Remarks by Walid Maalouf
Former US Public Delegate to the United Nations
Former Director Public Diplomacy at USAID

Institute for Cultural Diplomacy
International Symposium on Cultural Diplomacy
The German Marshall Fund of the United States
Wednesday, May 18, 2011
Washington, DC

 
In international relations, public diplomacy is a term coined in 1965 to describe the conduct of foreign policy by engagement with foreign publics. It has been closely associated with the former United States Information Agency, which used the term to define its mission.

But public diplomacy is also civility, explanation, communication, dialogue, attitude and much more to inform and influence. It is practiced through personal contact, media interviews, educational & cultural exchange, speaking opportunities, motion pictures and publications including nowadays the internet and all its social dynamics.

So public diplomacy is not something that is written and then implemented, it is a changing and evolving strategy based on the issues that are faced on a daily basis. It goes beyond traditional foreign relations in reaching out to a large number of people - not only to the political establishment.

Public diplomacy in the late 20th and early 21st centuries has become much more complicated. After September 11, 2001, the term public diplomacy surfaced strongly on the US diplomatic scene to wage the war of ideas in an ideological world where religion and politics comingled in a mean-spirited and negative way, in the Middle East in particular, and in the Muslim countries in general.

As always the United States takes the lead in thinking, planning and strategizing new public diplomacy programs and actions. The US efforts towards the global Muslim community have stretched from billions of dollars in aid to outreach activities that tackled issues of a sensitive nature. Internal outreach has seen the celebrating of “Iftars” in the Holy Month of Ramadan to visiting and meeting key Muslim imams around the nation and their constituencies. President Bush named several Muslim Americans to serve in his administration and executed several Presidential initiatives focusing on the need to explain the administration positions with fellow Muslim Americans. Included among these is the Middle East Peace Initiative which was primarily my responsibility to implement on behalf of the White House.

Actually the “Iftars” started in the Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration continued this public relations efforts. I can say out of my own experience that the US has done a remarkable job in its efforts to tackle those differences and controversial ideological ideas. So, what have I learned from my Public Diplomacy experience while at the U.S. Agency for International Development from 2004 to 2008 and at the US Mission in New York in 2003?

1. We should not base our foreign policies solely on our short-term interests, but also on our principles of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We are a republic that upholds democracy, self-determination, freedom of speech, a free enterprise system and economic opportunity. So when we formulate a policy towards another country, we should always take our own principles into consideration, especially when dealing with a foreign conflict. This will make public diplomacy as a second tier clearer and more convincing.

2. We should keep religion outside the realm of all federal activity because it creates discomfort among civil servants which can lead to sharp divisions and religious competition. With religion our public diplomacy is weak from the inside and at its starting point. With religion out, public diplomacy is much better strategized.

3. Moreover, we should not use naturalized independent American religious figures to travel on behalf of the US government to speak about the tolerance that exists within the US. Instead, we should strengthen the bridge between the immigrant communities in the US and their countries of origin through successful Americans of their heritages who came to this country 20 to 30 years ago and who excel in their business practices and personal lives. This will solidify public diplomacy and best represents the tolerance that makes peaceful coexistence possible.

4. We should keep our outreach to the Middle Eastern communities in the US robust through Middle Eastern American officers who maintain relationships with those communities and assist them to be open and embrace the American way of life. This will make public diplomacy original and will minimize, from one side, the intelligence community concerns and, from the other side, the immigrant community’s sense of a scrutinized way of life.

5. We should create a national advisory board of successful Middle Eastern Americans from all religious backgrounds to assist, with their ideas and patronage, the White House and the Department of State in improving the people to people relations in this part of the world. Serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States. This will make the US public diplomacy a winner.

The overall picture of public diplomacy is not only influencing and informing but also changing things. Whatever we did in the Middle East since September 11, 2001 it definitely paved the way for this year’s Arab Spring. It all began with the fall of the dictator of Iraq Saddam Hussein and Operation Iraq Freedom on March 19, 2003, which resulted in a new inclusive constitution: elections in local municipalities and parliament; the formation of a democratic government and the building of the security and armed forces and many others. I always said that the Middle East is like an old oak tree routed in dictatorships, corruptions, terrorism, youth without future and full of lies and manipulations. This oak tree needed a positive outside force to shake it up and shake it well. And this is what happened. That was the first smell for an Arab Spring.

However, the actual launching of the Arab Spring started with the Cedar Revolution on March 14, 2005 when more than a million Lebanese from all religious backgrounds went to the heart of Beirut and called for the end of the Syrian occupation forces to leave Lebanon. This gutsy stand was carried on all TV around the world and the Cedar Revolution became the symbol of freedom in the Arab countries from the Fertile Crescent to the Arab peninsula.

I remember how my colleagues at USAID and State come by my office jubilant and happy to see this unexpected movement which led to the withdrawal of the Syrian troops on April 27, 2005. But prior to March 14, 2005 two very important events took place that led to forcing the Assad regime’s troops out - 1. On September 2, 2004 the United States and France led the efforts in the United Nations Security Council which voted on UNSCR 1559 calling on Syria to leave Lebanon immediately - 2. The assassination of the internationally well known former PM Rafic Hariri on February 14, 2005. These two events played a major role in breaking Assad’s grip over Lebanon.

With the shakeup in Iraq in 2003 and the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon in 2005, the giant was still sleeping waiting for a spark. Suddenly, it happened on December 17, 2010 when a Tunisian by the name of Mohammed Bouaziz set himself on fire. Finally, the giant was awakened and the domino effect started. We are all today witnessing these extraordinary events which have reminded us of the sudden collapse of the Berlin wall.

As the wall of dictatorships in the Middle East is collapsing, I believe we will similarly see the collapse of Muslim fanaticism and the tyranny of the “Shador,” and give women in the broader Middle East the freedom and the equality they yearn for. The elimination of Osama Bin laden cannot have happened at a better time, even though some people believe that he became irrelevant with the Arab revolutions.

Several factors have led this great generation of Arabs to stand up for their rights: 1. the unquenchable human thirst for freedom and dignity; 2. the decayed dictatorships that could not bring about a better future; 3. The revelations from Wikileaks that confirmed the widespread corruption and abuses among the region’s governments; 4. and last but not least social media technology that made the world a small town. We all felt we are in “Tahrir” square and Bourgeba’s boulevard and now in Bengazi and Musrata, in Daara, Douma and Banias.

There are striking similarities and even a sense of déjà vu when you compare Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf, the Information Minister of Sadam’s regime with Bouthaina Shaaban, Spokeswoman for the Assad regimes and Moussa Ibrahim, Spokesman of the Qaddafi’s regime. They belong to an elite club as the mouthpieces of crumbling dictators in the Middle East.

Consider the similarities of their accusations, lies and utter manipulation of the truth. In Syria for example, showering blame left and right and accusing Lebanon and Jordan of causing the downfall of the regime is unbelievable. Accusing Syrian nationals of terrorism against the regime is preposterous. Accusing other foreign countries because your people want freedom is ridiculous. No one but the Syrian people have a say in their country. They are the one who are speaking, and they are saying “Mr. Assad it is time for your family to go.”

President Obama and the international community must increase the pressure on the Assad regime and help the Syrian people to a new dawn. I believe Senator John Kerry, Chairman of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, has come to realize that whatever he was told during his last trips to Damascus were all lies. He was not the first US official to realize that. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell and former Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage and scores of US officials came to the same conclusion and stopped meeting with this regime.

The fall of Bashar El-Assad is the fall of the Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas triangle. Syria will return to the Arab fold with a much better constitution. Hezbollah will disarm and Lebanon will be free from the Iranian grip and from having a state within a state. The Palestinians will unite for their next elections and Hamas will not be able to maintain its operations. Iraq will become more stable and the car bombs will stop for ever. Israel will have a real chance for a final peace settlement with its Arab neighbors. In a nutshell, the Middle East will be a much better place.

Thomas Paine once said:”no man or country can be really free unless all men and all countries are free.” In order for Lebanon to be truly free; for a united Palestinian state to emerge; a stable Iraq to finally exist and a true peace with Israel to take place, we need, first and foremost, a free Syria.

President Woodrow Wilson said: “I believe in democracy, because it releases the energy of every human being.” The Syrians are releasing their energy right before our eyes in their brave calls for “God, Freedom and Syria only.” They are pledging allegiance to a free Syria from the Assad family and its Ba’ath party. It is in the interest of the United States and Europe not to pass this historic moment, but to be participants in the shaping of this new Near East.