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America's Other Army


AMERICA'S OTHER ARMY: Inside the Foreign Service

Cultural diplomacy pays off, envoys say

By Nicholas Kralev

In September, five Americans took up assignments as English teachers thousands of miles from home, determined that, by the end of the school year, their students would not only speak some English, but know much more about the United States.

"They welcomed us with open arms," Craig Dicker, a Foreign Service officer who helped to place the newcomers said of the schools that hired the teachers. "They were thrilled to have Americans teach there."

There would have been nothing exceptional about the teaching assignments had it not been for the particular schools: Islamic institutes in Indonesia that prepare teachers for the country's large network of religious high schools, known as madrassas.

Mr. Dicker said the idea came from Nur Fadil Lubis, vice rector of an institute in Indonesia's third-largest city, Medan. He had hosted a Fulbright scholar before and thought that his students would benefit from having an American in the classroom.

The first group of American teachers organized by Mr. Dicker, at the time an English-language officer at the embassy in Jakarta, arrived in the fall of 2002 but had to leave almost immediately because of the terrorist bombing in the resort of Bali that October.

The current group ranges in age from 25 to 55 and all have master's degrees. Their annual salaries, averaging $34,000, are paid by the State Department.

"It's an opportunity for us to share more of our culture with this very important constituency," Mr. Dicker said recently in Budapest, where he moved last summer.

"Is that a wise expenditure of money? I believe so. After working with an American for two or three years, those future teachers will have notions and ideas about America they would not have had if that person hadn't been there," he said.

"We are dealing with people who will have an impact on an audience that we keep on hearing is so important to us."

Indonesia, the country with the world's largest Muslims population, is a major concern for the United States, with rising anti-Americanism making it a potential breeding ground for terrorists.

Since the September 11 attacks, Washington has been pondering a strategy to counter anti-U.S. sentiment around the world, especially in Muslim nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.

Thousands of hours have been spent drafting reports on what the State Department calls public diplomacy, and millions of dollars have been poured into TV ads about the life of Muslims in the United States.

But American diplomats in those parts of the world say existing programs, such as the one Mr. Dicker created, are more likely to make a difference than all the exhaustive reports and Madison Avenue-style advertising.

They acknowledge that educational and cultural programs usually take years to produce dividends, but note that effective public diplomacy is measured not by the immediacy of its results so much as by the durability of those results.

Spinning and selling

In recent interviews with more than 260 Foreign Service officers at about 30 U.S. missions around the world, many said public diplomacy today is as important as traditional diplomacy.

The ambitious global agenda of a superpower, they said, cannot be carried out with the help of foreign governments alone. Support from ordinary people is essential in achieving such objectives as winning the war on terrorism.

A recent illustration of that necessity is Spain, where a government allied with the Bush administration lost last week's election and was replaced by one openly hostile to Washington's policies.

But many officers, who asked that their names not be used, said Washington's approach to public diplomacy as a public relations or marketing campaign is having a counterproductive effect on Muslim populations.

"We always think we have to put a spin to convince people," an officer in the Middle East said. "There is a certain manipulative quality to the way we buy and sell and deal with each other. We think we can deal with the world that way, but we can't, because people see us as hypocrites.

"What they are dying for us to do is trust them enough to be honest with them," the officer said.

Another officer in the region said the publicity that has accompanied Washington's public diplomacy efforts has created many cynics in the Arab world. If the United States is willing to spend millions to improve its image, they argue, it must have something to hide.

"They say we are trying to infiltrate their young and brainwash them," one officer said.

"I often tell them, 'You really don't have a lot of respect for your people if you think that they are so susceptible to brainwashing. Have you thought that they are smart enough to make up their own minds?' They say, 'Americans are very clever and know how to do these things subtly.' "

Many officers said a State Department's ad campaign last year about how Muslims live in America - which some TV stations in the target countries refused to air despite the lucrative revenue they would have received - was a solution to the wrong problem.

"Muslims don't like America not because Muslims in the United States are treated poorly," a senior officer in Europe said.

While they did not question the merits of Washington's Middle East policies, about a dozen of those interviewed suggested that the policies themselves are contributing to America's negative image.

"You reach a point when you say, 'It's the policy, stupid.' If we have policies toward certain regions that are unpopular, we can mitigate them and increase the understanding of the values behind the policy," a senior officer in Latin America said.

An officer in the Middle East said most people in the region regard U.S. policies "as sour milk gone bad."

"It doesn't matter how you package it and how much money you spend on an advertising campaign. When you open the package, it will still smell bad," he said.

"Sometimes, however, you have to make a decision that the policy is upsetting, but it's in our interest to maintain it, so we have to live with the upset it causes," he said.

Several officers said some of their efforts to "sell" a policy could have been better spent on engaging other nations on a broader range of less-inflammatory issues, such as cultural and social exchanges.

"Washington is so focused on policy," an officer in the Middle East said. "You do the best you can on that level, but the more critical level is that they know us as people. You make them understand that there is more than the policy."

A senior State Department official said the Bush administration has made a point of engaging audiences around the world, citing numerous interviews both President Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have given to foreign media organizations.

But many Foreign Service officers overseas said swaying the media is not the main goal of public diplomacy.

"Public diplomacy is not really about getting things in the press," one officer said. "It's about long-term engagement. It can't be just about supporting the policy - it has to be deeper than that. If you know the [American] people, you don't try to kill them just because the government's policy is bad."

David Welch, the ambassador to Egypt, said the Egyptian press has gone so far to incite anti-American feelings that it inevitably affects the views of many citizens.

"I believe that people need to know when the lines have been crossed," he said in an interview. "There are headlines that suggest things that are not only factually wrong, but extremely hostile and provocative."

Other diplomats said the Egyptian situation was not typical of the entire region.

"The press here treats us fairly, even if they disagree with our policy," said Hilary Olsin-Windecker, public-affairs officer at the embassy in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates.

"They are able to differentiate. Even if the writing is negative, it's not vicious. There is a reservoir of good will, which surprised me."

Money troubles

For decades, the State Department has run programs aimed at acquainting foreign audiences with American values and achievements. These include cultural and educational exchanges, as well as visitors and speakers programs that have helped foreigners to understand the principles that guide U.S. policies.

Those programs, however, were the first victims of budget cuts in the early 1990s that led to the closing of hundreds of cultural centers around the world and the downsizing of scholarship funds.

"We took ourselves out of the game and need to get back in," said Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman who was ambassador to Cyprus from 1993 until 1996. "I had to close the American Center in Cyprus. I did everything I could to keep it; but in the end, you don't have the money, so you have to close it down."

Warren Christopher, the first secretary of state in the Clinton administration, said many power brokers in Washington - particularly in Congress, but also in the executive branch - had failed to see a need for public diplomacy after the end of the Cold War.

"I certainly take my share of responsibility, because I wasn't able to persuade the Congress. I'd make some progress in the White House discussions, only to see it lost in the committees," he said in an interview.

"They would say they didn't know very much about foreign policy and then proceed to cut our funding," Mr. Christopher said of some members of Congress. "A number of them proudly indicated they had never had a passport and didn't want to have one."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, both said the attitudes Mr. Christopher described have all but disappeared since the September 11 attacks.

Mr. Powell said the department now has "superb relations with Congress."

"I've gotten my budget requests dealt with more than satisfactorily every year," he said in an interview.

The State Department has begun to put more money into public diplomacy, but Foreign Service officers said programs such as the one in Indonesia should be expanded and multiplied in many more countries.

That was also one of the recommendations in a highly publicized report of the Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy prepared for the House Appropriations Committee last year.

Mr. Dicker said the Foreign Service has only 16 English-language officers in the world.

"Language teaching gives us access to audiences that otherwise we can't reach. We provide them with access to information they might not otherwise have. If people are dependent on the local media and a relatively limited and controlled set of information resources, they are more likely to be swayed in one direction," he said.

"We care because ignorance is our No. 1 enemy."

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