EDITORIAL: The US' Mideast PR efforts sorely lack impact

If you wonder why America can't make friends in the Arab world, then two seemingly unrelated stories in last Monday's Washington Post should pique your interest - or at least your sense of irony.

If you wonder why America can't make friends in the Arab world, then two seemingly unrelated stories in last Monday's Washington Post should pique your interest - or at least your sense of irony.

The first was an uncharacteristic lament by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, questioning whether our efforts in the Middle East were deterring future terrorists or creating another generation of anti-Americans. He conceded that America, having dissolved its only full-time propaganda agency under President Clinton, is no longer "organized, trained, or equipped" to change minds in the Middle East. It's a sentiment we've heard a lot lately from lesser figures, as we've seen one pricey diplomatic marketing initiative after another fail or fall by the wayside. The other item revealed that a massive stack of documents had been found in Iraq detailing Saddam Hussein's Arab public-diplomacy program: cash payments to "prominent personalities" who "defended Hussein publicly or pressed his causes" among Muslims. While it's hardly an exhaustive explanation of how a brutal dictator maintained popular support on the "Arab street," it is suggestive. Not that the US should start writing checks to Muslim opinion leaders. Legal issues aside, the support that money could buy would likely prove fleeting. But there is a lesson here. America's high-concept, low-impact campaigns look flaccid compared to Hussein's no-concept, high-impact work. We may be more benevolent rulers than Hussein, and we surely know more about winning wars, but when it comes to navigating the public opinion game in the Middle East, we're the ones who are perpetually missing in action.

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