May 11, 2005
Public diplomacy in the Middle EastBy Joseph Ghougassian
What should the United States do to win the minds and hearts of people in the Middle East? Much of the world's media and most intellectual elites oppose us, probably the inevitable result of our unquestioned pre—eminence, militarily, economically, and culturally. Nowhere is this more true than in the Middle East, so there is a big job to be done. Fortunately, the right woman for the job has just been nominated by President Bush.
Public diplomacy is the art of selling a country's positions to overseas audiences. Karen Hughes, President Bush's trusted advisor, has been named head of the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy. Under the leadership of Secretary of State Rice and the new Under Secretary Hughes, a new American public diplomacy can bring about favorable social changes among the people in the Middle East, and a new attitude toward America and Americans.
The United States should focus its public diplomacy on our historic actions and achievements in Iraq, where facts speak louder than words. A majority of Iraqis do, in fact, credit America for their liberation from the tyranny of Saddam Hussein, for bringing democracy, free elections and freedom of the press, for instituting multi—party politics, for promoting multi—ethnic cooperation, for legislating human rights and a bill of individual rights, and for creating the opportunity for the people to approve their own constitution through a plebiscite.
The roots for changes in the Middle East are in Iraq. A strong, transparent, democratic and viable Iraq should become a lodestone for democratic changes and a surrogate for the US to achieve democratic changes in the Middle East (including Iran). This process of transformation has already begun. The Lebanese revolution is an offshoot of the political changes that have taken place in Iraq; Egypt's call for multi—political parties to participate in the next Presidential election is a consequence of the free elections that took place in Iraq on January 28, 2005.
As Iraqis continue to fight the Zarqawi terrorists, and gain a better, fairer, more prosperous society as a result, eventually other Arab citizens will ostracize the terrorists living among them. Islam traditionally does not condone the cruelty and criminality of these outcast Muslim infidels. Iraq is gradually but measurably turning into a model Arab democratic nation for other Arab nations to emulate.
Education is one key
American values like academic freedom, equality of opportunity regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or religion, the spirit of open and transparent competition, and the distribution of rewards based on merit have broad appeal in Iraq, a multi—ethnic, multi—religious society, long deprived of them. When I was with the Coalition Provisional Authority, I worked toward the rebuilding of higher education in Iraq as a means of demonstrating that these values could be brought into play quickly and effectively.
From personal knowledge I knew that Iraqi academicians needed to ameliorate their educational standards, which had historically been among the highest in the Arab world. These democratic values were non—existent in Saddam's educational system
Fulbright Scholarships, awarded to non—American students to study in United States higher educational institutions, were the first project in which these values were put into play in a highly visible manner, in order to teach Iraqi academicians about them, and institutionalize these values in higher education.
First of all, the terms, conditions, requirements, field of studies, deadlines, date of exams were all clearly listed for the candidates to qualify for the prized education in American universities, so no Iraqis were denied the equal opportunity to submit his/her Fulbright application or enter the competition.
In the past, foreign scholarships had been given to the Iraq Ministry of Education to manage and distribute them at its discretion. The end results were flagrant nepotism and corruption as the Ministry staff would sell the scholarships to the higher bidders. In fact, the Ministry tried to muscle the Fulbright Scholarhips from me to disperse them as it pleased. After a strong confrontation, the Ministry backed down.
Given the fact that postal and telephone services were virtually non—existent in Iraq, electronic/internet communication were scarce and primitive, and the security situation in the country was not stable, I decided to use whatever means of public communication were available to announce nationally the Fulbright Scholarships in a timely fashion. I developed a systematic program of public communication, writing scripts for TV stations, radio broadcasts, notices for newspapers, university flyers, and coordinating with the Ministry and universities.
Also, in order to minimize the misinformation that kept coming from the Ministry and various university campuses about the scholarships, I opened satellite centers of information in Basra, Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad, Sulaymania, Erbil and Mosul, managed by Coalition Provisional Authority staff. On a daily basis I communicated with individuals in the fields about requirements, application forms, date and location of the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language] exam, and a myriad of other issues. And I engaged in an aggressive email correspondence with thousand of applicants all over Iraq.
Furthermore, to help institutionalize and make transparent the process of deciding on scholarship recipients, I established two bi—national committees to evaluate and select the 25 finalists. Each committee was composed of four Americans and four Iraqis. This mechanism guaranteed, in the eyes of the Iraqi people and the applicants themselves, that the process would be fair, equitable and based on merit.
I was given a deadline of four weeks from the date of the public announcement to the date of the TOEFL exam. The State Department told me I would be lucky if 150 applicants took the TOEFL exam. In fact, close to 500 Iraqi students and professors appeared on the day of the exam. Also, I had to turn down through Internet correspondence thousands of applicants who did not meet the requirements. At least this time.
As in the case of the Fulbright scholarships, I applied the same public diplomacy framework in launching two other national educational programs: the Iraq Faculty Development Training program, and the creation of a new two years academic curriculum in Administration of Justice in Iraq's community colleges.
About the latter, I saw the needs for such new educational program. The values predicated by the public policy here centered on security in Iraq, on facilitating careers in law enforcement for dedicated, honest, and patriotic Iraqis, developing professionalism, instilling ethical accountability, and understanding the requirements of national security, 'new educational major', 'new employment opportunity', and 'new sourcing for decreasing American forces in Iraq'.
Mass media's role
Using Iraq as a model for democratic changes, the US sponsored Al—Hurra TV should design programs that promote to its Arab viewers the ideas of free elections, multi—party democracy, constitutionalism, elimination of corruption by officials, the rule of law and the idea that nobody is above the law, freedom of religion, human rights, ethnic tolerance, free market economy, equality between sexes, equality of opportunity in education and work place, and other such bedrocks of a free society.
Presently, Al—Hurra TV is weak, in disarray, timid in its programing, contributes little to public diplomacy, and is superfluous in comparison to the other local Arab networks. Al—Hurra TV needs a complete makeover.
It should develop programs that invite prominent Arab scholars to talk about some of the values I listed above, and also, invite Arab Americans to speak about their American experiences. The USA as a place of human dignity, individual rights, respect and economic opportunity needs to be seen by local audiences.
To counter the negative image many Arabs have about the US forces fighting in Iraq, Al—Hurra TV should develop programs that invite Arab American military personnel to speak about their experience in the US armed forces and their fighting of the terrorists in Iraq. Al—Hurra should also invite Iraqis to speak about the changes they are experiencing in their new life of freedom since the downfall of Saddam.
Al—Hurra TV should become a bit combative against the misperceptions and the false reporting spread by Al—Jazzira and Al—Arabia networks. Al—Hurra TV needs to develop programs modeled after American cable television talk shows, and take to task Al—Jazzira and Al—Arabia for not broadcasting negative reports about their owners' activities. An Arab version of Bill O'Reilly would never lack for subjects to put into a 'no—spin zone.'
Arabs in various countries must be able to communicate on such topics as democracy, human rights, freedom from political coercion, free elections, new constitution guaranteeing a bill of individual rights, and other matters of concern. Means to facilitate such discussions need to be invented, from sponsoring meetings to promoting websites, broadcasts, and other means. Possibly, a new set of American—style universities, colleges and community colleges in the Middle East in the Middle East can be fostered, much as the earlier American Universities in Beirut and Cairo were founded in earlier years.
The US should promote and help fund and support exchange programs between Israeli and Palestinian academicians, youth groups, corporate managers, professional associations, labor unions, mid—level government officials, and other groups The sooner the Israeli—Palestinian peace process yields results the better it would be for America in winning the minds and hearts of Arab and Muslim people.
The same exchange programs ought to extend to other Arab nations. The thorniest complaint levied by Arabs is that the US cares only about Israel. Neither Israeli officials nor Arab officials have the will power and wherewithal to create and fund the type of exchange programs which are necessary.
The US should also strongly encourage Iraq, Qatar, Oman and Morocco to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. These nations have already held some sorts of diplomatic and economic relations with Tel—Aviv.
As a final thought, I strongly believe that the messenger is as important, if not more important, than the message. To date we have paraded a host of ineffective officials to sell American policies in the Middle East. There is a curious yet unconscious ignorance on the part of our leadership in both political parties of the reality that Arab Americans could not be effective salesmen of American public diplomacy in the Middle East. Like many other ethnic groups, Arab Americans have prospered under the benefits of a free and open society. More than anyone else, they have the credibility and experience which can persuade their cousins in the Middle East of the benefits democracy, respect for human rights, capitalism, and peace can bring.
Joseph Ghougassian, Ph.D., J.D. is former US Ambassador to Qatar and member of the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq.