The Magazine

How to Win Friends and Influence Arabs

Rethinking public diplomacy in the Middle East.

Aug 18, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 46 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
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LIKE A SPORTS TEAM after a dismal season, the State Department is going through a "rebuilding process" to figure out how to win Arab and Muslim friends. As depressing statistics about anti-Americanism continue to mount, especially in the Middle East, Foggy Bottom recently announced the formation of a new committee, headed by former diplomat Edward P. Djerejian, to repair its woeful "public diplomacy" toward Arabs and Muslims.

Djerejian, head of State's Near East bureau under then-secretary James Baker, has served for the last decade as founding director of the James A. Baker III Institute of Public Policy at Rice University. In what could herald a revival of Baker's team at State, Djerejian is likely to pass his committee's findings to another Baker veteran--Margaret Tutwiler, former State spokesman and current ambassador to Morocco--who is expected to take over the department's top public diplomacy job in the autumn.

Creation of Djerejian's 14-member panel comes four months after the resignation of controversial public diplomacy chief Charlotte Beers, the onetime advertising executive. Under Beers, the buzzword was "branding," the idea that America could earn the loyal support of customers around the world through the sort of image-oriented campaign that wins repeat shoppers to Wal-Mart. Through a series of "I'm okay, you're okay" initiatives to Muslim audiences--television commercials, websites, and speakers programs--Beers tried to reconnect the world's billion Muslims with the United States the way McDonald's highlights its billion customers served.

The results were disastrous. Many Muslim countries refused to air the TV spots, while many who saw them damned the ads as puerile propaganda. At home, complaints about the Madison Avenue approach to diplomacy grew numerous. The most definitive sign that Beers had finally lost the confidence of the White House came this year as the administration proposed a net decrease in State Department spending on public diplomacy, despite the universally recognized need to improve America's message abroad. Beers resigned on March 3.

Not everyone agrees on the reasons for Beers's failure. The Djerejian committee will hear three different analyses. Each one portends a wholly different approach to public diplomacy.

One view holds that Beers was right to focus on common values (such as family, home, religion) and cultural interests (pop music, sports) that Americans share with foreign Muslims, but that she was too tentative and cautious in pressing the case. Advocates of this view--such as proponents of the new U.S. government-funded Arabic radio and satellite television networks--believe that blitzing Arab and Muslim countries with Britney Spears videos and Arabic-language sitcoms will earn Washington millions of new Muslim sympathizers.

A second view holds that many Muslims hate us for who we are, so unless we are going to change our spots, we should stop worrying about Muslim sensibilities altogether. Washington is the new Rome, these realpoliticians say, and an imperial power--even a benign one--should focus its energies on efficiency, not popularity. The only public diplomacy that matters, this argument goes, comes with victory (over al Qaeda, the Taliban, Saddam, etc.).

A third view holds that Muslims hate us for what we do, not who we are, and counsels that we must change our policies if we hope to restore some luster to America's standing. Adherents--mostly critics of current U.S. Middle East policy--urge Washington to distance itself from Israel, get out of Iraq, and abandon President Bush's revolutionary talk about promoting freedom in Iran.

If Djerejian's panel is smart, it will reject all three approaches.

Yes, many Muslims do disagree with aspects of our Middle East policy, but selling out our friends, like Israel, to suit our critics is just an invitation to blackmail.

Yes, winning the war on terror is vital for U.S. security, but our anti-terror campaign will require local partners to ensure that the terrorists are on the run, not just underground.

And yes, values matter, but most Muslims aren't teeny-boppers who can be swayed by a rap artist from the 'hood who extols the virtues of Islam. Incidentally, the State Department really does spend tax money on promoting a Muslim rap group, Native Deen, whose lead singer, Joshua Salaam, is civil rights director for the Hamas-friendly Council for American-Islamic Relations. Salaam once praised the terrorists who blew up the USS Cole for having "a lot of guts to attack the United States military." Very ironic, of course, as is the fact that Salaam himself served four years in the U.S. Air Force.