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Win the war of ideas
As public trust is built, the United States will have the opportunity to explain its policies in the Middle East



Jason Ben-Meir
January 5, 2006

The perception of the United States in the Islamic world remains very dismal in this great struggle for the hearts and minds of the Muslim people. Western nations are competing against an ideology that seeks to impose a severe way of life on Islamic countries which may not reflect the views of the majority of their people and could pit the two civilizations against each other with potentially disastrous global consequences.

In 2003, the state-department sponsored Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy called for a new strategic direction 'in this time of peril," which has not yet been formulated. Roughly half of the $620 million budget for public diplomacy still supports cultural exchanges, which annually brings 35,000 people from around the world and all walks of life to the United States for important relationship and skills building experiences. However beneficial these exchanges and other programs are, a dramatic shift in direction is needed to significantly impact the war of ideas, or else a vital opportunity will be lost.

The new strategic direction of U.S. public diplomacy ought to require that the act of delivering the message of the basic values of freedom and democracy translates into engaging people in the socio-economic development of their communities. Words alone can no longer turn the tide of anti-Americanism that has swept across Muslim nations and is now deeply embedded in hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people. As the Dean of Harvard's School of Government, Joseph Nye, suggested, actions should be the communicator, which is louder and more genuine than words. 

The basic principle of a new direction should lie in what former Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Magaret Tutwiler, did in 2003 when she was the United States Ambassador to Morocco: she obtained funding from USAID for a project that rural Moroccan communities determined for themselves to be a top priority--fruit tree planting.

Yes, the modest-sized project was in the interest of the United States because it diversified rural incomes, which helps to prevent urban migration in Morocco during free trade with the United States. However, the project's impact on public diplomacy was clear: tremendous good-will was generated among the benefiting communities towards the United States because it funded a project that local communities designed and acknowledged the development goals the public expressed.

Community participation in development planning is a federalist democratic process that results into successful projects that meet the self-described needs of local people. This approach engenders in the beneficiaries a sense of partnership with those agencies that assist the projects' implementation. As such, it is a powerful form of public diplomacy.

For communities to determine their development goals requires trained local facilitators in participatory planning and consensus-building methods. Facilitators catalyze and help coordinate community development. The public diplomacy apparatus of the United States ought to focus more on training people, such as teachers, in development facilitation skills in their own country.

In addition, former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, Charlotte Beers, called American English teachers a 'secret weapon" because they are needed everywhere in the world. Training teachers that serve in Muslim nations in methods for facilitating participation in development will allow them to assist local communities in achieving their goals. The Peace Corps should set an important example and train in development facilitation their 3,500 English teachers who volunteer around the world, which is currently not being done.

Films and/or videos of community meetings that take place across the Middle East and other Muslim countries that show local people working together to improve their lives by creating projects funded by the United States, are very effective tools of public diplomacy. These films and videos are also helpful for training people in the skills that promote local development.

Of course, the United States needs to provide funding for the community projects that will come about through this new direction for public diplomacy. American Ambassadors should have an 'empowerment fund" for local projects in the countries they serve, just as the current Ambassador to Morocco, Thomas Riley, is creating (and who continues to support tree planting). Ambassadors need to have more discretion on the funding of projects that further public diplomacy, as they are well positioned to know the projects that will make a difference for communities and well-represent the United States.

As public trust is built, the United States will have the opportunity to explain its policies in the Middle East, particularly regarding Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to more receptive audiences in the region. For this to be happen, however, the United States needs to actualize its message to the world. It needs to explain by doing, which is to promote international development based on the desires of local people. Only then will the public diplomacy of the United States play an indispensable role in winning the war of ideas.

Jason Ben-Meir is president of the High Atlas Foundation, an American nonprofit organization that promotes community development in Morocco. He is a former Peace Corps Volunteer that served in Morocco, and is writing his PhD dissertation in sociology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque.

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