Dr. Khalid Al-Seghayer
IT is easier to destroy than build. This adage comes to mind as I see the US striving to restore the respect and admiration of people the world over because of its seemingly inappropriate conduct of late. Let’s take a look at then and now, how most people regard the US and what Washington is doing to change its widespread negative image and reverse the hostile attitude toward it held by a large number of people around the globe, and those in the Arab and Muslim worlds in particular.
In the past, people looked at the US as a beacon of hope, the motherland of freedom and a country that has numerous good values and cultural practices.
People had high respect and admiration for the American people themselves, for being generous, kind, understanding, open-minded, and considerate. In contrast, today, both the American people and the country as a whole are viewed negatively by people the world over. They hold that the US is no longer a symbol of hope, that it is essentially an imperial power seeking world domination. The world seems to feel that the US does not care what the rest of the world thinks and as such its interests always come first.
The world, after the obvious failure of America’s Iraqi policy, seems to have lost confidence in the ability of the US to lead global affairs and act wisely. As a result, overall respect for America has gone down.
People around the world have also started to look at American people with different eyes. They say that Americans are obsessed with money, live in a racially divided society, and are ignorant of the outside world. Moreover, American society is perceived to be uncultured, crime-ridden and uncaring.
This is all the result of the unwise and thoughtless manner in which the US has conducted itself in the arena of world politics of late. In my estimation, the US is passing through a critical period in its history, and this is why it is now urgent that it do whatever it can to try and earn back the respect and trust of the world and of the Arab and Muslim people in particular. In the recent past, the US cared little for the attitude of the public, but now it seems to have come to the realization that the opinion of the masses should be taken into consideration.
After the invasion of Iraq, the US launched a vast public relations campaign in the hope of changing the negative attitude of the Arab and Muslim worlds toward it. Since the youth are the target in this well-funded campaign, the US issued in July 2003 a magazine called Hi. Then, in 2004 the US launched a TV satellite channel called Al-Hurra. Additionally, the US replaced its Voice of America Radio broadcasts to the Arab world with Radio Sawa. These efforts occurred during the George W. Bush era and more endeavors were seen throughout the first term of Barack Obama’s presidency.
In attempting to win the hearts and minds of Arab and Muslim youth, the US has also lately undertaken public and cultural diplomacies. Recently, the US seems to have eased its tight restriction on issuing visas and has opened its borders to visitors and tourists, welcoming again foreign students. The US also encourages its journalists, writers, and reporters to pay regular visits to the Arab and Muslim worlds and welcomes return visits. Such visits will offer an opportunity to develop a better understanding of both worlds.
Further cultural or intellectual public diplomacy which is an essential component of diplomacy has already taken effect by starting new radio stations, launching more satellite channels, encouraging American TV channels to ease the restriction on allowing Arab satellite channels to rebroadcast prominent American talk shows and movies, and translating well-known American books into Arabic. And there will be more to come.
In June 2009, President Obama delivered a historic speech at Cairo University entitled “A New Beginning” hoping, as a central goal of his presidency, to change America’s dismal image in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
But have these efforts led to the desired consequences? My view is that they have probably produced some positive effects in the short run, but not in the long run.
Whatever the case, they do not completely change the increasingly dim view that youth in both the Arab and Muslim worlds have toward America. This is because the US generally tries to find quick and temporary solutions to problems, overlooking the long-lasting cure. The protests that swept across more than 20 countries in reaction to a controversial anti-Islam film confirm such an assertion and show a significant failure of US efforts. The Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that approval of the US has actually declined over the past couple of years to 15 percent.
Life tells us that in order to kill pain, we have to root out its causes, not to cure it with painkillers. The US has not cured the immediate and genuine causes of the increasingly hostile attitude toward it simply because it is still going in the wrong direction, as seen from its recent inappropriate conduct and policies (especially major elements of American foreign policy), unwise proceedings, and thoughtless measures. All of which greatly damage America’s standing abroad including the Arab and Muslim worlds.
—The writer is a Saudi academic who can be reached at email@example.com