While the United States wages a war against terrorism, a new theatre must be opened to ensure ultimate victory. A battle must be fought, not in the air but over the airwaves and in the newspapers of the Arab world.
American values – tolerance, freedom of religion, and the right to express whatever opinion one may possess – are being distorted, wrongly portrayed as gluttony, heresy, and just plain evil. There is no place where the gulf between these viewpoints is wider than in the Middle East.
While Americans see flag waving rallies in Iowa and the collapse of the Twin Towers on CNN and Fox News, Middle Easterners are treated to [a] steady diet of destroyed buildings and dead children in the West Bank on Al Jazeera and other Middle Eastern television networks. The Arabic media doesn’t show the Egyptian schools and Afghan democracy projects built by the American taxpayer or the Muslims living happy productive lives in Michigan. They are more interested in the aid package that Israel receives from the United States.
The United States must do more to get America’s positive message out.
The good news is America knows how to communicate better than any other nation. Our public diplomacy efforts – State Department-speaks for public relations to foreign audiences – have contributed to the fall of communism and the rise of democratic governments around the world. But, most of this public relations machine was geared toward toppling the Soviet Union. In the decade since the Cold War, elected officials of both parties – through neglect and misplaced priorities – have permitted the nation’s diplomatic instrument to rust. Now, as we face a complex emergency, we expect this instrument to be razor sharp. There is much talk about redirecting U.S. military strategy. It is past time to rethink and redirect America’s public diplomacy as well.
In the information age, diplomatic influence, and military power go to those who can disseminate credible information in ways that support their interests and put public pressure on the leaders of other countries. The coalition against terrorism requires new thinking and additional resources for the information instrument as well as the military and intelligence communities.
The Bush Administration has gotten off to a good start on translating American principles and compassion into the vernacular of Muslim countries. A Middle East radio network, Arabic language Web sites and print publications, citizen and journalist exchanges have all been established to help set the record straight on the United States.
American and British communication forces have instituted an unprecedented coordinated information campaign headquartered in the White House with offices in London and Islamabad to provide accurate and real-time information, 24/7, to the foreign media. Additionally, “war rooms” similar to those on political campaigns are staffed to refute misleading or false information.
Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), and Representative Henry Hyde (R-Ill.) have all introduced legislation to increase funding and strengthen public diplomacy.
Through the horrendous terrorist attacks on our nation, we have become painfully aware of the lack of understanding between our world and much of the Islamic world. There is a front line of communication soldiers fighting to win this war of words.
Let’s make sure they have the proper support, resources, and infrastructure needed to succeed.
Charles H. Dolan is the vice chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy and senior vice president of Ketchum Public Relations worldwide.