Why Obama Can’t Sell America
Until the Israel-Palestine issue is solved, there's only so much rhetoric can do.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty ImagesReading the good news: America's image won't sell until Middle East peace is a fait accompli. Four years ago, Foreign Policy asked me to write an open memo to Karen Hughes, one of U.S. President George W. Bush's under secretaries of state. Hughes was then charged with improving America's battered image in the Arab world, and I was tasked to suggest ways to accomplish her mission. At the time, Bush was still enjoying the deference afforded him by his victory in 2004, and he had just appointed Hughes to her position as the country's public-relations czar.
CRIS BOURONCLE/AFP/Getty ImagesReading the good news: America’s image won’t sell until Middle East peace is a fait accompli. Four years ago, Foreign Policy asked me to write an open memo to Karen Hughes, one of U.S. President George W. Bush’s under secretaries of state. Hughes was then charged with improving America’s battered image in the Arab world, and I was tasked to suggest ways to accomplish her mission. At the time, Bush was still enjoying the deference afforded him by his victory in 2004, and he had just appointed Hughes to her position as the country’s public-relations czar.
When I told my editor that the surest way to better relations with the Arab world was for the United States to seek an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he was quick to respond that the magazine was looking for new ideas. Besides, that advice was useless to Hughes, because she was only involved in image, not actual policy. My suggestions, he told me, should deal with U.S. policies in the region as a given.
I asked myself if I should offer any assistance to a government I thought was intent on doing harm to the Middle East. After all, Hughes’s boss was still waging a war that caused thousands of casualties, and Bush’s greater designs were discrediting the ragged group of activists working to expand liberal democracy in the Arab world.
In the end, I made my bid and contributed the memo, having convinced myself that confidence-building measures were necessary before serious political inroads could be made. Foreign Policy published it under the title How to Sell America. Some had a warm response to my thoughts; soon after FP published the article, the U.S. Embassy in Beirut commended me for my ideas, while an American public-relations company asked for my advice with TV programming in Iraq. Some political science professors told me they had included the memo in their syllabi.
But most of what I got was flak.
One Palestinian journalist commented that no amount of rhetoric, spin, or diversion was going to make him forget that U.S. policy in the region is what it is. The reality was just too bleak, too tragic, too transparent. Then Williams College professor Marc Lynch, who frequently spoke to the media on Arab-American affairs, wrote on his blog that the one memo Karen Hughes should not read was mine. My own network of friends was equally displeased, sending me e-mails asking me to explain myself.
One week after my memo’s publication, all I could be thankful for was that Foreign Policy was mostly read by people who didn’t know me and didn’t live in Beirut. On top of this, I saw myself agreeing more and more with my detractors. Despite Hughes’s best efforts, America’s reputation under Bush suffered. Even if his administration had considered my advice, there would still have been a Muntadhar al-Zaidi to throw his shoes at the president in anger, to the applause of most Arabs.
It has been four years since that article was published, and relations with the Arab world are now the concern of a very different president. On June 4, another U.S. president, Barack Hussein Obama, will come to Cairo to deliver a much-anticipated address to the Muslim world, in an attempt to repair much of the damage caused during the Bush years. From the perspective of a public-relations strategist, the current U.S. president is close to the perfect man for the job. He is charismatic and can boast of a diverse background. Surely his middle name will help him when he visits, too.
The new U.S. leader enjoys very favorable ratings in the Arab world, according to poll results released this week by Ipsos. On average, close to 50 percent of Arabs in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan think favorably of Obama — more than twice the average rating for Bush four years ago. People of the Arab world, according to Ipsos, think the U.S. president will have a positive effect on their own country, the Middle East, the United States and indeed the world.
I am looking forward to Obama’s speech, which undoubtedly will be of historic significance. I cannot think of an U.S. president making such a gesture to Muslims, coming specifically to our region to talk to us as a people. But the conflict between Arabs and Israelis remains a tremendous barrier, and all Obama may be able to do is talk the talk in the face of it.
Indeed, for the immediate future, very much like Hughes, there is little else that he can do. Over the last few years, the complexities of the problem have grown in intensity, with both sides moving into more radical territory. During U.S. President Bill Clinton’s tenure, negotiations between Syria and Israel, and between the Palestinians and Israel, twice collapsed because no agreement could be reached over what parcels of land would be ceded by the Jewish state in exchange for peace. That formula, of land for peace, much touted in those years, is no longer relevant. Today the conflict has moved on to an unprecedented ideological and religious level, where fundamentalists on both sides have little interest in common sense. Settlers continue constructing homes on Palestinian land as they lay the groundwork for a Jewish state in Greater Israel. Among Palestinians, religious groups of which Hamas is probably the more moderate, have the momentum. Neither side to the conflict recognizes the other, each entrenched in the conviction of its faith and bound by strict ideology.
What has not changed is the fact that U.S. foreign policy, in the words of British historian Eric Hobsbawn, is aimed inwards, not outwards, however great and ruinous its impact on the rest of the world. There is very little incentive for Obama to fight the necessary battles within his own country to bring about peace in our region. His electorate may support him, but many Americans appear tired of the conundrum the region represents to him, while powerful members of his Democratic Party expect him to show Israel the same support his predecessor did. But Obama would be smart to consider the long run in a region like this. If he continues to hold mutual principles in high regard and helps lessen the sorry cynicism that pervades the political rhetoric in and about our region, we may realize what kind of friend we have really inherited, even with all his country’s complexities. On June 4, it may be enough for him to at least talk the talk, so long as his swagger is as compelling as his oratory.
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