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American voice doesn't get through to Muslims

Egyptians are grateful to Japan for building Cairo's striking opera house. Yet few Cairo residents know their water, sewer and power systems were paid for by the United States.

Even when America does good, it often fails to get the credit.

It's no secret Uncle Sam has an image problem, especially in Arab and other Muslim countries. In Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population, only 15 percent have a favorable view of the United States. In Turkey, a U.S. ally, the favorable opinion plunged from 52 percent three years ago to 15 percent last spring. And by a wide margin, residents of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain viewed America as a bigger threat than Saddam Hussein's regime.

Much of the perception is because of unpopular U.S. policies: the invasion of Iraq; the strong support of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians; the perceived coziness of the U.S. government with repressive Arab regimes.

Yet anti-Americanism also is on the rise because the United States has done a woeful job of "public diplomacy" _ explaining and promoting its values to people of other countries _ according to a provocative report.

That failure "has contributed to widespread hostility toward Americans and left us vulnerable to lethal threats to our interest and our safety," warns Changing Minds, Winning Peace. "In this time of peril, public diplomacy is absurdly and dangerously underfunded."

The report comes from a panel appointed in June to advise Congress and the White House on ways to improve America's abysmal relations with the Muslim world. Led by Edward Djerejian, former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Israel, committee members interviewed U.S. foreign service officers and visited several Muslim countries. Among the troublesome findings:

+ Only 54 State Department employees are fluent in Arabic, and "only a handful can hold their own on television," the report says. The situation is "even worse" for Turkish, Farsi and other languages common in the Muslim world.

As a result, the U.S. side of controversial issues is often missing. One example: Al-Arabiyya, a Dubai-based satellite channel, broadcast a program called The Americanization of Islam, with the theme that the United States is plotting to change the 1,500-year-old religion. No Americans were interviewed and no American rebuttal was presented.

"Our adversaries, lacking the power to counter the U.S. militarily, have become more adept at nonmilitary techniques," the report says. "Television is by far the most efficient means of disseminating ideas in the Arab and Muslim world, and accurate portrayals of U.S. policies on TV are largely absent."

+ Of the State Department's $600-million public diplomacy budget, only $150-million is spent in Muslim countries. And much of that goes for salaries of U.S. embassy employees rather than programs aimed at people living outside national capitals _ "a mistake, in our view, because the impact is often greater in such areas."

+ Because of budget cutbacks, many American cultural centers in foreign countries have closed, limiting access to lectures, films and other venues for telling the American story.

"I have never served in a country where people haven't said you blew it when you closed the cultural centers and libraries," a State Department official is quoted in the report. "They tell me, "No wonder my kids don't know the truth about the United States.' "

+ Tighter visa requirements and a sharp reduction in scholarships mean fewer students from Muslim nations are coming to the United States. Yet education can be a valuable bridge between America and the Muslim world. A poll of students in Lebanon, Pakistan and Indonesia found 80 percent had a favorable view of U.S. education, largely because it encourages critical thinking instead of rote memorization.

There is much more in the 81-page report. Some recommendations _ like creating a Cabinet-level office of public diplomacy based in the White House _ have angered government agencies that fear losing their independence.

Yet the report deserves far more attention than it has received because it outlines ways America can regain at least some of the respect it has lost in recent years.

"The transformation we advocate can have a profound effect on Arab and Muslim countries as well," the report says. ". . . With effective policies and public diplomacy, we can galvanize indigenous moderates and reformers within these societies. The overall task is to marginalize the extremists."

_ Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susansptimes.com.

Read the report

"Changing Minds, Winning Peace" is available at www.state.gov/documents/ organization/24882.pdf

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