Selling The U.S.A.

Most of the new PR plan was ready to go. As the new moon ushered in the month of Ramadan last week, U.S. officials prepared "Mosques of America" posters, showing glossy images of domes and minarets, for distribution across the Arab world. President George W. Bush and ambassadors in the Middle East and Asia would welcome Muslims into their homes to mark iftar, or the breaking of the fast. Muslim Americans were set to mingle with foreign Islamic journalists from the Washington area, no doubt to extol the virtues of the Bill of Rights. Said a senior State Department official, "We are demonstrating to the Muslim world that Americans take [Muslim] holidays as seriously as they do Christian and Jewish holidays."

The education won't happen overnight. America learned that lesson during the cold war, when it patiently committed vast resources to teach Eastern Europe the virtues of democracy, helping to soften up the Soviet empire before the fall of the Berlin wall. But while the new campaign in the Middle East and parts of Africa and Asia will require a similar commitment ("We're talking generations here," said the official), the U.S. approach this time around will update Old World propaganda with a solid dose of Madison Avenue spin. Heading the American campaign is Charlotte Beers, the newly appointed undersecretary of State for public diplomacy, and a respected advertising executive who started off promoting Uncle Ben's rice. She now has to burnish the public image of the United States--"the most elegant brand I've ever had to work with," she says.

At the same time, Karl Rove, a senior adviser to George W. Bush, is rallying Hollywood to help support the war effort. Earlier this month he flew to Los Angeles to meet with film executives--the first time, many in the industry claim, that they have seen reps from every major studio, network and union come together. But the administration is trying to be more sophisticated in the way it uses Hollywood, avoiding the World War II strategy of rolling out grade-B propaganda films by the likes of Ronald Reagan. "What was made very clear was that this was not a discussion about the content of films," said Jim Gianopulos, cochairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. Instead, they discussed morale-building steps like sending film stars to entertain the troops. Last weekend, as part of its PR campaign, Fox flew actor Owen Wilson to San Diego on an F-18 to attend a screening of the film "Behind Enemy Lines," shown to 1,500 naval officers and sailors. Also under discussion are Hollywood-produced public-service announcements urging Americans to do volunteer work. Most people already have rallied around the flag, planners assume--now the trick is to keep them alert and ready for whatever happens next in a war that once again could hit U.S. shores without warning.

Advice from spinmeisters is also invading Congress. Last week Henry Hyde, chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, invited media, advertising and television executives to a hearing on how to "re-invent" public diplomacy. One witness, a retired Procter & Gamble executive, shared his experience selling Tide laundry detergent in Pakistan. He said the ad campaign, which in the West relies on laundering white tablecloths to show Tide's effectiveness, nearly failed--before he learned that most Pakistanis use place mats instead of tablecloths. The message: do your market research. Another witness, TV writer John Romano, said the United States ought to encourage TV broadcasts of civil-rights dramas like "Amistad" and "Roots" instead of frivolous sitcoms and soap operas. "We'd be saying that we, like so many abroad, have struggled to establish a way of life that is just and fair, and that we've fallen on our face a few times," said Romano, a producer and writer of shows like "Party of Five" and "Hill Street Blues."

Some worry that the administration lacks a well-thought-out approach to its new culture war. "There are a lot of people in the administration flailing around," said William Rugh, a former ambassador to Egypt. Yet others feel the government is wise to take cues from outside the Beltway. "The U.S. doesn't know how to spin to the Muslim world," said Husain Haqqani, who served as spokesman for two Pakistani prime ministers. "But Coke and Pepsi speak in native tongues and market themselves all the way down to the poorest village."

Still, the government is investing in a few cold-war staples. The Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have stepped up their news programs to the Middle East and parts of Asia. The Bush administration recently approved a new venture that would beam round-the-clock radio, TV and Internet broadcasts into the Middle East, Africa and parts of Asia at a cost of $222 million per year. The Middle East Radio Network is set to go on the air in February and will eventually broadcast programs in 26 languages, aimed at Muslim youth. The programming will consist mostly of contemporary music, with shows on health, dating and local news delivered in the local language. It will also incorporate Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty programs, which are more international in scope.

Some think another government-sponsored radio station is the last thing Arabs will listen to. "You cannot treat the Arab and Muslim world with cold-war tools, the way we were dealing with the Soviets," said Mouafac Harb, Washington bureau chief for the London-based Arabic-language daily Al Hayat. "There is a mistrust between the masses and their government, so whenever anything official comes to them, whether it's from their government or from the United States, they look at it with suspicion."

There's plenty more that can be done. The U.S. government is looking into rebuilding some of the libraries and cultural centers that were shut down in cities like Islamabad and Izmir, and at beefing up its cultural-exchange programs. Beers pointed out recently that one third of the world leaders in the coalition against terrorism have visited the United States on such programs. Michael McCarry, a former diplomat who heads the Alliance for Educational and Cultural Exchange in Washington, is urging the State Department to allot $50 million to $75 million for an educational-exchange initiative for the Islamic world. The funds could go toward additional Fulbright scholarships, university linkages or professional exchanges. After all, the key to understanding is education.

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