GEORGETOWN, SC -- "Around the world, from Western Europe to the Far East, many see the United States as arrogant, hypocritical, self-absorbed, self-indulgent and contemptuous of others."
That's one of the damning but unsurprising findings in a report issued this week by the left-leaning Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). An appropriate response to this revelation might be, "So what's new?" Instead, the Bush administration is launching a "Public Diplomacy" campaign aimed at burnishing America's bruised and battered image -- principally in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. One can only hope that the new White House Office of Global Communications succeeds -- but if the goal is to transform those who hate us into loving admirers, it will be an uphill struggle.
The problem begins not in foreign capitals -- but in our own. The CFR report, titled "Strategy for Reform," was prepared by a 35-member panel that included some very bright retired diplomats, news executives, academics and "Mid-East experts." The report concludes that we must "listen" to our foreign critics and urges that we counter growing anti-American sentiment by, among other things, overhauling radio and television broadcasts overseas and "promoting cross-cultural understanding." The premise is that Americans are nice people with a nice form of government, and if other people don't like us, it's a public relations problem. And of course, as all the very bright people in Washington, New York and Los Angles know, the way to fix a public relations problem is to throw money at it.
It's a perspective apparently shared by those who ought to know better. Last week on the House floor, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., the venerable chairman of the House International Relations Committee, asked, "How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?" Tired of watching videotapes of Arab teen-agers wearing Levis and Ralph Lauren polo shirts burning American flags and then blowing themselves to pieces, the House of Representatives answered Hyde by voting without opposition to add hundreds of millions of tax dollars to what our government spends on "spreading America's message." But far more important than how much we will spend spreading the message is the answer to the question, "What is the message?"
The "Blame America First" crowd saw the CFR report as an opportunity to improve acceptance of "America's message" by changing the message. After all, they point out, the rest of the world loved us when William the Zipper was president. Despite the fact that he gutted spending on "public diplomacy" and closed down the U.S. Information Agency in 1999, Clinton was revered around the globe. Why? Because on his more than 40 foreign trips -- from Tiananmen Square to Africa -- he invariably found a way to "feel their pain" and apologize for America. Hopefully, Tucker Eskew, the director of the new White House Office of Global Communications, will resist efforts to make Bush "more sensitive."
And while he is formulating "America's message" for overseas consumption, Eskew will also have to contend with those in the U.S. media who want to make Bush himself the problem to be solved.
An indication of how difficult that task will be came in an Associated Press wire story by Sonya Ross, reporting on the new public diplomacy effort. In elucidating on the need to "put a better face on U.S. policy and messages abroad," Ross editorializes: "It was clear that Bush's policies, both before and after the Sept.11 attacks, had done much to foment hard feelings overseas. His administration disavowed international pacts on global warming, missile defense systems, germ warfare and an international criminal court. He has angered many allies with threats of war against Iraq, his move to slap high tariffs on steel imports and his decision to pull back $34 million from a United Nations family planning fund, arguing that it indirectly encouraged abortion and forced sterilization in China." And, as expected, the AP piece quotes another critic explaining that Arab resentment is caused by "the perception that America is too pro-Israel."
That's the kind of verbal fusillade, the type of rhetorical Bill of Particulars, you might expect to find in a hostile Iranian, Syrian or Iraqi media outlet. But when you have The Associated Press, who needs al Jazeera?
Unfortunately, the real problem for Eskew and the new Office of Global Communications is much more intractable than the United States or even foreign media -- it really is U.S. foreign policy. We purport to believe in and support individual liberty, democratic government and free enterprise. That's what we say we want for the Palestinian people. Interestingly enough, it's what the Palestinians and Israelis told me they wanted during my recent trip to the Middle East.
The U.S. government opposes the dictatorships in Baghdad, Damascus and Tehran. Yet we also support autocratic regimes all over the region from Cairo to Amman to Islamabad. Are the Palestinians the only Arab people who deserve democracy? How can we say we want real religious and political freedom for the people of Ramallah and not want the same thing for the people of Riyadh? Until we can answer those questions, American foreign policy is going to be a tough sell no matter how much we spend on public diplomacy.