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Right Intention: America's Image

Thursday, January 06, 2005

America's Image

Interesting question in USA Today

Could U.S. aid to survivors alter anti-Americanism among Muslims?

By Barbara Slavin and Kathy Kiely, USA TODAY

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — The U.S. servicemen have been logging 24-hour shifts in sweltering humidity, but their voices bubble with enthusiasm as they describe the welcome they've received in the most conservative Islamic province of this Muslim country.

In a word, no. It will make no difference whatsoever. Whatever happiness these people feel now will evaporate five to ten minutes after our work is finished and we leave. Let's not forget that Europe was once grateful for our help, too. Now Europeans as a whole consider the US the biggest threat in the world, ahead of Bin Laden, North Korea, etc. And keep in mind that Europe still depends on the US for its security.

That's not to say we shouldn't help. Clearly we should. We need to do everything we can to help these victims. But we should not kid ourselves about any ancillary benefits. After all, we went to war three times in the last 10 years on behalf of Muslims (Bosnia, Kosovo, Kuwait) and yet we were barely thanked, never mind generating any lasting good feelings. Maybe there is a little in Kuwait, but not as much as one would expect.

A recurring fantasy seems to be creeping into the mindset of politicians. And that fantasy is if we give people lots of money and food, they will like us for it. Normally it's only Democrats that subscribe to this theory, but once in a while, in events like this Republicans fall for it too. Wise up people, it doesn't work in the long haul. Again, look at Europe. Or Egypt. The billions in aid we give Egypt each year isn't buying us a whole lot. Simply giving people lots of money and food generates dependency, which eventually morphs into a sense of entitlement, resentment or both. Over the long term, this approach has not worked, does not work, and will never work. We need to learn this lesson once and for all.

If the US wants to create a better image in the Middle East, the answer isn't more foreign aid. It's promoting democracy. It's promoting human rights. It's developing free trade agreements, which do much more to eradicate poverty than any aid program ever has. It's refusing to support dictatorships that oppress the population. It's helping the population realize there are better alternatives to the lives they currently lead. And almost none of that requires gobs of foreign aid. A competent communications department that accurately portrays America in the Middle East (and Europe for that matter) to counter the unrelenting negative message coming from foreign governments and media will do much more for America's image than attempting to buy the population's love. Give these people all the aid they need right now, but for the long term, a Radio Free Arabia will do much more our image.

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