In Mideast, New Ways to Tell U.S. Side of the Story
From an office inside what used to be the kitchen in Saddam Hussein’s palace, Nabeel Khoury takes the heat in one of the toughest political jobs in Baghdad: defending America in the Arab media.
“It’s a struggle, it’s a fight, but it’s one I enjoy,” Khoury, 53, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. The Lebanese-born political science professor turned diplomat served as a consul general in Casablanca, Morocco, before being pulled into the epicenter of the U.S. effort to counter anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.
Some days, Khoury is the lone Arabic-speaking American seen jousting with critics of the United States on the Al Jazeera television channel. His duties include shooting down misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories while trying to win friends or at least influence a skeptical audience.
Much is riding on Khoury’s efforts and those of his colleagues in the State Department’s Office of Public Diplomacy, the group responsible for America’s international public relations.
After a failed advertising campaign in the Middle East and then the war in Iraq, which most people in the region opposed, the Bush administration is struggling to find a better way to communicate. Plans call for new messages as well as new messengers -- including launching an Arabic-language satellite television station to compete with Qatar-based Al Jazeera.
The administration’s critics argue that the United States can do little to improve its image without major changes in unpopular policies, especially its close alliance with Israel. But some conservatives blame the State Department for doing a bad job of selling what should be an appealing message of freedom and democracy.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the charge in the spring, calling for an overhaul of the State Department, which he branded treasonous for its failure to advance U.S. interests abroad. Others chimed in.
“State is overgrown and plagued by poor organization, scarce resources and a culture of slow, secretive deliberation,” Stephen Johnson and Helle Dale of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in a recent essay.
“Unless public diplomacy is adequately reorganized and protected within State’s creaky hierarchy, it will rust into oblivion until the far-off day that the department itself gets an overhaul,” they wrote.
Some State Department and other Bush administration officials argue that the U.S. can use reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush’s belated engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a more sustained and better-funded effort to communicate U.S. positions to rebuild goodwill.
But they warn that a patient, long-term approach will be required to counter a widespread perception of American arrogance.
“You can’t hurry love,” said Patricia Harrison, acting head of the State Department’s public diplomacy office. “People need to be able to understand who we are, and we need to listen to them.”
Harrison replaced Charlotte Beers, a high-powered advertising executive who resigned in March, citing health reasons. Beers, who once sold Uncle Ben’s rice to America, brought Madison Avenue to Washington.
In 2002, she launched the administration’s first effort to actively sell the United States in the Muslim world, a program called “Shared Values.” It produced television advertisements featuring the lives of five U.S. Muslims in an effort to showcase American values, including freedom and religious tolerance.
But the ads, one of which showed a female marathon runner in shorts, were deemed insensitive or condescending by some Muslim commentators. Egypt -- one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid -- refused to air them.
One of Beers’ less-well-known initiatives was the creation of an office in London to brief the Arab media and provide responses to queries keyed to the Middle Eastern news cycle, so that Washington would not have to wait a day to air its point of view. Administration officials pointed to the London office, where Khoury also served before being sent to Baghdad, as a major improvement in the way they are working with the Arab media.
Six months after Beers’ resignation, no permanent successor has been named.
Several sources confirmed that the job has been offered to Margaret Tutwiler, the former State Department spokeswoman who is now the U.S. ambassador to Morocco.
Tutwiler, who served briefly as spokeswoman for the administration of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner in Baghdad, is expected to take up the post this fall. She declined to comment for this article.
Congress also is getting involved, turning to respected former diplomat Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria.
Djerejian, now head of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, has named a diverse team of experts to help him evaluate what kind of message would work in the Muslim world.
Anger at the United States in Arab countries is so deep, however, that it is unclear whether better public relations will make much of a difference. A June poll of 16,000 people by the Pew Global Attitudes Project found that the percentage holding a favorable view of the United States has dropped sharply in 14 major Middle East countries since last summer.
Pollster John Zogby, who studies public opinion in many Arab nations and has been named to Djerejian’s advisory commission, said American popularity was at “rock bottom.” Fifteen months ago, his polling found, many Middle Easterners disliked U.S. policy toward Israel but liked American people, values, science, technology and democracy.
“Now, they just don’t like us,” Zogby said. “To me, that spells failure.”
Hostility toward U.S. policies is also spilling over into rejection of American products, Zogby has found. In Egypt, the percentage of those polled who had a favorable view of American products dropped from 50% in 2002 to just 27% in February 2003. In Lebanon, it plunged from 72% to 24%. A total of 2,600 people were polled in the two countries, with a margin of error of between 3.8% and 4.5%
The Pew poll found that majorities in seven Muslim nations were “very” or “somewhat” concerned about a potential military threat from the United States.
Although the administration is still searching for answers, there are plans for much more government-sponsored media, if funding can be found. New FM transmitters will soon be broadcasting U.S.-owned, Arabic-language Radio Sawa in more areas of Iraq. A glossy U.S.-run youth magazine called Hi has appeared on newsstands in Baghdad.
Khoury called the magazine “a more effective way of reaching youth in the region” but said it was still an experiment. “It appeals to people who are already at least partially Westernized,” he said. “It doesn’t appeal to die-hard Islamists or traditional people.”
Congress has approved $30 million to launch an Arabic-language satellite television channel as an answer to Al Jazeera. But with an estimated start-up cost of $60 million, it is unclear when it could start broadcasting.
Liberals and conservatives outside government agree that public diplomacy is underfunded, getting just 9% of the State Department budget. But it is unclear whether Congress will provide more money.
In Baghdad, Khoury is also helping to develop programming for the Iraq Media Network, the former state-run broadcaster now funded by the U.S. occupation authority.
The network is not very popular with Iraqis, many of whom regard it as boring and patronizing. Once a week, Khoury briefs Iraqi and other regional media in Arabic. And he has begun visiting some of the 150 newspapers that have sprung up in Iraq.
“You need to be able to engage people. Not just spout the official line, but really respond to what they are saying,” Khoury said.
“In the Arab world right now, there is so much misunderstanding that no matter what the U.S. does, there is the worst possible interpretation.”
When Saddam Hussein’s two sons were killed, many Iraqis refused to believe that they were dead, insisting that photos of their bodies had been doctored. And Khoury says he is frequently asked whether the Americans have Hussein hidden away.
“Sometimes I take it seriously, and other times I chuckle and say, ‘I haven’t heard that one before.’ They have a hard time thinking the U.S. can be benevolent in this region.”
The State Department aims to revitalize programs cut back or abandoned during the 1990s. When the U.S. Information Agency, or USIA, was folded into the State Department in 1999, Arabic-language magazines were closed. Translation of American books into Arabic was all but halted.
Now, department officials speak of expanding programs in partnership with other nations, focusing on democracy-building issues and expanding traditional educational, cultural and political exchange programs.
“What you’re talking about is building up an army of goodwill” among the most talented members of society, Harrison said. “They eventually turn out to be Kofi Annan, Margaret Thatcher and Hamid Karzai,” she said, referring to the U.N. secretary-general, the former British prime minister and the president of Afghanistan.
The exchanges are seen as vital by many diplomats, who say young visitors to the United States often become leaders in their countries and fighters for democracy.
But such visits are now hampered by tough visa restrictions put in place after the Sept. 11 attacks, embarrassing and embittering some of the very foreigners whose hearts and minds the U.S. hopes to win.
Brookings Institution scholar Shibley Telhami, another member of Djerejian’s panel, says the United States should build up centers of American studies in Middle Eastern schools and universities, invest in cultural, educational and religious exchanges and provide unbiased information to local media.
The notion that the U.S. need not change its Middle East policies but merely put a better “spin” on them is doomed to fail, Telhami argues.
But Khoury feels that promoting dialogue and understanding is valuable, whatever the U.S. policy. He tells Iraqis that of course the U.S. has its national interests but that they may coincide with those of the Iraqi people.
“To be intellectually honest, you have to admit that sometimes no matter what you do with a product, if people don’t want the product, it’s not going to go,” he said. “But what is important is being able to talk about it.”