An Interview with
Ambassador Chris Ross
Ross, Special Coordinator for Public Diplomacy, has held a succession of important
posts at the State Department, including Coordinator for Counterterrorism (1998),
Ambassador to Syria (1991-98), and Ambassador to Algeria (1988-91).
Sarah J. Sullivan spoke to Ambassador Ross in Washington DC about the US government's
attempts to send a message to the Muslim World.
What is the essence of the message that you feel needs to be conveyed
to the Arab world?
Ross: I think that the essence of the message is that American policy
has attempted to be balanced and fair, despite the perceptions of many, many people
in the Arab world. Apart from that, the message is to remind people that there
are a number of values that we and the peoples of the Middle East share, be it
family, respect for faith, a desire for education, etc. So it's on the one hand
an attempt to clarify and explain our policies, and on the other hand a search
for common ground and common values.
a new book by James Zogby, published by the Arab Thought Foundation and Zogby
International, which found exactly that - that Americans and Arabs pretty much
across the board gave very similar answers in terms of what their values and concerns
are. Is that something you are trying to emphasize?
trying to establish a much broader and deeper dialogue with the peoples of the
Middle East, and in order to do so it helps to find common ground as a starting
point. We've identified certain values that we share; I think the remarkable thing
about the Zogby study and the many polls done since Sept. 11, both inside the
government and in the private sector, is that despite animosity that many people
feel over American policy in the Middle East as they see it, there remains a great
deal of respect and admiration for many aspects of the US, be it our educational
system, our health care system, our technological advances, our atmosphere of
opportunity for all, etc. These things are known, respected, and admired in the
Arab world, even as there is hostility toward certain of our policies.
said "peoples" of the Middle East, which is key - you're not addressing one unified
audience but a broad range of nationalities, religions, perspectives, outlooks,
opinions about America. How do you go about reaching so many audiences?
not easy, especially in this age of media saturation. Many years ago it was possible
to conceive of different messages for different audiences, but that becomes increasingly
less possible when certain media come to occupy the very central role they have.
Certainly in the Middle East today television has replaced radio and the printed
press as the main source of news for a great many people. Whether it's satellite
or terrestrial based, it's a very powerful medium, and we're slowly learning to
work with it. One lesson is that the more efficient a medium is, the less possible
it is to differentiate your messages. We're not generating numerous versions of
our message; it's basically one message for the broader audience. Of course, within
each country we have public affairs staff who seek to put that message into the
local context, and there may be some fine-tuning and adjusting to be done. We
do recognize that from Morocco to Indonesia there's a huge Muslim population,
and from Morocco to the Gulf a huge Arab population, and there are specificities
that have to be taken into account in our local programs.
Arab satellite television in particular has had a tremendous impact in the region,
and has received much criticism from outside as well as earning lots of praise-some
stations in particular. Satellite television has been criticized for inflaming
the Arab people, and praised for airing news that the government-run stations
wouldn't touch. What's your impression of the impact satellite television has
had in the region and how it contributes to a dialogue?
have to start with the situation that existed before the advent of satellite television,
particularly the semi-independent variety. Arab television stations were a pretty
dull lot. Their programming was not very lively. The advent of the satellite stations,
those not directly controlled by governments, has obliged all the other stations
to make some effort to improve their programming, because now for the first time
for those who can afford the equipment, there are alternatives to national television.
If my experience in the Middle East is any guide, the equipment required gets
cheaper and cheaper by the day, and people are prepared to sacrifice almost anything
to have it. If you go up to the hills above most Arab cities you'll find a sea
of satellite dishes. The penetration is very great and the competition is there.
That's been a tremendously
positive influence of the advent of these satellite stations. Potentially they
do have the capacity to broaden discussion and debate to areas that are difficult
or taboo on government stations. I don't think that potential has been fully realized.
Perhaps some stations are making a good start, and I know there are a couple that
are committed to presenting balanced discussion of key issues. But to take the
most-widely cited example, Al Jazeera, the US government welcomed it's advent
when it first emerged precisely because it brought a new style and new liveliness
and new relevance to Arab television, but since Sept. 11 we've been very concerned
that as it engages in discussion and debate it does so from a very biased perspective;
it has a clear point of view on the events it is presenting for analysis and discussion.
And that should not be. Professional journalism requires that when you discuss
a subject you have all major points of view represented. With Al Jazeera what
you often get is several people, but all at one end of the spectrum. So there's
work to be done to induce more balance. But on the whole the advent of Al Jazeera
and other Arab satellite stations has been a great step forward in opening up
the intellectual and cultural life of the Arab world.
We are looking at how
best to interact with this new world of Arab television, whether we ought to go
the route of creating our own US government satellite station in Arabic, or whether
we should be encouraging private sector initiatives in this regard, or whether
our main focus should be on acquiring and providing programming that we could
offer to the existing Arab satellite and terrestrial television stations. There
are a number of ways we could go and we're looking at the pros and cons of each,
but we clearly recognize that television is today's hot medium.
You yourself have been interviewed a number of times on Al Jazeera, as were Condoleeza
Rice and Colin Powell and other US officials. Their bureau chief here has been
quoted as saying he was begging representatives of the US government for interviews
after Sept. 11. Do you think they've been receptive to airing American points
you're dealing at the level of Sec. Powell or Dr. Rice, those are individuals
who will be interviewed one-on-one and with a certain level of respect. But in
other instances we're often thrown on panels where the other extreme is very extreme,
and it's difficult to conduct a discussion when you're that far along one side
of the spectrum. I prefer to appear on the news programs rather than the panel
shows and debate shows, which on Al-Jazeera at least are not very productive.
On some of the other satellite stations I think they do a better job of that particular
format. But this is a field that is evolving daily, and who knows what it will
look like in a year.
back to the plans for either a US government-run or a private-sector satellite
television station in Arabic - what is the status of those initiatives?
can only speak for the US government efforts, and even there I can't say much,
because the proposal to create a freestanding US government satellite station
in Arabic comes from the Board of Broadcasting Governors, which is independent
of the Department of State, so questions on that would better be directed to them.
They've put a lot of thinking and research into the proposal; of course this being
television it has a rather high price tag, so it remains to be seen, in the context
of Congressional and administration attitudes toward the federal budget, whether
the sums it would require could be allocated. That's one option that has reached
the stage of a proposal and must now be further discussed.
On the private sector
side there have been initiatives as well, and they're actively involved in seeking
sources of funding from American foundations, corporations, individuals with an
interest in promoting a better dialogue between the people of the United States
and the people of the Arab world. Because there is this possibility of a US government
station, they haven't advanced very far into their fundraising, because people
are saying, why this if that. That dilemma is going to persist for a while because
there won't be an answer on possible US government plans for some time. In the
meantime private groups are also looking into exactly what we're interested in
doing, which is acquiring programming that could be offered to the existing satellite
One example of that type of programming is the videos on Muslims in America that
the US government is attempting to air on stations all across the Muslim world
this Ramadan. How is that being met?
videos are a series of one- to two-minute spots describing Muslim life in America
as seen through the eyes of specific individuals and they form part of a much
larger communication effort which involves not only television but also radio,
the print media, speakers, and interactive fora of various kinds, from Indonesia
and Malaysia through the Arab world. The intention is to run all of this several
times during the month of Ramadan as a message to the Muslim world from the American
people and from American Muslims. So far the program is running in Indonesia,
in Malaysia, and on several of the Arab satellite stations, so it's already widely
noticed and commented upon in the Muslim and Arab worlds. There are some countries
we'd like to run it in where it's still under review by censorship boards, but
I think by the end of Ramadan most Arab viewers will have seen at least some of
these spots or read some of the print versions that we've made available to the
Whether it's video spots, or a TV channel, be it private or government, or print
ads, there are always going to be people who say that this is US propaganda. And
there are always going to be people who you can't convince otherwise. But how
do you overcome resistance to this type of campaign?
are going to be people we can never convince of anything, and they are the people
who resort to the acts of terrorism that we've seen. There's nothing we can do
to change their view of the United States. Our audience is what I would call the
skeptical majority that has strong reservations about aspects of American policy
as they see it, but also admires and respects many aspects of American life and
achievement. This is a large audience and we've made a deliberate effort to reach
out to the younger generation through not only the communication plan we just
discussed but also with plans to begin an Arabic-language magazine, to further
develop the programming of Radio Sawa, which is again an independent initiative
of the Board of Broadcasting Governors but which very happily runs parallel to
our efforts here at the State Department.
There are many people
who, yes, will say this is American propaganda. But it's a communications effort
we're making; it's American Muslims themselves who are speaking, it isn't us,
and they will probably be received with a bit more credibility than the official
spokesmen. But we do have a premise in our work that we're not involved in telling
you lies, we're involved in conveying truth and conveying policy as accurately
as possible. There's a tremendous job of clarification to be done on policy, because
since we are a principal actor in the Middle East whose actions affect many, many
parties, each party tries to interpret our policy to its favor. So you get skewed
interpretations of our policies floating around as if they were our policies.
The first task is to make sure that however people are reacting, whether it's
in favor or opposed, they're reacting to an understanding of the real policy and
not somebody else's description of that policy. But even after you've clarified
and you've made sure the policy is understood for what it is, there will always
be people who disagree, because policy is derived from the politics and the national
interest of any given country, and the US is no different in that regard. Some
differences may be so profound as to be virtually unbridgeable, but we'd like
to hope that by doing an effective job at explaining our policies and reminding
people that we share a great deal with them, that gradually the atmosphere are
attitudes toward the US will improve. It's a long-term effort.
Is it a concern to you that at the precise time when there is this need to "win
hearts and minds" or to get a dialogue going, exchange programs might be on the
decline, fewer people from the Middle East might be willing to come to the US
or they might encounter logistical and visa problems, and fewer Americans might
be willing to travel to the Middle East right now? That kind of direct experience
and contact can be extremely valuable - is this a concern?
would preface my answer by pointing out that there's a difference between "winning
hearts and minds" and engaging in dialogue. We're trying to engage in dialogue,
not set our objective as winning hearts and minds, because we recognize that there
are some profound differences between us and certain elements in the Arab world.
But yes, it's a concern. Given the painful events of Sept. 11 this country has
embarked on a number of initiatives that are not always internally coherent. We're
engaged in a tremendous effort to improve our dialogue and improve our outreach
to the Muslim and Arab worlds while at the same time greatly modifying the procedures
for obtaining visas to visit this country or to study or work here. It is a real
problem, and one that the Department of State is quite aware of. Discussions of
how to fit all these differing policies together continue. Clearly we want to
open up as much as we can to the Arab and Muslim worlds and we also have to provide
for as much security as possible domestically for the American people and the
requirements of these two may sometimes take us in different directions.
The funds for exchange
programs are increasing, so there will be no break from our side. There may be
people who choose not to come but we hope to be able to work out procedures to
make it easier for them to come when they are traveling by US government invitation.
In the end these situations may require us to think in very new ways and create
programs that take into account that it's now more difficult to get to the US,
perhaps doing programs in third countries or doing more through video conferencing.
There's a certain amount that can be done to reduce the impact. But it remains
true that exchanges and face-to-face contact are the most effective means of overcoming
misunderstandings and hostilities, whether it's foreign guests coming to the United
States or Americans going overseas. I've make two trips to the Middle East since
Sept. 11, and I was quite pleased to see that whatever people's attitudes about
American policy were, they are as hospitable as ever to the American people.
This question is not directly related to your efforts but, I think, very relevant
to the bigger picture. Do you think US public opinion also needs to be reshaped?
There are quite a few misperceptions about the Arab world here in this country
that also need to be cleared up if we want to get a dialogue going.
absolutely true and I've been very blunt in telling any Arab friend who will listen
that the Arab governments and the Arab publics need to do a much better job of
presenting their case in this country. This is one of the freest media environments
in the world. With persistence you can make your voice heard in this country and
collectively the Arab governments and Arab peoples have not done very well at
this. If they want to see a better image of themselves in this country they have
to do the work. I've often engaged in long discussions over how this can be done.
Ideas abound but the practical work has yet to be done. In the whole region of
hundreds of millions of people, there are certainly a few dozen who could join
in mounting an effective public affairs campaign in this country. Just as our
efforts to present our message in the Arab world have their requirements and their
obstacles, so too here. Here the first lesson is that you need to speak very good
English and look presentable. That's the reality of our media environment today.
You have someone who claims to be a spokesman for a country, or a given set of
interests, and the only message they can deliver is the same message they would
deliver to a party rally in their own country-that that won't sell at all in the
United States. So there's a great deal of work to be done on that front. There
are misperceptions and misunderstandings on both sides of this very important
Sarah J. Sullivan is Web/Publications
Manager for the Arab American Institute and former managing editor of TBS.