Beyond Afghanistan: U.S. Policy on Changing Muslim Public Opinion

Public Diplomacy (defined by the moderator as being the same as 'psychological warfare and propaganda') aims at non-governmental audiences, masses and the elite…

Muslim Media Forum
Posted: 13 Zul-Qa'dah 1422, 27 January 2002

After Afghanistan, the Bush Administration will be working on the following three crucial issues in a policy geared towards changing Muslim public opinion: the positive representation of basic American values in Muslim societies; encouraging a vision for a better future with talk of democracy and openness; and, changing the world view of Muslim youth, through the educational system and the way it is structured. The three-pronged policy was highlighted by Christopher Ross of the State Department's Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Office, in a conference on "The Information Campaign and the War on Terrorism" held on January 16th, 2002, at the Brookings Institute in Washington.

Mr. Ross said that it is U.S. policy to isolate the "fringes" of Muslim public opinion and to work towards "peace" as the common interest. To insure that the continuing "war on terrorism" will not be taken as a war against Islam, the Bush Administration was working on the three essential themes. When asked about the nature of "Public Diplomacy" and its manipulative agenda using distortions and exaggerations, Ross said that while propaganda contains lies, in Public Diplomacy "we don't deliberately look for lies; we use truth."

Joe Duffey, another panelist, who is also a Former Director of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA), said that Public Diplomacy "gets around the local press to speak directly to the public". He said that speaking directly to the Muslim public prevents distortions by the local press who are involved in 'competitive sensationalism.'

The U.S. tells the governments it is not a question of your values, we are here to help you develop a curriculum.

The U.S. has been fairly successful in the Muslim media on the execution of the war in Afghanistan, said Mr. Ross, who believed that because of America's insistence that this was not a war on Islam but on terrorism, "no serious commentator is harping on this theme". He said that Public Diplomacy (which, was defined by the moderator, as being the same as 'psychological warfare and propaganda") aims at non-governmental audiences, masses and elite, to get its message out.

Mr. Ross said that because of September 11, there are budgetary allowances once again for the important task of working to change foreign attitudes towards U.S. policies.

The moderator asked how the U.S. intends to penetrate Muslim educational systems "....... specially when people like Senator Levin, who announced that the Saudi educational system teaches hate of the U.S., met with rebuke by the Saudi U.S. Ambassador Mr. Bandar, who said that we don't teach anyone to hate and please stay out of our education system"? Mr. Ross, answering the question, said that the U.S. is not working alone. It is encouraging educational and cultural exchange programs and is encouraging other agencies and non-governmental organizations, now with increased resources, to work with the U.S. on a common path. This common path focuses attention on the "problems" of the educational systems in Muslim countries. He said that the U.S. is providing incentives and 'tools for a modern life' for anyone who will join them. He said that many sectors in Muslim societies are already interested and will welcome any move in this direction.

Thomas Dine, President of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, said that propaganda has a positive element to it, that is, to present information with a purpose, which you believe is true. He said the negative side of propaganda is when people are not given any choice and only one view is being presented. Mr. Stephen Hess, of the Brookings Institute and also one of the moderators, said that if American strategy is only "an Anglo-Saxon" world view and not a pluralistic approach, it will run into trouble. He said that those accused of the September 11 tragedy are supposedly products of "our culture". Mr. Hess said that it is U.S. policies, specially in the Arab-Israeli conflict, that people in the Muslim world hate.

Karen DeYoung, Assistant Editor of the Washington Post, defined Public Diplomacy as the office that disseminates information to further its own purpose. She said that because of the funneling and restriction of information in the U.S., most people agree with the government. But overseas, specially in the Muslim world where there are alternative sources, the views of the people are more balanced. People are not disposed to accepting or believing whatever you present them with. Ms. DeYoung cautioned the Bush Administration against restricting and centralizing news.

Mr. Ross said that although he has had a rough and negative experience during an interview with an Arab Al-Jazeera journalist who had received his education from the U.S., he believed that while there are few concrete barometers to measure success of different Public Diplomacy measures, information and education activities are very valuable. Those who have been exposed to U.S. values return to their countries and react favorably to U.S. overtures. Mr. Ross said that there have been favorable results in Syria, where the U.S. has held meetings with the Minister of Education. He said that the U.S. tells the governments it is not a question of your values, we are here to help you to develop a curriculum. We are providing you with the tools for a global economy. Because there is a void between the un-elected governments and the people in the Muslim countries, the U.S. is trying to fill that void and create a different culture, he said.

Mr. Duffey joined in by saying that the U.S. can win this "Public Diplomacy" war by talking about a free economy within a humane structure. He said that people have to be taught that democracy is not perfect, but is a continuing effort.

Mr. Ross said that the Bush Administration wants to give voice and encouragement to that "silent majority" who want to speak against the Taliban and Osamah bin Laden. He said that Muslims do not have a unified voice as to how a good Muslim should live. He said that soon after September 11, the U.S., U.K., and Pakistan formed a highly successful Central Information Center (CIC) in Islamabad, which gathered information and then organized and disseminated that information according to U.S. Public Diplomacy themes. As the war winds down, he said, the future role of the CIC is under debate in Washington.

Mr. Duffey said 9 out of 10 of the audiences of Radio Liberty are Muslims in Central Asian Republics, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. He said the broadcasting staff comes from there, but he, too, knows that most are not religious and follow very non-Muslim lifestyles. He announced that on February 28th Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty will be beginning new services to the Chechens. He said that he has more than 20 Afghans providing important factual information, which serves American interests. While his broadcasting service is not a governmental agency, he is required by law to keep Congress informed about what is happening.

All the panelists agreed that the idea of taking families of the victims of the World Trade Towers (WTC) to Afghanistan to meet with the families of victims there was a great propaganda/Public Diplomacy event. There was also agreement that news of rounding-up of 'terrorists" in Singapore/Indonesia was also a wise gesture to keep Arabs/ Muslims, and others, from thinking that it is a war against Islam. One panelist did mention that Indonesia is also a Muslim country. Mr. Dine of Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty said amusedly that underneath the rage against the killing of innocent people in Afghanistan --- and other foreign policies affecting Muslim populations --- "the Muslims love us; they are in awe of the American system".