The Magazine

Uncle Sam's Makeover

The State Department's answer to Osama bin Laden is to "redefine America."

Jun 3, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 37 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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SHORTLY AFTER her confirmation as the State Department's top communications whiz last October, Charlotte Beers said she hoped to create among the world's one billion Muslims an "understanding that they don't need to kill us to get our attention."

To accomplish that patronizing goal, Beers and her State Department colleagues have undertaken a "public diplomacy" campaign in the Muslim world. The effort will naturally require unceasing "dialogue" and involve lots of "listening." There will be pamphlets, CD-ROMs, public service announcements, a State Department magazine for young Muslim males. There will be trips, student and professional exchanges, focus groups, and polls. There will be English teachers, "focused and augmented activities," and even "American corners"--multimedia rooms in "partnering institutions in target countries" to "bring an American environment to key audiences."

Some of the funds for these myriad projects come from a $15 million "Emergency Supplemental for public diplomacy." Another $17.5 million comes from the "Emergency Response Fund." Still more will be drawn from the nearly $600 million in public diplomacy funding for 2003.

Beers, a top Madison Avenue advertising executive handpicked by Colin Powell to serve as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, summed up her task in an interview last fall with the Wall Street Journal. "It is almost as though we have to redefine what America is," she said. "This is the most sophisticated brand assignment I have ever had."

All of this--emergency spending, redefining America, and the rest of it--comes as a direct response to the September 11 attacks. And it demonstrates with remarkable clarity that one sure way to get our attention is to kill us.

Of course, any time terrorists murder nearly 3,000 civilians, it'll get the attention of the United States government. President Bush's response--we will hunt down and kill those who wish to harm us--avoided the namby-pamby, blame-America-first suggestion that somehow we brought the attacks on ourselves. For almost nine months, the administration, with some minor exceptions, has responded to September 11 with a strong message: We will punish our enemies and help our friends.

But the Beers effort confuses, perhaps even undermines, that core message. And it does so largely because of its failure to distinguish between good Muslims and bad. For implicit in the Beers construct is the notion that our dialogue will include even the distinct minority of Muslims who wish to do us harm.

As Beers recently told a gathering at a Washington think tank: "There's never been a time when a key group from the Islamic world has asked to see me--that I know of--that we've ever said anything but please come, we need to learn, we need to listen."

Charlotte Beers is listening, but she's listening to the wrong people.

NIHAD AWAD, for example. A Palestinian-American, Awad has repeatedly embraced Hamas, the Saudi-funded, Palestinian terrorist organization that has claimed responsibility for many of the recent bombings in Israel. In a 1994 appearance at Barry University in Florida, Awad declared: "I am in support of the Hamas movement." That same year, when Mike Wallace of "60 Minutes" asked Awad if he supports the "military undertakings of Hamas," Awad told him, "The United Nations Charter grants people who are under occupation to defend themselves against illegal occupation." Former FBI counterterrorism chief Oliver "Buck" Revell has called Awad's former employer, the Islamic Association For Palestine, "a front organization for Hamas that engages in propaganda for Islamic militants." And just five days before the September 11 attacks, when the FBI shut down Texas-based computer firm InfoCom citing its terrorist ties, Awad blamed the raid on the Bush administration's efforts to appease "Israel, a racist country and state."

Strange, then, that Nihad Awad--along with the group he heads, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR)--is prominently featured in the State Department's much-ballyhooed effort to win the "hearts and minds" of Muslims worldwide. This is especially odd given President Bush's clear warning to would-be Islamist sympathizers: You are either with us or with the terrorists.

The centerpiece of the State Department's campaign thus far is called "Muslim Life in America," and it marks a rather dramatic shift in the nature of U.S. public diplomacy. The concept is simple and, at first blush, benign: Persuade the audience that America loves Muslims, then hope that Muslims will love America back.

But visitors to the "Muslim Life in America" website are just one click away from CAIR's website, listed under "Selected Nongovernmental Organizations." And CAIR's site gives visitors precisely the opposite impression from the one Charlotte Beers wants to promote: America doesn't like Muslims at all.