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The War of Arabic Words Is Former U.S. Diplomat's Arena

Culture: Language specialist was plucked out of retirement to talk back to the Taliban via Al Jazeera TV.


WASHINGTON — Two months ago, Christopher Ross was languishing in diplomatic exile, his 30-year career as a foreign service officer topped out with two ambassadorships and the proverbial gold watch. Following the catastrophe he saw that awful Tuesday on television in his Capitol Hill townhouse, he wondered, like most Americans, what he could do.

But unlike most Americans, Ross had a skill that could help the U.S. government but was dismissed when he was nudged into retirement two years ago at age 55: He is reputed to be the most fluent nonnative Arab speaker in the diplomatic corps, an American conversant in many dialects of a complex tongue, a man said to speak Arabic better than some Arabs do.

It wasn't long before former colleagues at the State Department were floating his name. The U.S. was losing the public relations war with Osama bin Laden, whose videotaped diatribes were making a splash in the Muslim world with no one to deliver the American counterpoint.

Now Ross is back as chief interlocutor, giving voice to America's policy in a region where many detest the world's only remaining superpower. Before he had time to move into his new office, he was on the Arab television station Al Jazeera, responding to Bin Laden's latest exhortations in flawless Arabic for 35 million viewers.

"He is very well positioned to lead the effort to tell our story in the Arab world," said Robin L. Raphel, senior vice president of the National Defense University in Washington. "He is already familiar with the culture and language. He's ideal, really, for this kind of work."

Ross' rise from bureaucratic castoff to diplomatic hot property illustrates a public relations turnabout where America's muddied name has gone largely undefended.

"It says we should have been doing this all along," Edward S. Walker, president of the Middle East Institute in Washington, said of the renewed appreciation for Ross' talent. "We should have sensitivity to what people are saying and thinking in the region. We haven't listened."

Now the Bush administration is scurrying to reclaim lost ground, bringing on advertising whiz Charlotte Beers, who launched her career marketing Uncle Ben's rice, to lead the public diplomacy charge. But this isn't a side dish they are selling, it is unpopular American foreign policy in a language in which one poorly chosen word or image can deliver devastating consequences.

Which is where Ross comes in, hired by Beers not only to translate American posture into Arabic prose but also to explain the Arab and Muslim mind-set to an administration trying to improve America's image. It is a job experts say will require more than flawless language skills, as evidenced by some harsh reviews after his maiden Al Jazeera appearance.

"His performance was terrible. He was repeating himself, sticking to the talking points. He was like a robot who speaks Arab," said Moua Fac Harb, Washington bureau chief of Al Harat, a London-based Arab newspaper. "He has great communication skills, people like him and he's a wonderful guy. But sending someone who speaks the language is not enough to win the media war."

Ross too was less than pleased with his television debut, which consisted of reading a script drafted at the highest levels with no room for deviation.

"It wasn't possible for Al Jazeera to arrange a TelePrompTer, so I ended up having to read it, which gives a very stiff appearance," Ross said. "That is one lesson learned."

Still, even a stilted performance was better than the vacuum that existed a month ago, he said. Now Bin Laden is no longer dominating the communication war, he said.

"It took a while for us to get up to speed, but . . . I think he is beginning to lose his edge," Ross said, referring to the accused terror mastermind's second video appearance, which drew far less global attention than his first. "He looked very distracted, very ill at ease, and I think the fact that I was there to counter that statement almost point by point helped defuse it. . . . I think we're easily his match at this point in the war of words."

Seen by Some Arabs as a State Dept. 'Stooge'

Yet despite his proficiency in Arabic, Ross is still an agent of the State Department, perceived as a "stooge" by Arab and Muslim populations that trust neither government nor the media, experts said. Moreover, he is not a Muslim.

"In this case, the messengers are as important as the message," said Sandra Charles of C&O Resources Inc., an international consulting firm specializing in the Middle East. "It can't just be Chris and it can't just be Americans. We need to find people in the Muslim world as well."

But experts agree Ross serves an invaluable purpose as a direct channel from the Bush administration to the Muslim world, unfiltered by overseas translation and spin. It is a job he seemed destined for since childhood.

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