Winning Hearts and Minds
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TERENCE SMITH: To discuss the war of words we turn to Geoffrey Cowan, the director of the Voice of America during the Clinton Administration, is now dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Edmund Ghareeb is an adjunct professor of in the School of International Service at American University; Allen Weinstein is president of the Center for Democracy in Washington, D.C. And John Reinhardt, retired member of the Foreign Service, was director of the U.S. Information Agency in the Carter administration. Welcome to you all.
Allen Weinstein, the phrase “winning hearts and minds” of course goes back to Vietnam where we were less than completely successful. How do you think the U.S. is doing in getting its message out this time?
ALLEN WEINSTEIN, The Center for Democracy: I think the United States has been a bit slow out of the gate Terry. We are playing catch-up where there is a bit of defensive ball being played there but there are reasons for that. First of all the newness of the situation after September 11. The Voice of America, as your report indicated, got itself involved in a bit of a contretemps over the Mullah Omar reports. USIA — what used to be USIA – which is now in the State Department is cranking up. We still have no surrogate service the way we had during the Cold War. Remember during the Cold War, Voice of America alternated in tandem in terms of providing information to Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. The bill to create a Radio Free Afghanistan, which would serve that surrogate information purpose in Afghanistan, is moving its way through Congress at this stage in the game.
That I think is essential because one of the elements we have, one of the problems we have now in my view is the fact that we are literally trying to sort of catch up with the lies, the disinformation and the refusal to focus on our message. Lies and disinformation leave so-called 4,000 Jews– throughout the Arab world news reports said 4,000 Jews have not shown up at the World Trade Center. We whacked away at that but not adequately enough. Or that maybe the Mossad had been responsible for this bombing, again not adequately enough.
We have a Foreign Service. We have people in every country in the Arab and Islamic and Muslim world where we presumably have allies. Those folks should be out there, in my view at least, every day countering whatever lies and disinformation the first is the fact that as is sometimes said we’ve lost the Arab street. What is the Arab street? If you have 20,000 demonstrators out of a population of 100 million, in a country like Pakistan or more than 100 million, who is losing what?
Our founding father John Adams once was asked after the American Revolution, who supported it and who didn’t? He said about a third of the population supported it. About a third opposed it and about a third were waiting to see who won. I think that is a kind of emblematic statement on the Arab populations of the countries that we are concerned about. And they’re waiting to see who wins. If we project a sense of confidence, a sense of winning, using all of our resources, including our private resources, which haven’t begun to be tapped yet in the information war then I think we’ll do better.
TERENCE SMITH: Geoffrey Cowan, you are a former director of the VOA. What impact do you think it has and is having in the Muslim world?
GEOFFREY COWAN, University of Southern California: Well, I think it’s hugely important but I think it could be more important if it had more resources as Allen said. You need more resources for this kind of broadcasting. Back in the 1990s unfortunately the resources for international broadcasting were reduced significantly. We need more transmitters; we need more hours of broadcasting. We need more personnel to do it. But the great advantage of the Voice of America is that it’s so credible. As your report said, something like 80 percent of the people in — or the adult men in Afghanistan, the regular listeners to the Voice of America.
They know it to be truthful and accurate. Therefore, for years they’ve been listening to it. They know it tells you the bad and the good. Therefore when you want to combat lies, you have an accurate and credible organization to do it. One of the things I think we have to be aware of is that this is a worldwide phenomenon. What is being said in Indonesia, what is being said in Nigeria– this is an area in which we have to be in many languages all over the world through every transmission device possible.
TERENCE SMITH: John Reinhardt, how do you feel this country is doing in getting its message across and do you agree with the others that more is needed?
JOHN REINHARDT, Former USIA Director: I certainly agree with Allen when he said we are slow getting away from the gate. And there is a good reason for that as he explained. This is relatively new, little over a month. We do broadcast to the Muslim world, Arab world and it’s our single best medium of reaching people — radio is our single best medium of reaching people abroad in any language. We probably need to step it up. We almost certainly do. We need to broadcast more hours. We need better transmission, we need better technical facilities than we have now, but still it is the best way of reaching people.
TERENCE SMITH: Edmund Ghareeb, a former U.S. ambassador to the region was quoted the other day as saying that the U.S. Is simply not a player in the information sweepstakes in the Middle East. Is that so?
EDMUND GHAREEB, American University: I think to a large extent the United States has lost the information war a while ago. This has nothing to do with the recent events. It has a great deal to do with U.S. policies in the region, especially when it comes to policies for example towards Iraq, towards the Arab-Israeli conflict and some of the other related issues in the area.
But at the same time I think it is also important to remember there is not one view of the United States in the Middle East or in the Arab world or in the Islamic world. There are two different views. There’s one view that sees the United States as a country of freedom, of democracy, of principles, a country of great charity, the American people as being very friendly, very warm who are tolerant and open, so there is that image. There is also — many people love American films, they like American culture. They want to send their kids to the United States. So there is that one side, they want to send people to study here.
So on the other hand, there is the perspective that the United States has double standards when it comes to deal with the Middle Easterners, with Muslims and Arabs it, has one standard for its friend and it’s a powerful country, and a different standard for Muslims and Arabs. There is a perception that the lives of Westerners, Americans, Israelis, others are more valuable than the lives of Muslims and Arabs. This is a problem. This does not mean that this problem cannot be dealt with. It does not mean that not more could be done but I think this is something that has to be dealt with. We have to understand the issues then go from there to address this problem.
ALLEN WEINSTEIN: Terry, can I respond very briefly?
TERENCE SMITH: Yes. Allen Weinstein.
ALLEN WEINSTEIN: First of all I think the professor is correct — that there is a complex altitude toward the United States — part admiring and part filled with anger in some circles but I think — this early days. I don’t think we’ve lost anything in the Arab and Islamic world yet. The fact of the matter is that one message that is not getting through is we have in the last ten years defended Islamic populations three times at the cost of American lives — in Kuwait, in Bosnia, and in Kosovo, and Western lives generally. I don’t think that message has gotten near enough. I don’t think the message of September 11 has gotten through. I think the vivid reminder that Muslims died in as well as other ethnic groups in the World Trade Center, that message has not gotten through.
TERENCE SMITH: Let’s ask Edmund Ghareeb about that.
ALLEN WEINSTEIN: One more point. This new coordinating step by the White House that you mentioned in your brief is very important but not if people stand on the briefers’ platform. We have to go out into the field. We have to go out and confront those stations, those newspapers — we can’t let the double standard any longer. You have countries that are supposedly allies where the government sponsored press in Egypt and Saudi Arabia and elsewhere are printing simply lies about us that are not being responded to.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. Edmund Ghareeb, very quickly — are those points getting lost?
EDMUND GHAREEB: I think there are some points that are getting lost but on the one hand I want to say also that when I was talking – I was talking about pre 9/11. But I think more recently for example we saw that even the Palestinians critical of U.S. policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict there was a poll that showed that 64 percent of the Palestinians were — condemned attacks in New York. They said this is a violation of Islamic law. This is something that is very important.
There is a great deal of sympathy among the public, the Arab public also with the American public for these attacks. The majority of the people don’t support these kinds of activities. This is one important thing. The other point that I would like to say is that it’s very important to try to reach to these people and to know how to reach. They have to be reached by using their own media, trying to address their issues, trying not to dismiss their public opinions and try to also get people to talk to them, understand their language, their culture, their issues.
TERENCE SMITH: Geoffrey Cowan, what do you think of this idea of a Radio Free Afghanistan? Is that a good use of money and the right focus?
GEOFFREY COWAN: I think it depends how much money is available. If there is enough money to do everything I think it’s a good idea. And I certainly think that Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty played an important role in the Cold War. Of course, World War II, which is when the Voice of America was founded only had the one service it, performed every role that was needed for international broadcasting at that time.
I think there is a misunderstanding, though, about what Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty do versus what some people are asking for a Radio Free Afghanistan to do. Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty are designed to be accurate and balanced sources of information that seem to be coming from within the country that they are broadcasting to. They are not propagandistic in the sense some columnists have treated them. They are not just saying lay down your arms — otherwise you are going to all be killed. That is the kind of thing that Defense Department SIOPS operations do, that as your piece said is being done by commanders solo. And I think if that is the goal, then the Defense Department can do that but I wouldn’t ask either service to.
In my view, the most valuable thing we can do if we have any limitation in resources is to put into the one great worldwide service broadcasting in 52 languages with 60 years of the history and reputation for accuracy and balance I would put it into the Voice of America.
TERENCE SMITH: That is Voice of America. John Reinhardt, how do you combat the images that come out of civilian casualties and bomb damage that come out of Afghanistan? How do you put that in a context if you are the United States or if you are running the information end of things?
JOHN REINHARDT: These images are very difficult to combat, particularly in time of war. But you got to realize that there is a great backlog of information among peoples all over the world about the United States. This is not by accident. Many of these people have studied here. Many of them have come on exchange grants, vast contacts. There are, there are many peoples around the world who understand what we are like. Some like us, some don’t. But the backlog of goodwill is excellent.
TERENCE SMITH: You would tap into that somehow?
JOHN REINHARDT: I would certainly tap into that. We also must realize that there are other media in the United States that are read in the Middle East, that are listened to. CNN broadcasts for example. All of these are not images that we would like to have, but they are an image, are images that give a balanced picture of the United States.
TERENCE SMITH: And they are powerful. Gentlemen thank you all very much.