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America's message to Muslim world

Authors: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, and Craig Charney, President, Charney Research
June 20, 2006
The Boston Globe

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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shocked Indonesia during a recent trip. Instead of focusing on familiar US-Indonesia issues—terrorism, business, and military ties—Rice promised funds for an Indonesian version of “Sesame Street.” The Muslim nation saw her unveil America’s newest agent abroad—a big red puppet named Elmo. A local blogger wrote, “This is one export the US can be truly proud of.”

The news from the Muslim world is not that anti-Americanism has grown—that’s old hat. The real news is that America’s image in Muslim lands is starting to get better. Government and corporations are re tooling US public diplomacy in the Middle East, South Asia, and Southeast Asia, with encouraging results. Still, America’s overseas communication efforts remain paltry compared with private-sector marketing campaigns. Puppet diplomacy can help, but restoring America’s image will take much more.

Although Americans have seen numerous reports of growing anti-Americanism in Arab and Muslim lands since 2001, this is not the whole story. In focus groups conducted for the Council on Foreign Relations in Egypt, Morocco, and Indonesia, people still admired American education, science, economic strength, and law. Moreover, polls show that immediate local issues—education, political change, corruption, and job opportunities—concern most Muslims more than Iraq and the West Bank.

These findings suggest bases for a more effective public diplomacy. America’s message in the Muslim world should be: partners in development and democracy. Since Karen Hughes became under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs last year, she has begun to craft a message about reform and change.

Secretary Rice’s speech to Jakarta intellectuals stressing partnership in education and healthcare was another notable change. The US Agency for International Development has launched a pilot program plugging its good works in Indonesia. The recent earthquake there was followed by widely-reported American relief efforts, too.

Together with America’s generous, well-publicized relief after the devastating 2004 tsunami, these efforts have turned around perceptions of America among Indonesians. The latest poll shows 44 percent are favorable to America and 41 percent unfavorable. That's quite a shift from the 85 percent unfavorable—15 percent favorable ratio found in a 2003 poll.

Realizing that anti-Americanism is bad for business, the private sector is also getting involved. Hughes encouraged US business leaders to contribute $100 million to earthquake-stricken Pakistan, while ExxonMobil, M cDonald’s, Microsoft, and other big firms formed Business for Diplomatic Action, which seeks to rebuild bridges overseas.

This good news is obviously welcome, but much remains to be done. The worldwide US public diplomacy budget is only $350 million— one-fifth of Coke’s global ad spending for its products.

Of course, a new American approach to communicating with Muslims faces obstacles. One cause of Muslim outrage is the gap between America’s democratic rhetoric and the reality of Washington’s support for authoritarian leaders in the Islamic world. Our talk of democracy and reform will not be credible if it is just spin; it must be reflected in deeds, too.

Moreover, there are limits to even the best communication effort. Policy differences over Iraq, and the war on terror (which, to many Muslims, looks like a war on Islam) affect how Egyptians, Pakistanis, and other Muslims see America.

Nevertheless, the evidence indicates that renewed US efforts have started to change Muslim minds about America. Greater success will take more public and private resources, along with tact and creativity. Reaching the Muslim world demands a more serious effort by America to put its best foot forward—even if it is a red and furry one.

Craig Charney is president of Charney Research, a polling firm, and a consultant to the Council on Foreign Relations. Steven A. Cook is the Douglas Dillon fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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