Sunday, August 07, 2005

TRAINING ARABS TO TELL THEIR STORY

By William Fisher

It’s only a small stretch to argue that the only thing less effective than U.S. public diplomacy in the Middle East is the pathetic effort of the Arab world to communicate anything credible to American and other Western audiences.

The reasons are numerous. Many of the people who work in the mid- to upper-levels of Arab governments are either technocrats or owe their jobs to cronyism, and are often ill equipped to carry them out. There are many bright, technically proficient men and women serving in communications-related jobs in Arab governments, but they are largely employed in putting out propaganda for domestic consumption on state-owned media. These governments do not have formal public diplomacy programs.

As a group, Arab states find it impossible to agree on much; so, for example, the Arab League has little to communicate, even if it had a public diplomacy program. Finally, Western prejudices against Arabs are huge; even if the Arabs could craft the right messages, it would take years and extraordinary strategic and tactical skills – and serious resources -- for them to be heard and believed.

Yet, absent any public diplomacy initiative from the Arabs, its conversation with the West will continue to be a dialogue of the deaf.

All the more reason Arab governments need to know about a new private-sector American program: the first-ever Master’s Degree in Public Diplomacy, just launched by the University of Southern California at Los Angeles.

But how, governments may ask, can an American program help Arab public diplomacy?

One of the program’s “Toolbox” courses offers an example. "The Rhetoric of War, Peace and Religion," will look in a non-partisan way at cross-cultural rhetoric. The two professors developing this course have specialized in analyzing messages from both sides of the equation. Their research and instruction focuses on the motivations and roots surrounding conflict, American vs. Middle Eastern ways of war (from the U.S. concepts of presidential checks and balances, to motivations of national honor), to the role of rogue states as global players and the messages of their actors, how these messages are received cross-culturally vs. their intended message.

The program will also offer special topics courses. For example, a Middle East-centered course called "Media Diplomacy" looks at the role of non-state media actors in cultivating favorable images abroad, from examination of the “CNN effect” -- the impact of cable and satellite television such as Al Jazeera in shaping public opinion in and of the Middle East -- to cyber diplomacy and the role of official websites.

There are two core courses devoted to examining comparative global and historical practices of public diplomacy. And an international broadcasting course that includes guest lecturers from around the world, who discuss their strategies, tactics, successes and failures in using this tool for public diplomacy.

USC is also working to create a scholarship to fund to help Middle Eastern mid-career professionals, including government employees, to study in the Master's Program.

Joshua S. Fouts, Executive Director of USC’s Center on Public Diplomacy, says, “Because we are an academic institution, we do not have an agenda of training people to think a certain way about the U.S. or the U.S. government.”

Why should Arab governments care?

The reasons might seem obvious, but arguably are not being appreciated in the Arab world. In the West, three things are ‘known’ about Arabs: first, all Arabs are terrorists, and all terrorists are Muslims; second, Arabs care only about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and America’s failure to ‘fix it’; and, third, Arabs control the price of petrol at the pump.

People in the United States or France or Germany or the U.K. know virtually nothing about Arab traditions, civilization, scholarship, arts and literature, sense of family and hospitality.

Yet Arabs make up substantial minorities of the populations of Europe, Canada, and the U.S. Informing the indigenous populations there might help keep more Arabs and Muslims from becoming second-class citizens.

Moreover, the West is the principal investor in Arab economies and the principal customer for Middle East exports. The West pumps billions in aid into North Africa and Middle East. And, if all that were not enough, there is the issue of pride: The Middle East has much to be proud of and should feel an obligation to let others know that.

These days, it’s hard for any voice to be heard. But it’s even harder if no one is trying. And, among Arab nations, no one is really trying. Just about the only time the West hears anything about Arabs and Muslims – aside from bombs exploding – is through media reports about brutal, repressive governments, prisoners being tortured or disappeared, an election being rigged, or an Arab League Summit breaking up because of intramural squabbles. The last positive news out of the Arab world came not from a government, but from the scholars who wrote the Arab Development Reports.

As a matter of simple self-interest, it’s time to begin reversing this flow of negative information. In exactly the same way the U.S. now finds itself in a very long-term struggle to win hearts and minds in the Middle East, the Middle East faces a no less daunting challenge in getting the West to begin to understand it. It can’t be done quickly. But it can’t be done ever if someone doesn’t make a start.

That will require will and skill and knowledge not currently present. That’s why the California initiative is important.

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