U.S. image, war and terrorism
January 18, 2003
Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has courage to lose sight of the shore.
-- Andre Gide
Americans have often been perceived as a people detached from the realities of the
global community. America, surrounded by two oceans and only two neighboring countries
(Mexico and Canada), is also viewed as a nation isolated from the rest of the world.
The cultural and geographical factors, coupled with America's newly acquired superpower
status, have contributed to a rather comfortable sense of security and insensibility.
But, on September 11, 2001, the perceived safe cocoon burst as New York's Twin Towers
crumbled to the ground. Some have called the terrorists' attacks a wake-up call,
an ear piercing and tearful call that has forced America, perhaps for the first time
in the post-Cold War era, to lose sight of its own vast expanses in order to discover
the realities of distant lands, peoples, and cultures.
The global village is in turmoil, and the prevailing attitudes are "us against
them" and "them against us!" Indeed, the current atmosphere of world
affairs attests to a total breakdown in communication, civility, international law,
human rights, freedom, and lack of progress in terms of humanity and social justice.
As the warlords of the global village have amassed nearly 200,000 troops to attack
Iraq, an already devastated and partitioned country of only 24 million people, the
Bush Administration is developing a global communication plan (propaganda war) to
influence the world's 1.3-billion Muslims -- particularly the youth.
To accomplish this goal, the U.S. has already inaugurated 24-hour radio programs
in several languages, including Arabic and Persian. Radio Farda ("Tomorrow")
is aimed at Iran and Radio Sawa ("Together") at the Arab countries, particularly
Iraq, with a blend of music, news, and cultural programs.
Another goal of the communication plan, according to a U.S. State Department report,
is "to present democratization and openness as a vision for a better future,
a future which does not require people to resort to terrorism."
I applaud this noble goal but have to question its validity in view of the fact that
"fear" and "anti-terrorism" have been used by the Bush Administration
not only to restrict individual freedoms in the U.S. but also to justify the need
for war (i.e., a pre-emptive strike) against Iraq or any other nation deemed potentially
In order to succeed, the global communication plan must be logically sound, practical
in its approach, and devoid of any duplicity. In the final analysis, action speaks
louder than words.
The U.S. is indeed militarily and economically the most powerful nation in the world.
Hence, as a lone superpower, its activities and foreign policies affect the lives
of people throughout the world. Rhetorical pronouncements and sophisticated propaganda
packages, even if paved with good intentions, are not sufficient to produce the desired
results (less terrorism) or a more peaceful world.
Furthermore, the history of U.S. involvement in the affairs of other nations does
not, unfortunately, lend itself to optimism. The well-documented track record is
perhaps one of the reasons that people of the world perceive the U.S. in a negative
light -- this negative view, by the way, is not confined only to the Islamic or Middle
Eastern countries. Perceptions become realities and these often imagined realities
influence the ways in which people act or react toward one another.
It is quite customary that leaders, in any position of power, are highly scrutinized.
As a world leader, the U.S. is no exception. Globally, there is a litany of legitimate
and non-legitimate gripes against the U.S. government and its global policies that
contribute to its negative image around the world.
Setting the U.S. apart from the rest of the world are the ideals of its Constitution
and freedom for which I have the highest regard. Hence, in view of the Bush Administration's
global communication plan, and based on my studies in global communication and image
studies, I would like to suggest several key strategies that, if implemented, will
reverse the increasingly negative tide of global perception of this freedom-loving
and democratic nation.
In order to gain the trust of the world, the U.S. has to focus on several fundamental
human factors rather than relying merely on its technological might and military
superiority. Clearly, force alone cannot win the hearts and minds of people, nor
can it promote democracy and peace or deter terrorism.
* Lead by example and become a positive role model. "Do onto others as you wish
them do unto you."
* Legitimize and utilize the United Nations as a forum for discussing and resolving
global problems rather than subverting and undermining its potential.
* Avoid double standards in foreign affairs (e.g., its obvious leniency toward Israel
vis-à-vis the tragic Palestinian-Israeli conflict).
* Avoid supporting dictatorial regimes or non-representative governments.
Support and encourage democratic movements throughout the world.
* Avoid using such derogatory labels as the "Axis of Evil" to describe
any nation. If this is okay, then others can label the U.S. as the "Great Satan"!
* Abide by and enforce international conventions and laws rather than seek exemptions
(e.g., the World Court, all UN resolutions).
* Spread goodness and goodwill -- not death and misery -- across the global village
(e.g., thousands of civilians killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or elsewhere by bombing
is as tragic and unacceptable as the terrorists' attacks on 9/11).
* Establish, through the UN, World Bank, WTO, and other international organizations,
fair trade and economic policies that do not merely serve the interests of multinational
corporations but help the developing nations to stand on their own.
* Discourage overt stereotypical representations and marginalization of other peoples
and cultures by the mass media (e.g., Islam, the Middle East, Arabs, etc.).
* Use the existing global communication channels (e.g., radio, satellite TV, and
the Internet) to inform and educate a global audience, including American youth which
seems to be unaware of the world beyond U.S. boundaries.
* Support initiatives that would enable schools, colleges,
and universities to offer courses and programs in intercultural and international
studies, student exchange, and other contacts.
For all practical purposes, America's cocoonist era has ended and a new era of discovery
and exploration has begun. Let's hope that the politicians and planners do not lose
sight of the numerous valuable lessons learned from the history of the U.S. government's
involvements in the domestic and regional affairs of other nations.
Let's hope that the global neighborhoods, under the leadership of the U.S. and the
auspices of the United Nations, can work cooperatively with one another to prevent
a devastating catastrophe, World War III, involving nuclear and atomic weapons.
The drums of war, in this highly sensitive and enraged global climate, have an unusually
ominous and apocalyptic sound. As the American Indian Chief Seattle once said, "Man
did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the
web, he does to himself."
Yahya R. Kamalipour, PhD, is professor of mass and international communication
at Purdue University Calumet, Hammond, Indiana. He is editor of the book, Images of the
U.S. Around the World (SUNY Press, 1999) and Global
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