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In Mideast, New Ways to Tell U.S. Side of the Story

Plans call for an Arabic- language TV station, among other strategies. But anger is so deep in the region that better PR may have little effect.

September 12, 2003|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — From an office inside what used to be the kitchen in Saddam Hussein's palace, Nabeel Khoury takes the heat in one of the toughest political jobs in Baghdad: defending America in the Arab media.

"It's a struggle, it's a fight, but it's one I enjoy," Khoury, 53, said in a telephone interview from Baghdad. The Lebanese-born political science professor turned diplomat served as a consul general in Casablanca, Morocco, before being pulled into the epicenter of the U.S. effort to counter anti-Americanism in the Muslim world.

Some days, Khoury is the lone Arabic-speaking American seen jousting with critics of the United States on the Al Jazeera television channel. His duties include shooting down misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories while trying to win friends or at least influence a skeptical audience.

Much is riding on Khoury's efforts and those of his colleagues in the State Department's Office of Public Diplomacy, the group responsible for America's international public relations.

After a failed advertising campaign in the Middle East and then the war in Iraq, which most people in the region opposed, the Bush administration is struggling to find a better way to communicate. Plans call for new messages as well as new messengers -- including launching an Arabic-language satellite television station to compete with Qatar-based Al Jazeera.

The administration's critics argue that the United States can do little to improve its image without major changes in unpopular policies, especially its close alliance with Israel. But some conservatives blame the State Department for doing a bad job of selling what should be an appealing message of freedom and democracy.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich led the charge in the spring, calling for an overhaul of the State Department, which he branded treasonous for its failure to advance U.S. interests abroad. Others chimed in.

"State is overgrown and plagued by poor organization, scarce resources and a culture of slow, secretive deliberation," Stephen Johnson and Helle Dale of the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in a recent essay.

"Unless public diplomacy is adequately reorganized and protected within State's creaky hierarchy, it will rust into oblivion until the far-off day that the department itself gets an overhaul," they wrote.

Some State Department and other Bush administration officials argue that the U.S. can use reconstruction of Iraq and Afghanistan, Bush's belated engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a more sustained and better-funded effort to communicate U.S. positions to rebuild goodwill.

But they warn that a patient, long-term approach will be required to counter a widespread perception of American arrogance.

"You can't hurry love," said Patricia Harrison, acting head of the State Department's public diplomacy office. "People need to be able to understand who we are, and we need to listen to them."

Harrison replaced Charlotte Beers, a high-powered advertising executive who resigned in March, citing health reasons. Beers, who once sold Uncle Ben's rice to America, brought Madison Avenue to Washington.

In 2002, she launched the administration's first effort to actively sell the United States in the Muslim world, a program called "Shared Values." It produced television advertisements featuring the lives of five U.S. Muslims in an effort to showcase American values, including freedom and religious tolerance.

But the ads, one of which showed a female marathon runner in shorts, were deemed insensitive or condescending by some Muslim commentators. Egypt -- one of the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid -- refused to air them.

One of Beers' less-well-known initiatives was the creation of an office in London to brief the Arab media and provide responses to queries keyed to the Middle Eastern news cycle, so that Washington would not have to wait a day to air its point of view. Administration officials pointed to the London office, where Khoury also served before being sent to Baghdad, as a major improvement in the way they are working with the Arab media.

Six months after Beers' resignation, no permanent successor has been named.

Several sources confirmed that the job has been offered to Margaret Tutwiler, the former State Department spokeswoman who is now the U.S. ambassador to Morocco.

Tutwiler, who served briefly as spokeswoman for the administration of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner in Baghdad, is expected to take up the post this fall. She declined to comment for this article.

Congress also is getting involved, turning to respected former diplomat Edward P. Djerejian, a former ambassador to Israel and Syria.

Djerejian, now head of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University, has named a diverse team of experts to help him evaluate what kind of message would work in the Muslim world.

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