these attitudes globally. Certainly, some of these attitudes are simply a function of our role as a superpower and in some cases a function of jealousy. But to the extent that there is a problem in projecting a positive image of America, we must think globally, as well as regionally.

Second, while Arab and Muslim countries have much in common, especially on issues of identity and on core issues of foreign policy, it is important to note that Arabs and Muslims are highly diverse culturally, politically, even religiously. As such, we must not lose sight of that diversity in designing our public diplomacy toward the Middle East.

Third, recent public opinion surveys, including ones that I have conducted in the region, clearly reveal that the primary source of resentment and anger toward the United States is not American or Western values, but central foreign policy issues, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. Certainly the United States will not change its policies on the basis of public attitudes, but American diplomacy must find a way to explain these policies to people of the region.

Fourth, to the extent that the events of 9/11 have increased the gap of perception between the United States and Muslim or Arab countries, or at least highlighted it, it is also important to note that there has emerged a deep division within Arab and Muslim countries between voices of militancy and voices of moderation, between advocates of tolerance and advocates of intolerance. It is important in the pursuit of American public diplomacy toward the region not to portray the global campaign as a campaign between “us and them,” between the United States and the Muslim world, between the West and the Middle East. A more prudent strategy would focus on supporting the voices of moderation and tolerance in the region, empowering them, and helping them to wage their own battle for the hearts and minds of people in the region.

Fifth, in projecting our message toward the region, we must be especially mindful of a fact that every good salesman understands: if you don’t trust the messenger, you don’t trust the message. It is therefore essential in the design of our public diplomacy, to be especially careful about the messengers who spread our message. In particular, we have not made good use of our own resources, especially among Muslim and Arab Americans who have every interest in building bridges between the United States and Muslim countries. In addition, we must encourage those in the region whose voices are trusted and who share our message. And we must work with the existing media in the region, not only put forth our own media outlets.

Sixth, it is important to understand that there has been an information revolution in the region that has resulted in new, more independent and diverse media outlets, especially television, such as al-Jazeera TV out of Qatar, that has been made famous in the past several months. While certainly there is room for additional media outlets, including ones that would project messages that are compatible with the aims of our public diplomacy, we must be clear on why stations like al-Jazeera are successful today and what the logic of the information revolution is. The most important change generated by the dozens of new media outlet available to public in the region is that governments lost 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 who succeed: in large part, al-Jazeera’s success is a function of its ability to reflect public opinion, not so much shaping it. As such, it is important to understand the limits of any new television or radio outlet supported by the United States intended to compete regionally.

Seventh, experts of the Middle East, as well as our public opinion surveys indicate 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. This comes across in almost every country. As such, it is incumbent upon any effective public diplomacy strategy to find ways to project empathy toward the people of the region, especially where there is obvious pain and suffering. A good example is the recent hardship of the Palestinians in the West Bank. Regardless of our view of the rights and wrongs of policies toward Israel and the Palestinians, it was important to project at the highest level our empathy with the almost unbearable pain that Palestinians have endured, just as we must project empathy with Israelis as they endure the unbearable pain of terrorist bombings. This is an issue that must transcend policy. In addition, the United States always has important humanitarian projects across Arab and Muslim countries, and those must be increased, highlighted, and brought to the attention of people in the region.

Eighth, to the extent that many in the region remain suspicious of our policies, and often jump to conspiracy theories as a favorite form of explanation, this appears to be in part a function of a broad cultural and political psychology in the region that is difficult to significantly alter in the short term. But to the extent that we can make a difference at all, it is clear that many in the region feel that we take them for granted, that we do not bother to explain to them why we do what we do, and expect them simply to accept and follow. It is therefore extremely important in the conduct of our public diplomacy to have careful and credible explanations for all our important policies, including those that are controversial in the region, for if we shy away from doing it, conspiracy theorists will have even a bigger field day.

Ninth, it is obvious that people in Arab and Muslim countries have a mixed view of American life and values, but mostly a negative one. For example, most people have a positive image of America as a free country, our accomplishments in science and technology, but most see our values through the prism of sensationalist Hollywood movies, and thus have little understanding of the importance of faith, family and charity in America. To the extent that public diplomacy can affect this image, it can certainly serve to highlight the richness and diversity of American life.

Tenth, although much of public diplomacy has to be carried out through specific agencies of government and through specific programs, it is extremely important that the public utterances of our high level officials, especially at the White House and State Department, often 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 Secretary of State could outweigh months or years of efforts. We seem to understand this issue well in the conduct of our domestic policy, as all our officials have their statements scrutinized by dedicated advisers whose role is to assure the projection of the right public image. The global stakes today are so high, that we must find a way to have dedicated advisors to scrutinize the impact of our utterances globally.

Mr. Chairman, it is clear that bridging the gap of perceptions between Arabs and Muslims abroad and the United States will be a difficult one and will require a sustained long-term strategy, as well as short-term efforts. It is also clear that, above all, the strategy must be based on dialogue with the region. Such a dialogue is important not only for us, in understanding the sources of resentment and anger, but also for governments and elites in the region, who clearly must understand us and do their own part in bridging the gap. It is a two-way street.

A good place to begin is by encouraging the establishment of centers of American studies in major universities in the Middle East. Remarkably, there is so little knowledge about our culture and our politics, even in institutions of higher learning in the region, which allows conspiracy theories to prevail without answer. We must also encourage educational exchanges, media exchanges, and people to people contacts more broadly. One of the sad consequences of our security concerns following the horror of 9/11 is that more people from the region and more Americans are discouraged from participating in such exchanges that are more needed today than ever.

Mr. Chairman, let me end by saying how important it is that we succeed in our efforts to reduce the gap of perception between the United States and Arab and Muslim states, even as we know that we cannot fully bridge it. As we live with such a gap of perception with other regions of the world, we can certainly live with some gap in the relationship with the Muslim world. But we also know that if the gap is too wide, the anger is too deep, there are enemies of our interests who will be able to exploit it. In the era of globalization, the costs are too high. We cannot afford not to try.