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America's public diplomacy needs a boost

Efforts to foster democratic ideals, such as exchange programs, are key.

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Both Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have floated a trial balloon, suggesting that an unspecified number of US troops could remain long term in Iraq, on the pattern of South Korea, where US troops have remained for more than a half century after the conclusion of the Korean war.

Whether that would win consent from the Iraqis or political approval from the American people is uncertain.

What does seem clear is that unless some short-term miracle occurs, Iraq is not soon to be the hoped-for example of freedom, peace, and stability that would inspire other Islamic lands throughout the Middle East to throw off their shackles and embrace democracy.

Yet President Bush and, I suspect, a majority of the American people, believe that the freedoms Americans enjoy should be the right of all men and women. So how should free nations lend encouragement and support to peoples not yet free?

Whether a Democratic or Repub-lican administration wins the right next year to govern the United States, there will probably be little appetite for attempting to impose democracy by military force. Therefore, the answer lies in nonmilitary public diplomacy, the craft of explaining and fostering democratic values and ideals.

Polls show that US policies, particularly in the Middle East, have triggered rising anti-Americanism. A recent BBC survey of 25 countries found only 29 percent of those polled believing that the US is a mainly positive influence in the world. Two years prior to that, the figure was 40 percent. Clearly, the US has lost ground in world public opinion.

But non-Americans differentiate between US policy and the American people and way of life. Pollster James Zogby, on the basis of five years of polling Arab publics, told a House foreign-affairs subcommittee last month that "[i]n almost every case, Arabs liked our values, our people, culture, and products. They did not like our policies." David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy told the legislators that Arabs who had experienced personal contact with the American people had a better impression of Americans by a margin that was "modest but significant."

Clearly, exchange programs that bring non-Americans to the US are a significant factor in forming their image of the American people. The visitors come, they travel, they read American newspapers, they listen to Americans themselves debating their government's policies, and they see democracy – in all its strengths and weaknesses – in action. Generally they leave with a more positive view than they came with, although not necessarily agreeing with US government policies of the day.


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