Friday, May 14, 2004

Why the proposed "Corporation for Public Diplomacy" is a good idea

My previous column attacked apparent American war profiteers for prolonging the "War on Terror.”

In the interests of equal time, today I expose some of the warmongers' efforts on the Islamic side.

I've already mentioned influential and wealthy Saudis in my May 12th column. Some of these families are real double-dealers. They've spent years cultivating friendships with influential American families while simultaneously maintaining a shady connection with the world of terrorism. The Atlantic Monthly did an article in 2003 on the culture, corruption of some of the worst Saudi offenders and their determined, often highly successful attempts to influence official Washington.

The Saudis are very interesting. Recall it was discovered that the wife of the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. gave money to terrorists, supposedly unknowingly through a charity. Most of the 911 hijackers were Saudi citizens. Yet Saudi Arabia is undeniably one of our greatest allies in the Middle East. According to Bob Woodward's latest book, we requested the Saudi Ambassador approve the Iraq War before telling Secretary of State Colin Powell about it. It would certainly good to better media coverage of Saudi Arab to have a better understanding in the U.S. of their culture. Perhaps then we'd begin to better understand we see many of the same players involved with both sides in the "War on Terror." I am going to come back to take a hard look at some of the hard evidence on the Saudis in a future column. There will also be a guest column on Saudi Arabia by an American businessman who once worked there.

Several weeks after 911, I was one of the brave few willing to board a plane and head over to Europe to attend a previously scheduled international conference in my field. Not surprisingly, most of the scheduled American participants had cancelled (I must admit just getting on a plane was something of an adventure in those heady crisis days).

The conference organizers had invited representatives from the Islamic countries to attend (although they only selected those that had spent substantial time in the West).

Recall that after 911 there was this myth that "All the world is with us" in sympathy. This was largely a myth. There has been considerable anti-Americanism in Europe for the last several decades. Beginning in January 2001, the Bush Administration did just about everything it could to make matters worse, adopting one unilateralist policy after another, from its opposite to Kyoto to its dramatic (and likely unconstitutional) "unsigning" of the ICC Treaty. It quickly became apparent that, just weeks after 911, Anti-Americanism was as rampant then as ever in Europe.

Few Americans seem to understand the depth of anti-American feeling in the rest of the world. American media rarely covers European or world anti-Americanism. We don't like to travel abroad much. Compared with other industrialized countries, very few Americans will ever be issued passports. Our own country's beauty and grandeur reinforces our tendency towards isolationism.

Yet I was in for a shock. One young Islamic woman, now living in India, had received a Ph.D. from Cambridge University and had spent a number of years working in London while her husband now worked in New York City. Nevertheless, upon returning home, she had wholesale bought into the 911 conspiracy theories so prevalent in the often state-controlled Islamic media.

She believed, for example, that the 911 hijackers were all Israelis working for the CIA, and that bin Laden was completely innocent. "He wasn't responsible, but he should have been." Obviously, she expected bin Laden would now seek to carry out similar attacks "because the attackers [CIA?] had exposed a weakness in America's defense that bin Laden could not ignore."

I had to take the time to explain that (1) we had names and photographs of all the attackers (2) we had media interviews with members of the attackers' families (3) most were Saudi and all were Islamic, not Israeli. (Today, of course, we have DNA from the attackers collected from the body parts in the 911 ruins. And bin Laden has long admitted being responsible.)

She and other 3rd world members of the conference (from Pakistan and Christian parts of Africa) were blown away by the fact that we had names and photographs, and none were Israeli citizens! We are talking here about very educated people with Ph.Ds. from the most elite Western universities! And the young women in question expressed a strong desire to work in New York City (where she may well now have a job).

Clearly, there is an enormous amount of false anti-American propaganda in the rest of the world that we are not at all combating. Even minimal access to US media would have permanently debunked the Israeli hijacker conspiracy theory then rampant in much of the third world.

Obviously, there are some very wealthy interests behind bin Laden and other warmongers on the terrorist side funding this type of propaganda. The "War on Terror" might even be a proxy fight for supremacy between rival factions within the Saudi royal family-those currently out of power perhaps see bin Laden as a means of destabilizing their relative's power base. Once again, there is likely a small group of people that hope to feather their own nests by sponsoring terrorists at the expense of the rest of the world.

What can be done? Better attempts to uncover the terrorists' financing network are certainly in order. But America should also answer the propaganda campaign that is being waged.

Shortly after 911, a prominent American think tank supported the idea of a "Corporation for Public Diplomacy (CPD)", similar to the "Corporation for Public Broadcasting" that runs PBS stations in the US. This would be a private corporation with a charter from Congress. Unlike PBS, whose aim is to broadcast educational programming in the United States, the CPD would broadcast diplomatic programs about the U.S. in foreign nations as well as encourage prominent Americans to give talks abroad as private ambassadors.

Like PBS, CPD would receive government funding, but it would have the right to obtain funding from interested private donors. This would protect it from the inevitable next round of congressional budget cutting, which have killed some of our pre-existing diplomatic infrastructure. During the Cold War, the State Department funded "American Libraries" throughout the Middle East that presented a place for pro-American citizens to come together and meet prominent American speakers. This program, regarded as remarkably cost effective post-911, was completely eliminated under the Clinton Administration-the buildings were closed and the books shipped back to Washington. As a private corporation with government-appointed officers, the CPD would be relatively immune to this type of cost-cutting.

I have heard many on the American left oppose the idea of a Corporation for Public Diplomacy. They argue that this is simply tax-payer funded propaganda that will fool no one in the Middle East. Perhaps they fear the CPD will just alienate the world by becoming another tool in the US's high-tech disinformation campaign I allude to in my previously columns.

However, it is clear that many in the developing world are complete misinformed about America. We don't need propaganda-we just need to present simple facts to correct these dangerous misconceptions. America has a story to tell, but right now we aren't even trying.

A Corporation for Public Diplomacy (CPD) would correct the most glaring misunderstands. It might even re-establish beneficial programs like the "American Libraries" system, and partially protect them from future budget cuts.

Yet to date the CPD remains just a proposal.

Coming Soon: Why US Government claims that Saddam and wealthy Middle Eastern groups funneled money to global anti-war organizers are credible, and why some of this money probably trickled illegally into the US.

Also Coming Soon: Guest column on Saudi Arabia by an American businessman who once worked there