Monday, September 17, 2012

The need for more US public diplomacy in the Middle East

The tragic deaths of Libyan Ambassador Christopher Stevens and members of his security detail, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, have led to calls for greater disengagement from the Middle East.  I would argue that the current unrest in the region calls for more not less engagement. What form should this engagement take?

The US needs a much more robust public diplomacy program in the Middle East. The very fact that most of the youth who are currently demonstrating against the United States have a complete lack of knowledge of the manner in which our democracy functions underscores the need for a stronger public diplomacy program.  Many Middle Easterners believe that the US government could have prevented the distribution of the offensive film, "The Innocence of Muslims," not realizing that neither the Obama administration nor any other American administration has the power to prevent freedom of expression, however repugnant.

What is called for is a greater effort to bring the reality of the US to the peoples of the Middle East, especially youth, who constitute an excessively large percentage of the region's population.  Indeed, demographers refer to a "youth bulge" in the Middle East because in many countries over 70% of the populace is under the age of 30.

A large percentage of Middle Eastern youth is educated but lacks employment.  Given stagnant economies and extensive corruption and nepotism within the state, they have little hope for the future.  Most see any meaningful career as beyond their reach.  This hopelessness by no means excuses their violent behavior, but it should place the anger many youth in the region feel in context.

Education systems in the Middle East do not promote critical thinking, unless one attends an elite private school which is usually reserved for the wealthy.  Courses in the social sciences and humanities where such thinking could be promoted are limited.  Memorization is more highly valued than developing one's ability to think for oneself. Much greater emphasis is placed on "useful" curricula, such as computer science, and the natural sciences.

As part of a more robust public diplomacy initiative, one strategy to offset lack of knowledge of the American political system and institutions is to offer more scholarships for students from the region to study in the US.  I was struck when conducting research in Iraq while Saddam Husayn was still in power how many Iraqis had been positively influenced by their study in the US.

Interviewing Ba'th Party and government officials usually produced a lengthy tirade against US imperialism in the Middle East.  How often I would be surprised when, after this tirade, the official would suddenly burst into a big smile and tell me how much he (and it was invariably a male) enjoyed his time at one or another American university.  Clearly their experiences in the US had had a positive impact.

We currently have a large contingent of Iraqi students pursuing advanced degrees at my university.  They are enjoying their stay here immensely and are impressed by the high quality of education and the warmth with which they have been received by the university community.  Fortunately, these students are recipients of government fellowships which cover their tuition and all their expenses.

Despite our current economic crisis, a small portion of the funds spent on sophisticated weapons systems might be better spent on supporting scholarships for students from the Middle East to study in the US.  How many scholarships could be provided, for example, by one stealth bomber which costs $4.5 billion to build. While providing education for students from the Middle East would not guarantee a positive outcome in all cases, the vast majority of students would return to their countries with positive attitudes towards American culture and society.  These attitudes would pay dividends for the US far into the future.

Another initiative should entail offering educational opportunities for those students who cannot come to study in the US.  Education offered through video conferencing and Internet based education provides another means by which youth in the Middle East could be made aware of the tremendous benefits of an American university education while giving them exposure to our values and open political culture.

Still another initiative should engage the clerical community of the three Abrahamic religions, Islam, Christianity and Judaism.  The Obama administration should form a Committee of Religious Engagement which would include prominent clerics in the US drawn from theses three major faiths.  That committee should hold high profile meetings in the US, the Middle East and elsewhere which would emphasize the shared values of all 3 faiths and their commitment to tolerance, non-violence and religious pluralism.

Muslims in the US often face discrimination.  However, for the most part, they enjoy great freedom of religion.  Many Muslims have told me that they have greater freedom to express their religious beliefs here in the US than they would were they back in the country from which they emigrated.  That the US is a country built on religious tolerance is a message which the peoples of the Middle East need to better understand.  

Creating bonds between the US and the peoples of the Middle East can be promoted through establishing more "sister cities."  Such relationships already exist but could be dramatically increased.  This process could not only create more communication between American citizens and peoples in the Middle East, but towns and cities in the US could use such ties to provide communities in the Middle East with needed materials, such as educational resources, medicines and state of the art technology.

Once such relationships were established, municipal officials from the Middle East could be invited by their counterparts and the citizens of the sister cities to come to the US.  Such visits would allow these officials to see the level of civic commitment and engagement that citizens of American towns and cities enjoy and then convey that knowledge back to their own communities in the Middle East.

These efforts would not entail considerable costs.  The US State Department should ask the Congress to allocate funds so that these efforts could bear fruition.  While the term has been overused, the need to win "hearts and minds" in the Middle East - especially in light of the growing instability in the region - is more important than ever.  Time is of the essence.  The Obama administration should begin immediately to expand its use of public diplomacy as a central tool of our foreign policy in the Middle East.


Jerry Edling said...

These are all excellent ideas, especially the proposal for an organization that would engage the Abrahamic religions in an ongoing way. I have long advocated such an approach and believe it is something that religious organizations could initiate.

Good public diplomacy gives nations such as the U.S. the benefit of the doubt in volatile regions of the world. Jobs and education are key components of that, especially in regions where the bulk of the population is young and jobs are scarce. Initiatives such as the Desertec Foundation, which seeks to supply clean energy to Europe and beyond via solar panels in the Sahara, could be a springboard for educational exchange and job enrichment programs in North Africa centered on the STEM fields.

I am surprised that more members of Congress aren't clamoring for more appropriations for public diplomacy as they shape the budget. It is such a worthwhile investment.

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