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Showing the world America's best side


WASHINGTON - After 9/11, when it became clear that there was widespread foreign public criticism of the United States, Americans realized we needed to improve our "public diplomacy" abroad.

Think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations and others did studies and issued reports on the problem and offered remedies. Members of Congress and media pundits expressed their views. Most of the comments have focused on proposed remedies in Washington, and some said Washington only needs to find the right words to explain our policy so that it will be understood abroad.

Shaping the message effectively is, of course, important. When President Bush called his war on terrorism a "crusade," that word worked well for his American audience but evoked a negative reaction among Muslims. They remembered the Christian crusades in the Middle East and assumed the war on terrorism was targeting them.

But getting the message right in Washington is only part of a successful public diplomacy program.

When I served as a foreign service officer (FSO) - a career government employee - in the Arab world, I found that conveying an understanding of America and its policies abroad must also be done locally, taking into account local perceptions. Edward R. Murrow once said that it's the "last 3 feet" that count in public diplomacy, meaning that real mutual understanding comes from face-to-face dialogue. American diplomats serving abroad who are familiar with the local mentality and world view can explain our policies and our values in terms that are understood. How does that work? Here are a few examples:

When one young FSO was assigned to our East Jerusalem consulate, she went to meet the imam of the largest mosque in a Palestinian West Bank city who was known to be hostile to Americans. She engaged him in conversation by telling him she was the daughter of a minister and asked him about Islam. That began a series of conversations. She eventually sent him on a State Department-sponsored tour of the United States. He came home so impressed with American religious tolerance that he spoke about it in his sermons and wrote about it in a series of newspaper articles.

On another occasion, an FSO assigned to our embassy in Yemen met a prominent Yemeni judge and engaged him in a series of discussions about the American and Yemeni legal systems. He then sent the judge to America on a tour to learn about our courts. The judge returned very impressed with American openness and fairness. After 9/11, he took the initiative to challenge a group of Yemeni supporters of Osama bin Laden to a debate, arguing for tolerance and declaring that their interpretation of Islam was wrong. He was probably motivated in part by his experience in America.

More recently, when another FSO was assigned to southern Iraq, he found that Iraqis of all types were intensely interested in their coming elections and wanted to know how American democracy worked.

He had some books sent from the United States about democratic theory, including the Federalist Papers and the Constitution, translated them into Arabic, distributed them to local leaders and appeared on television to explain our democratic process.

Fluent in Arabic, the FSO argued in local terms for the participation of women, respect for minorities and other principles Saddam Hussein had ignored. When some conservative men resisted his suggestions, he quoted appropriate Quranic passages that he learned when he studied Islam at the university.

This is the kind of work that FSOs do every day at our embassies abroad. They represent us in the competition for ideas with bin Laden and other hostile elements. All three FSOs in the examples above are fluent in Arabic, and they put their language skills to good use in developing these contacts.

In Arab countries, as in many parts of the world, personal contact is crucial in explaining America. These FSOs knew the importance of devoting time and effort to meeting and working with local opinion leaders, listening as well as talking. They also knew that visits to the United States are a powerful means of conveying what we stand for as a country.

To reduce hostile foreign opinion about the United States, we must do three things: We must think through how our public pronouncements from Washington will be received abroad. We must increase exchanges of people (while maintaining security screening). And we must intensify the efforts by FSOs at our embassies who engage in quiet dialogue about America.

When the Cold War ended, we eliminated many FSO positions in public diplomacy because we thought the competition for ideas was over. Now we must increase their number and give them our full support, because their quiet work on a daily basis is essential to our national interest.

William A. Rugh was ambassador to Yemen from 1984 to 1987 and ambassador to the United Arab Emirates from 1992 to 1995.

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