By William Fisher
If enthusiastic White House and Congressional support could solve America’s public diplomacy problems, Dina Habib Powell would be well on her way to becoming a national heroine.
The Egypt-born Ms. Powell, currently the top personnel official at the White House, is about to be confirmed as President Bush’s choice to be Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA). She will supervise all international student and other cultural exchange programs and serve as senior deputy to Karen Hughes, the long-time Bush confidante who has been nominated to direct all U.S. public diplomacy efforts.
Powell, whose parents emigrated from Egypt when she was a child, speaks fluent Arabic. She has risen quickly through Republican Party ranks, serving in the personnel office of the Bush-Cheney transition team and as Director of Congressional Affairs for the Republican National Committee.
At her confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (May 26), New Hampshire Republican Senator John Sununu, himself an Arab-American, observed, “Ms. Powell was born in the Middle East but raised in the United States. Who better to understand many of the challenges that lie before us, particularly in engaging with the Muslim world?”
And Democratic Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin – a consistent critic of the Bush Administration and the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act --applauded Powell’s dedication to dialogue and assured her, “you will have strong allies on both sides of the aisle.”
Addressing the committee, Ms. Powell acknowledged the challenges facing American public diplomacy efforts. She said, “Our nation must engage with the rest of the world. But to be successful, we must listen. Our interaction with the world must be a conversation, not a monologue.”
She said she is committed to widening the “two-way highway of people-to-people exchange,” adding that she would work to “ensure international students know they are welcome at U.S. colleges, encourage more women and girls to participate in exchange programs, and enlist the private sector more fully in our public diplomacy efforts.”
ECA-sponsored exchange programs have served more than 800,000 people from 185 countries, including more than 200 former or current heads of state and 1,500 cabinet ministers.
However, post-9/11, the difficulties of obtaining student visas and Muslim fear of ‘Islamophobia’ in the U.S. have caused a precipitous decline in foreign enrollments in American colleges.
Powell has also expressed her views on public diplomacy during trips abroad. In Egypt, she addressed the perception that the U.S. is attempting to impose its ideas of democracy on others. She said, “We do not wish to impose reform. It is not our place. We want to listen to the voices of the region and where it is appropriate, lend a helping hand.”
She said that the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 triggered a “psyche change for the American people”. Despite that, she added, one day later, “the president visited a mosque, took off his shoes and paid his respects, and said 'this should not [make people] even begin to think about discrimination against people of Arab descent’. Shortly thereafter, racial profiling was made a federal crime.”
However, human rights organizations charge that racial profiling and harassment of Muslim- and Arab-Americans are still being practiced by government agencies, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA), the body within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) responsible for screening airline passengers and maintaining Federal ‘no-fly’ lists.
Despite the high profile nominations of Karen Hughes and Dina Powell, America’s public diplomacy efforts remain problematic, particularly in the Middle East. Opinions of the U.S. remain at an historic low. And the country’s expensive broadcasting operations, including the Arabic-language satellite TV channel, Al Hurra, have to date failed to attract significant audiences.
Commenting on Powell’s nomination, Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland, said, “People are not going to legitimize the policy because someone is speaking Arabic to them.”
Criticisms of America’s current public diplomacy efforts have come both from home and abroad.
A number of U.S. and overseas commissions and think-tank reports have faulted the Bush Administration for not fully explaining U.S. policies and practices, including the invasion of Iraq, the Arab-Israeli dispute, rendition of detainees to countries where they would likely face torture, and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
Typical was a report issued late last year by a bipartisan commission appointed by President Bush. It concluded that the American campaign to communicate its ideas and ideals, particularly to Muslim audiences, was “uncoordinated and underfunded, and risks sending contradictory messages about U.S. intentions.”
The United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy said that one of the few successful initiatives -- exchange programs between US and foreign students -- has been burdened by ''redundant" security measures and ''excessive" visa fees.
Another report, by the Middle East Institute in Washington and the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, that said, Americans “have to learn that ignoring the feeling of peoples in the Arab world and their desire for justice and dignity can only lead to expanding the pool of terrorists, rather than drying it up.”
The Brookings Institution, a highly respected Washington-based think-tank, also found U.S. communications efforts “not only under-resourced, but also lacking an effective strategic direction, particularly towards the Islamic world.”
And Dr. John Brown, who resigned from the State Department in opposition to the invasion of Iraq and who is now a research associate at the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University in Washington D.C., told IPS, “The objective of public diplomacy should be to win long-term friends for the U.S. One way to do that is to respect others, which the administration seems incapable of. The Bush White House doesn't really believe in diplomacy -- if it did, would it select John Bolton as U.S. Ambassador to the UN -- so how can it possibly believe in public diplomacy"?