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Make the Case to the World

October 18, 2003

The global outpouring of grief and support the United States received after the 9/11 attacks was unforgettable. It seemed then that nations far and wide were ready to stand as one in saying that terrorism was despicable and that drastic steps needed to be taken against it. How did the U.S. squander such invaluable international goodwill, and what can be done about it?

These are issues just tackled by a State Department panel, which offered unsurprising but sound recommendations. The advisory panel said in its report, released this month, that it made no sense to take on the whole problem of the United States' loss of favor -- a major dip recorded, for example, by a 49-nation Pew Global Attitude poll of 66,000 people. Though "hostility toward America has reached shocking levels," especially in the Muslim world, said the report from the panel, led by Edward Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

At a time when the U.S. will spend billions of dollars on military and reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the panel, known as the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World, sensibly said more also must be spent on reaching ordinary citizens to explain to them U.S. history, culture and values -- the definition of public diplomacy. Without this context and background, and with the U.S. involved militarily in the Mideast and other Arab and Islamic hot spots, it is all too easy for the barber and the homemaker to misunderstand the United States and its motives, the group said.

It was one thing for the U.S. to dump Cold War-style propaganda campaigns over the past few decades and quite another to lose exchange programs, exhibits of American art, concerts with top U.S. performers and U.S. reading rooms and libraries abroad that educated about the United States without hectoring.

Besides pressing the State Department to step up its efforts, the panel recommended that a top White House official act as coordinator. The Bush administration should also recognize and begin to remedy the appalling lack of expertise and knowledge in the U.S. about Arab and Islamic culture, tradition and language.

This work will require more thought than, say, the mindless Madison Avenue pap that was a such flop during ad executive Charlotte Beers' tenure as undersecretary of State for public diplomacy. But as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright noted in a recent interview, "Our national interest depends on what other countries are thinking of us."

It won't be easy to bring about change amid deep-seated hostility, but that's why the U.S. needs to start now.

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