A Bush-appointed panel reported last week that the United States’ approval rating among Muslims has reached an all-time low. In just the last year, support for the U.S. among Indonesians dropped from 61 percent to the 15 percent, while a mere 7 percent of the Saudi Arabian public holds favorable views of America. The reasons? You can take your pick, but high on the list are the United States’ unilateral war on Iraq and its perceived bias toward Israel and against the Palestinians.
Having digested the report, editorialists nationwide piled on, saying the Bush administration is doing a lousy job promoting the country overseas, and suggesting ways of improving its standing in the Muslim world.
Significant increases in hostility towards the U.S. should come as no surprise, notes Michael Holtzman in the New York Times. Holtzman, who served as a public affairs advisor to the U.S. trade representative during the Clinton administration, pokes fun at several of the U.S. government’s attempts (so far, ineffective) to convey its message in the region.
Take Iraq. There a U.S. Army unit has taken to festooning the streets with posters of Saddam Hussein’s face superimposed over the bodies of Elvis Presley, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Rita Hayworth and Billy Idol (the last also happens to be wearing a crucifix). “Other than offending Muslims by depicting scantily clad women and Christian symbols,” asks Holtzman, “what does this campaign hope to achieve?” The State Department has also started a cultural magazine called Hi, desingned to appeal to Muslim youth. Selling for “as much as $2 in places with per capita incomes as low as $930 a year,” Holtzman wonders how much of a hit the magazine could really be.
Holtzman proposes ways of closing the gap of misunderstanding in Iraq. First, the Bush administration must extend its P.R. campaign into the realm of everyday life, which requires the participation of ordinary Americans, not just that of government officials:
“Washington should put its money into helping American doctors, teachers, businesses, religious leaders, athletic teams and entertainers go abroad and provide the sorts of services the people of the Middle East are eager for.”
Second, the U.S. government should try to use independent media outlets in the region such as Al Jazeera rather than complain about their anti-American slant.
David Hoffman, president of Internews Network, argues a similar point in the Christian Science Monitor. People in the Middle East have lived with propaganda long enough to know it when they see it, notes Hoffman. This is especially true of Iraqis, who have been “fed a steady diet of propaganda under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein,” and are therefore “exquisitely sensitive to being manipulated by government media.” He says America would do well to cultivate independent papers and TV stations, as well as train journalists in the region to produce news according to international standards. As previous experiences in Eastern Europe and other parts of the world have shown, such efforts are more likely to encourage freedom and democracy in the region “than any number of advertisements about American values.”
If the report made one thing clear, it’s that the Bush administration doesn’t “talk” enough to the rest of the world, often dismissing criticism out of hand and rarely if ever bothering to explain its actions. Editorials call for more meaningful dialogue. Arab pundits cite actual U.S. policies toward the Middle East as the root cause of the problem, and they don’t see room for improvement until these change. The people of the region particularly need an explanation for America’s unconditional support for Israel, which is widely believed to be the main source of Arab and Muslim resentment towards America.
Recent events perfectly illustrate why Arabs and Muslims think America has a double standard when it comes to Israel. Yesterday, Israel launched an air strike against an alleged terrorist base in Syria. Bush has so far held off criticizing Ariel Sharon’s government. Similarly, Arab states last week accused the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of ignoring Israel’s alleged weapons of mass destruction while pressuring Iran to prove that it is not developing a nuclear program.
Clearly the White House hasn’t yet absorbed the lessons of last week’s report. Never one to take outside criticism, the president should consider that it was his handpicked panel that came up with these findings. There’s no obvious excuse for dismissing its recommendations, and the price of inaction could be very high.