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U.S. Works to Improve Image in Muslim World

June 27, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And now to Jeffrey Brown for a look at the effort to improve how the United States is seen, specifically in the Muslim world.

JEFFREY BROWN: In an event filled with symbolism, President Bush returned today to the Islamic Center in Washington, his first visit to the mosque and cultural center since the week of 9/11.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I’ve invested the heart of my presidency in helping Muslims fight terrorism and claim their liberty. I will appoint a special envoy to the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This is the first time a president has made such an appointment to the OIC.

Our special envoy will listen to and learn from representatives from Muslim states and will share with them America’s views and values.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the president, it was the latest effort in what is known as public diplomacy, particularly focused on winning hearts and minds in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Veteran Bush political adviser Karen Hughes was appointed undersecretary of state and put in charge of that effort in 2005.

KAREN HUGHES, Undersecretary of State: America’s public diplomacy should be as much about listening and understanding as it is about speaking. I’m eager to listen and to learn.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hughes has since made a number of trips to the Middle East and to every continent except Australia. Her office has focused its attention on the areas of education and exchanges and what it calls the “diplomacy of deeds.” One example: after an earthquake struck Pakistan, killing some 73,000 people, international aid rushed in, and so did Hughes, touring hospitals and reassuring residents.

KAREN HUGHES: America has a longstanding, ongoing commitment to Pakistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hughes has also brought women leaders and others from around the world to Washington to share ideas. In May, Hughes issued the first- ever national strategy for public diplomacy and strategic communication. Among its key objectives: offering a positive vision of hope and opportunity that is rooted in our most basic values; and working to isolate and marginalize violent extremists.

Views of U.S. efforts

JEFFREY BROWN: Alina Romanowski helped formulate that strategy as deputy assistant secretary of state of professional and cultural exchanges. She joined the State Department four years ago to direct the president's Middle East Partnership Initiative.

Also with us is Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat chair for peace and development at the University of Maryland, and a senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution.

Well, Alina Romanowski, Andy Kohut used the word, I think, "entrenched" for negative attitudes towards the U.S. in the Middle East. Does that suggest that whatever we are doing is not working?

ALINA ROMANOWSKI, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State: I think our public diplomacy strategy is an effort that is a long-term effort. It's an effort that requires a focused engagement with people-to-people dialogue, with programs that bring together American people and people of the world.

We're focused, again, as Undersecretary Hughes said, in three priority areas. One is education and exchanges. The other one is to modernize our communication with the world and with people of the world. And, finally, the diplomacy of deeds.

When you look at education and exchanges, it is an opportunity for us to bring people from around the world to the United States, both for education, but also to engage with our public, to see America for what it is, for the diversity that this country has, and for the values and democratic values that our country represents and works on so steadily all the time and throughout our community. So our exchange programs allow us to do that. And it is a long-term effort.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you, Shibley Telhami, you travel to the Middle East a lot and you look at public opinion. How do you assess the administration's efforts to reach people?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI, University of Maryland: Well, you know, let's put it in a little bit of perspective here. I think we're expecting too much of public diplomacy. Even if you put the best people in the world in charge of public diplomacy or all the resources in the world, if it's running against a policy, a foreign policy that's not working, a foreign policy that's unpopular, public diplomacy is going to lose every day of the week.

You can tell people around the world through exchanges and media that we're for democracy and human rights, and you have one episode of Abu Ghraib prison that is going to outweigh everything that we do. You can tell them we're for democracy and stability, and then they see Iraq and the disaster that it is, and everything else they'll forget.

You can have nice words like we just heard today from the president. They were wonderful words. But when they don't trust the United States, when the trust isn't there -- and the vast majority of people, according not only to the Pew, but also the polls that I've done with, with Zogby International -- do not trust the president. They dislike him. They think the United States is their number-one threat. Then, of course, they're not going to trust the words.

So I think we're expecting too much of public diplomacy and, even under the best of circumstances, that's going to account for maybe 10 percent to 20 percent of the difference.

Public diplomacy and policy

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, there was a hearing on this subject recently, when one of the congressmen said, "It's the policy, stupid." Now, you know, obviously meaning that, as you say, that it is the policy drives the public opinion here. Do you buy that? What does that mean for your effort?

ALINA ROMANOWSKI: For our effort, it means that, when we look at our public diplomacy programs, and we talk and we do our evaluations, and we talk both anecdotally but also doing the studies that we do to analyze the impact that it has, we've found that, in fact, 87 percent of the people who come on many of our programs understand the United States and Americans much better.

Our programs put these people in touch with Americans, with people on the ground. They see that our community has different views, has debates, solves problems at the community level, at the state level, at the national level. We're able to build through these people-to-people exchanges networks that then oftentimes continue for a long time.

Earlier in the program, you were talking about Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy. They are all alumni of our exchange programs many years ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the idea would be to do that with students now in the Middle East?

ALINA ROMANOWSKI: We have a number of programs that bring students from the Middle East here at the high school level. They spend a year in our high schools. They come here having certain ideas about the United States. They spend a year in our high schools living with our families, and they leave with a really deep appreciation of what America stands for and the difference of views that build and make -- that are the strength of our country.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what's a specific thing that is not happening that you think should happen?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Once you move away from the expectations that public diplomacy is going to change, transform people's opinion in the Middle East about the United States, then what they're doing is actually the right thing. The programs that Alina suggested actually have an impact over time. It's a long-term strategy, as she stated, not a short-term strategy.

It should be that way, because when we look at the polls, particularly of opinion towards the United States, if you look for a segment of the public that has a slightly more favorable view toward the United States, it is that segment of the public which says, "I have visited the U.S. I have relatives who visited the U.S. or studied in the U.S. and know a lot of Americans."

The more interactions, the more likely you are to be positive. And even more than that, I think public diplomacy should be a reservoir, not something that is going to affect policy immediately. It should be for building a reservoir of relations that would stand crises and bad policies in the short term.

It used to be where people would say, "Look, I don't like American foreign policy, but I love America. I love the American people." That gap is narrowing; that scares me.

JEFFREY BROWN: That, too, is down.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Public diplomacy should protect that space. It should protect that space, because that's the space that we have that withstand periods of crisis.

Explaining how policy is made

JEFFREY BROWN: But there is the critique -- and I think you were alluding to it earlier -- that public diplomacy can be a way of putting a friendly face on what is seen by many as a bad policy.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: And I think what my worry here in our domestic debate is often it is used to escape responsibility. When we have these -- we mount these efforts and say, "We're going to" -- you know, it's as if much of the public opinion in the Middle East is really a function of our failing to tell how our story the way we should tell it. Well, that's maybe part of it, a small part of it.

But the bottom line is, we ought to take responsibility for our policies. Iraq, you know, we don't have a problem of Al-Jazeera in Germany, or France, or Latin America, or other parts of the world that the Pew survey showed don't have a faith in American foreign policy. And yet we have the same problem.

It's not specific to the Muslim world, although it's more intense in the Muslim world, for the reasons that the United States is involved in these places in a way that affects their lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wanted to jump in?

ALINA ROMANOWSKI: Yes, I wanted to jump in and say that, on the issue of policy, these exchange programs and the ability for us to send American citizens also abroad to engage with people overseas is also a way to explain our policy. It's a way to explain how policy is made, what are in U.S. national interests. It's an opportunity, also, for people to come here and understand the debate that goes on, the vibrant debate that our democracy has.

And when we look at -- when we ask people, where do they want to go? They want to come to the United States. Our numbers, in terms of issuing visas for students to study abroad here, has now been at an all-time high from right after 9/11. This year, we issued close to 591,000 student visas, which is the highest since 9/11, so we've turned that around.

There are many people who, when they have a chance to come to the United States, would like to come. We've had an opportunity also to expand our cultural and sports diplomacy programs that reach out to a completely different audience than we used to, a very important younger audience.

Reaching all levels of society

JEFFREY BROWN: We only have about 30 seconds, but a lot of those programs, to the extent that they go to, say, college students, can the man and woman on the street be reached?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Look, I mean, if you look at the scale, it's an enormous scale. You have to put a lot into it; you'd have to do it at every level of society.

I think what they're doing in exchanges is important. I think exchanges are far more meaningful than any television strategy or public relations strategy, because you need to reach the segments of society, at all levels of society, in order to tell the story.

And, more importantly, it's not that people are going to love America. America isn't going to -- it's going to become more normalized, and therefore people are going to be able to pass a normal judgment about it. Some things they like; some things they don't like. But all the evidence shows that people who are involved in exchanges have differing views from those who don't.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, Shibley Telhami and Alina Romanowski, thank you both very much.

ALINA ROMANOWSKI: Thank you very much.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: A pleasure.