Tough Challenge Trying to Win Over Arab World

With recent misinformation in one news magazine leading to riots, fatalities and an apology to the Arab world, the Bush administration finds itself still fighting resentment and suspicion from Muslims abroad who claim nothing good can come from America.

The administration also finds itself still awaiting confirmation of one of President Bush's closest aides to the diplomatic post charged with turning around those sentiments and preventing the kind of backlash toward America that appears to have been incited by filler words in a recent news story.

The story, which appeared in Newsweek's May 9 edition, claimed that interrogators at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, flushed a Koran, the Islamic holy book, down the toilet. The news led to violent protests across the Muslim world, the deaths of 15 Afghans and the injuries of 100 others. Muslim scholars recently denied reports that leaders threatened a holy war against the United States if the alleged interrogator is not punished.

In a note to readers appearing in Monday's edition, Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker questioned the accuracy of the information supplied by a "knowledgeable U.S. government source."

"We regret that we got any part of our story wrong, and extend our sympathies to victims of the violence and to the U.S. soldiers caught in its midst," Whitaker wrote.

But while the news agency cleans up its reporting, it's the Bush administration that is tasked with refurbishing the image of the United States, which whether right or wrong on its foreign policy does not seem able to catch a break from angry Arabs.

In a report entitled "Interagency Coordination Efforts Hampered by the Lack of a National Communication Strategy," the Government Accountability Office (search) found last month that most of the efforts by various federal agencies, including the State Department, Department of Defense and the White House, to improve the U.S. image abroad have been hobbled by inaction and a lack of communication.

The departments "have generally not been successful in responding to growing negative sentiments directed towards the United States," the report states.

Even the administration's efforts to put Bush's longtime adviser and confidant Karen Hughes into the top Arab PR post in the State Department have been struck by criticism about the administration's approach to that part of the world and the choice of Hughes' to spearhead U.S. image-building efforts as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy.

The State Department has confirmed that Hughes will not take office until the fall, at the earliest. The start date for Dina Powell, Hughes' would-be deputy for education and cultural outreach, is also unknown, though department officials say the hiring process is "on track."

Both women, whose appointments were announced in March, require Senate confirmation. A timetable for hearings has not been announced.

The GAO report found that despite several initiatives by the White House since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a comprehensive strategy has yet to be implemented across the administration to communicate U.S. policy more effectively to the Muslim world. It states that anti-Americanism in Muslim countries continues to be "pronounced and noteworthy."

The latest White House effort, the Muslim World Outreach Policy Coordinating Committee (search), has just begun to be implemented, so it is unclear whether it will effect changes, according to the GAO.

Critics of the U.S. approach to the Arab world say that promises to pursue new initiatives never seem to gain traction and the delay in Hughes' taking office has left efforts further languishing.

"This slow start is four-and-a-half years late," David Phillips, Middle East expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, told

"Certainly, the track record isn’t a good one," said Mona Yacoubian, Middle East expert for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "And yet, the administration has, I think rightly, indicated that it’s really about the war of ideas, that this public diplomacy element in the War on Terror is singularly important in the long run."

Yacoubian added: "I think they have been ... having a hard time translating that in action."

She and other analysts in part blame Carolyn Beers (search) and Margaret Tutwiler (search), both of whom led brief and largely unsuccessful terms in the office that awaits Hughes, for failing to advance the mission to save America's reputation.

Beers, a former top advertising executive, took particular criticism in her 2001-2003 tenure for creating a failed but expensive media campaign for the international audience called "Shared Values," portraying American Muslims in daily life.

U.S.-funded broadcast networks, particularly Radio Sawa and Alhurra satellite television network, which target the Iraqi audience, have gotten mixed reviews from critics, but experts say it’s the message, not the messenger, that’s important. Those messages are contained in U.S. policies that have driven a wedge between Arab and American relations.

"A lot of this is symbolism; it’s putting a face-lift on things. It doesn’t work anymore to try and fool people and cover up policies," said Abbas Kadhim, an Islamic scholar with the University of California-Berkeley Graduate Theological Union. "You can hire anyone to tell the Arabs and Muslims what you want to tell them."

The invasion and occupation of Iraq, the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the abuse probe at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and the continued support for regional autocrats such as the Saudi royal family are issues that are more significant than a slick media campaign through U.S.-backed radio or television, Mideast expert Phillips said.

"It doesn’t matter what you spin, the fundamental approach of the Bush administration has to change," he said. "The problem isn’t with marketing the policies. It’s a widely held view that diplomacy with the Bush administration is a one-way street."

But Yacoubian warned not to place the entire burden on U.S. policies. Being more active and an "honest broker" in areas important to both Muslims and Americans is important, but the Muslim perception of the United States is also part of an internal debate within Islam and must be allowed to progress in its own way, she said.

"It’s a very delicate, intricate situation," which the United States has a stake in, but it should not meddle through global communication strategies, she said.

James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, said that really listening to the Arab people and their concerns and acknowledging mistakes in Iraq would push image efforts a lot further than before.

"Sometimes the policies are just wrong and the mistakes predate his administration, and they are part of the mess we have in the region," he said.

The State Department generally concurred with the report's findings and conclusions, according to a comment it attached to the GAO report.

The White House declined to comment in it; however, the report states that the State Department "strongly endorsed our recommendation that the department develop a detailed strategy for engaging the private sector more effectively and indicated that working with the private sector will be a priority for the department’s new leadership."

Responding to questions about Hughes and Powell during a briefing with reporters on April 18, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher insisted that a substantive diplomacy apparatus is already in place waiting for them to take charge.

"We have a very strong public affairs and public diplomacy team now," he said. It "will be further reinforced when Karen Hughes arrives."

Zogby is not quick to criticize the pace of bringing in new leadership and said Hughes’ appointment signaled to the rest of the world that Bush is serious about building better relations. She has what the others didn’t have — a dogged determination "to get things done" and the ear of the president, he said.

"I am willing at this point to give Karen Hughes the benefit of the doubt that her access to the president can translate into an extraordinarily effective performance in her job," Zogby added.