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William Fisher: Listen Up, Karen Hughes

Listen Up, Karen Hughes

By William Fisher

As Karen Hughes prepares for her Senate confirmation hearing to be the czarina of America's effort to repair its tarnished image abroad, she would do well to heed the advice of Rami G. Khouri.

Rami Khouri is a world-class thinker. He is the former Executive Editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut, and now a syndicated columnist. Khouri advises eight guideposts to the soon-to-be Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy: Style, credibility, consistency, motive, context, legitimacy, militarism, and relevance.

Here's what he means.

Style: "Washington's manner is often aggressive and threatening. It uses sanctions and the military and unilaterally lays down the law that others must follow or else they will be considered enemies and thus liable to regime change. People don't like to be bullied or threatened, even if change would be for their own good."

Credibility: "The U.S. track record has hurt, angered or offended most people in the Middle East. By primarily backing Arab dictators and autocrats or supporting the Israeli position on key issues of Arab-Israeli peacemaking, credibility has been lost. The priority issue for most Arabs -- whether Palestinians, Iraqis or others -- is freedom from foreign occupation and subjugation. If Washington uses war and pressure tactics to implement United Nations resolutions in Lebanon and Iraq but does nothing parallel to implement U.N. resolutions calling for the freedom of Palestinians from Israeli occupation, it will continue to be greeted with disdainful guffaws in most of the Middle East."

Consistency: "The United States could have promoted freedom and democracy in Iraq without waging war and spending $300 billion, getting more than 1,500 Americans killed and 10,000 injured (and perhaps 100,000 Iraqis killed) and creating a massive anti-American backlash throughout the world. It could better promote democracy and rally Arab democrats by telling Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali that being president without any meaningful legal opposition for more than 20 years is long enough. The U.S. could support term limits for Arab presidents."

Motive: "Perpetually changing the motive for the war in Iraq hurts American credibility. We've been told that invading Iraq was about weapons of mass destruction, links with Al Qaeda, imminent threats to the United States, homegrown brutality against the Iraqi people, stopping threats to neighbors and, now, spreading freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. Some of these rationales may one day prove to be correct. In the meantime, the collection of half a dozen is crippling to placing any trust in Washington."

Context: "The Arab states suffer massive internal pressures from issues of population, identity, demography, economy, environment, ideology, crises of citizenship rights versus statehood obligations and secularism versus religiosity, and the perpetual pressure from foreign armies. In this wider context, the issues of freedom and democracy are dwarfed by the more pressing imperatives of stable statehood, liberation from foreign occupation, meeting basic human needs, and stopping foreign armies."

Legitimacy: "There is no global consensus that the United States is mandated to promote freedom and democracy, or that this is the divinely ordained destiny of the United States. There is such a mandate, though, in the charter of the United Nations, in Security Council resolutions to end foreign occupations and international legal conventions - most of which the U.S. resists, ignores or applies very selectively. No surprise then that virtually the whole world resists the United States."

Militarism: "The American use of preemptive war for regime change creates more problems than it solves. Promoting freedom and democracy through the guns of the Marines doesn't work for many people outside of Republican and neoconservative Washington circles.

Relevance: "The value of individual freedom as defined in American culture runs counter to how freedom is understood in most of the Middle East and the developing world. There, people sacrifice individual liberties for the protection and the communal expression of belonging to a bigger group - the family, tribe, religion or ethnic or national group."

These concerns, Khouri says, "act as the primary constraint to any meaningful Arab cooperation with the U.S." But, he adds, "The good news is that they all can be overcome through better communications between Arabs and Americans and more consistent, lawful policies by everyone concerned."

Hopefully, Ms. Hughes will be persuaded that these are sound principles and should be followed. But the devil, of course, is in the details: Execution.

How can Khouri's principles be translated into programs and projects? Surely not with yet more slick TV channels like Al Hurra, which is viewed with skepticism throughout the Arab world as nothing more than propaganda.

Karen Hughes will find no shortage of ideas to consider. One of the most promising of them comes from a bipartisan task force led by former Defense Secretary William Cohen, including several dozen former U.S. Middle East ambassadors, and organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a respected Washington-based think tank.

Under the rubric of "Investing in the Next Generation of Arab Leaders", the CSIS panel proposes the creation of an Arab Partnership Foundation (APF) to foster education, entrepreneurship, and reform among the next generation of Arab leaders.

APF would be a private not-for-profit corporation jointly funded by the U.S. government, foundations, and the private sector. The reason for distancing this entity from the government control, CSIS says, is that "the U.S. government lacks credibility in Arab countries at the moment, sometimes making it difficult even for sympathetic organizations and individuals to work with us."

It also notes that "our government, by its very design, is often unable to go beyond daily diplomatic pressures and adequately invest in the future."

"We are currently reaping the rewards of investments we made in Arab people and institutions during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; the costs of today's alienation may not be felt fully for decades. There is no one quick or easy solution. Fully reversing these trends will require using all the facets of public diplomacy - from exchanges to support for civil society - to make a serious long-term investment in reaching the next generation of Arab leaders and citizens", the Report says.

"If we are going to create sustained Arab-U.S. partnerships - leader to leader, citizen to citizen - we will need an organization viewed as separate from the U.S. government, with a deep understanding of the Arab people", the report concludes. Well worth considering, Ms. Hughes.


William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East for the US State Department and the US Agency for International Development, and served in the international affairs area in the Kennedy administration. THE WORLD ACCORDING TO BILL FISHER

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