A study group appointed by the State Department last spring to explore America’s image in the Arab and Muslim world came back this week with a sobering if unsurprising conclusion: America is none too popular in those precincts, and our unpopularity is dangerous to our health.
“Hostility toward America has reached shocking levels,” the study group, chaired by former assistant secretary of state Edward Djerejian, said in its report. To counter it, the panel recommends massive increases in spending on what it calls “public diplomacy” — outreach to the Arab and Muslim publics to explain America’s case. Right now, America spends just pennies to make its case to an Arab and Muslim public of some 1.5 billion people that is bombarded daily with intensely hostile print and television imagery and rarely hears the other side. If we want to be heard, we need to speak up. It’s not rocket science.
The panel came under criticism from the right even before it started its work, as our Ori Nir reported in July, because of the links of some of its members to the Arab world or, in a few cases, to the cause of Israeli-Arab reconciliation, which to some minds comes to the same thing. The fear of the critics, led by the Zionist Organization of America, was that the panel would come back with criticisms of Israel and calls for the administration to tailor its policies toward the Palestinian cause.
It turns out the fear was misplaced. The panel states outright in its report that the “Arab-Israeli conflict remains a visible and significant point of contention between the United States and many Arab and Muslim countries,” and says that “peace in that region, as well as the transformation of Iraq, would reduce tensions.” But those issues were outside the panel’s mandate, the report says. It limits its discussion to the things that can be done right now, given the inherent conflicts of values and interests as they now exist, to reduce tensions and explain our cause better. America can make itself heard, the panel says, but it needs to make the effort.
For all that, there is an ideological subtext to the panel’s report. It’s based on the premise, inherent in the much-maligned work of diplomats, that dialogue and communication can help reduce tensions between people, nations and cultures. That is a simple truth in human relations that’s all but disappeared from America’s diplomatic vocabulary these days.