Former ambassador to Israel, Syria: The beginning of the end is here

Dramatic indigenous changes in the Middle East, such as the Palestinian election and street demonstrations in Lebanon, are leading to “the beginning of the end of autocracy,” said former Ambassador to Israel and Syria Edward Djerejian.

However, he added that the United States needed to continue its public diplomacy efforts in the region to spread democracy.

In late 2003, just months prior to the Iraq War, Djerejian formed a group of 15 bipartisan experts to travel to Indonesia, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe to research and answer a question posed by Congress: “Why do they [the Arab world] hate us?”

He explained his findings to an audience of U students, faculty and community members Tuesday in the Dumke Auditorium and during a Presidential Luncheon, stressing that true democracy extends beyond free elections.

Djerejian said free press and economic growth-through free market competition and a global market-are other important elements in developing true democracy in the region.

He stressed the media as an imperative ingredient, saying there is a need for public diplomacy through a combined private and public campaign that touts positive, representative American programming such as Meet the Press and the Discovery Channel in the Middle East.

Djerejian said the United States should monitor the Arab press, as the British foreign office in London is currently doing, to respond to inaccuracies in the coverage and generate a positive image.

Djerejian said the United States has spent upward of $600 million per year in taxpayer money on government-sponsored radio and television in the Arab world, but people are “highly suspect” of the information the outlets disseminate, and they tend to equate it with “the same propaganda they’ve been fed for decades.”

The absence of representative media and human Americans in the Middle East has resulted in uncertainty among the Arab people, he said.

“Fundamentally, we’re not there,” he said. “We don’t have enough linguists and fluent spokespersons.”

Djerejian said in 2003, while doing the commission’s work, he asked the State Department how many professional Arabic speakers we had.

They responded, 274.

He asked how many of those were professionally competent enough to do work with the language.

They responded, 70.

And when Djerejian asked how many foreign-service officers were competent enough to go on Al-Jazeera Television “tonight,” they responded.

Five.

“We have global interests and strategic interests in this part of the world. That is ridiculous,” Djerejian said as he quoted Woody Allen saying “90 percent of life is just showing up.”

“Believe me, we are not showing up in that part of the world,” Djerejian said. “Fundamentally, we are not there.”

He added that another way to spread a more positive image of the United States is to attract exchange students, but they are constantly being rejected.

“There is nothing more effective than what we call ‘three-feet-away public diplomacy.’ The human dimension is critical,” he said. “We need to balance our security with student-visa applications. It’s a crime there’s such a stoppage or decline of students from this part of the world coming to the United States. The best thing is for them to come here and see who we are.”

He said the number of USAID Scholarships have declined from 20,000 to 900 per year between 1980 and 2003 while Fulbright Scholarships have similarly dropped off from 45,000 to 29,000 per year.

“The struggle for ideas impacts greatly on our region and impacts greatly on our lives as we saw on 9/11,” Djerejian said. “If we don’t progress and reach stability so we are able to express ourselves politically, we could lose to extremism. And we can’t afford to lose.”

[email protected]