Americana Under Attack

A destructive and parodied image of America abroad scanned by the powerful Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) galvanized the White House to move swiftly and give US a makeover. Crafted by an independent task force of 35 experts on public diplomacy, the report, sponsored by the CFR, has robustly re-affirmed the world-view of a stereotype America as arrogant, self-indulgent, hypocritical, inattentive, self-absorbed, and contemptuous of others.

Hewing to CFR’s advice, a domestically beleaguered President Bush, the first to ignite global fires by his (in)famous ‘axis of evil’ speech last January, is now seen flopping around for a formula to whittle down world scorn. As a knee-jerk reaction, he has decreed the establishing of an Office of Global Communications (under his roof), to promote and explain US policies and actions abroad. His spokesman Ari Fleischer thinks the new office “will help convey the White House view more compellingly.”

America’s disconnect with the rest of the world is hardly a news breaking story. Yet, perhaps for the first time, the New York-based influential CFR has chosen so bluntly to confront Bush with its well-honed analysis, urging that he must act fast and quickly remedy the anti-American poison festering in the hearts and minds of almost 7 billion people in today’s age of instantaneous information.

“Lack of empathy (by America) for other people’s pain and hardship and the tragic plight throughout the developing world,” says the report has reinforced a “sense of victimhood” for those faced with a “pervasive sense of despair and hopelessness, anger and mistrust.”

The unprecedented affluence enjoyed by Americans too is a source of “envy”. “What difference should it make to us that large numbers of foreigners hate, distrust, scorn or resent us?” asks the report.

In answering this question, it delineates examples of “misguided policies” by the Bush administration including the rejections of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming; the treaty to ban anti-personnel land mines; the agreement to create the International Criminal Court, and the Genocide Convention and an international criminal court. Bush has angered many allies with threats of war against Iraq. Recently, he withheld $34 million from UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), arguing that it indirectly promoted abortion and forced sterilization in China.

Middle East and Europe are the two key areas where America has a tawdry image, not to mention the rest of the world. While the Arabs deplore US pro-Israel stance, the Europeans junk American go-it-alone foreign policy. The report is heavy with recommendations on how best to rectify such image problems in its page after page of decorous prose for America to handle what it sees as infantile petulance.

And it is exactly at this point that the CFR sponsored report stumbles and betrays its blind spot – Israel.

Despite news reports and polls in the Middle East, including the recent Gallup and Zogby Poll that underscores Israel as the core of Arab contempt against America, the report gratuitously counsels the US not to change its pro-Israel policy “merely to curry favor with Middle East or world audiences.”

It flagrantly suggests: “messages should point out that the United States is a democratic country, and that US policy toward Israel and on other issues is heavily influenced by the views of Congress, powerful interest groups, the press, and public opinion generally.”

What else is there to add? Except call it a deformed joke.

Only two out of a 35 member strong task force are dismissive of their co-authors’ clotted jargon. In his muted note of dissent, Ali Banuazizi, director of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at Boston College mildly criticizes the “unqualified support for the Israeli position” saying that it “detracts from the report’s otherwise balanced, enlightening, and well-reasoned analyses and policy recommendations.”

Raghida Dergham, senior diplomatic correspondent for London-based Al-Hayat, a leading independent Arabic daily, is the lone voice of honest dissent: “it fails to highlight equally the anger with US policies towards Israel and the pains of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. In that, the report dismisses a major source of frustration and anger and misses the point – the need to understand the causes in order to contemplate remedies.”

She’s also leery of the US media: “When addressing US-bashing in some Arab media, (the report) suggests a call for truth-telling to ‘encourage professional journalism and separate truth from falsehood,’ but ignores Arab and Muslim-bashing in some American media, which are equally irresponsible. In that, the report appears righteous when it comes to “us” and condescending when it is “them;” a notion which perpetuates resisting self criticism at a time this is required of all of us, not only of the others.”

Conspicuous by his silence is Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Moeen Qureshi, one of the 35 strong task force members. For reasons best known to him, he’s mute on Israel.

With Bush already having inflamed public opinion in the Muslim world – his use of the word “crusade” to describe the campaign against Al Qaeda, and his calling Ariel Sharon a “man of peace” in the face of Palestinian bloodshed, add CFR’s sanctimonious exculpation of Israel, many here wonder whether the new plan to assiduously court the world opinion will fly.

“What America is all about and why America does what it does,” says White House spokesman Ari Fleischer with unvarnished directness is a typical response by Washingtonians in power.

He has of late been more attentive to the large foreign press corps in the capital that the administration tended to ignore until 9/11, when it needed to get its message out. “The White House discovered then the influential Arab cable channel, al-Jazeera, whose Washington office all this time was only two blocks away,” adds a foreign reporter wryly.

David Corn of ‘The Nation’ says if Bush or anyone else believes PR initiatives can have a lasting, strategic impact, then they must be watching too many movies. In fact, “when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world, the hard-nosed foreign-policy hands of the Bush clan constantly claim they want to see deeds (that they dictate), not words”.

Exactly. Didn’t Bush publicly scold his ‘ally and friend’ the President of Pakistan that he wanted to see “deeds, not words” regarding cross-border terrorism after India accused Islamabad for continuing to send terrorists across into Indian-held Kashmir, some months back?

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