Remarks by Walid Maalouf
Former US Public Delegate to the United Nations
Former Director Public Diplomacy at USAID
Park Scholarships Scholars
North Carolina State University
Pew Research Center
Thursday, October 8, 2009
It was with great pleasure that I accepted this invitation to speak before you today during your visit to Washington, DC as you explore the basic civic operation of our government, and better understand the overseas image of the United States.
The big question is: who determines our image? Them or us? I would like to illustrate how my first impressions of the United States, as a new immigrant, had a powerful effect on me and helped drive my career.
When I arrived in the United States in 1979 to pursue my education, North Carolina became my home; and Belmont, a small town west of Charlotte, was my Ellis Island. Until 1987, while living in Belmont, I not only received an education, but I lived a great American life, with people who were genuine and welcoming. This is where I learned about country music, iced tea, fried chicken, gizzards, grits and all you can eat for just $5.99.
This is where I learned the great spirit of the American people, their generosity and their love of country. When I graduated from college, I worked as a salesman in Charlotte selling word processors, typewriters and calculators. At White Business Machines, I learned that the economy in the United States is prosperous for one simple reason: the people in our country work hard. They challenge each other with a positive attitude in order to advance their careers and live a better life. This is where I learned to be aggressive, persistent and give the best service to my customers. I faced some unpleasant reactions from people but more often I received kindness and encouragement. The negative reactions toward me, toward my accent or my heritage did not make me stop, slow me down, or keep me on the sidelines. On the contrary, it pushed me to be more American, take on the challenges in my path and advance to be the best I could be.
I had a customer whom I visited maybe every two weeks to check on him and see if he needed any new equipment for his business. Every time I came, he bought another product from me. I was puzzled as to why he would continually upgrade his equipment, which wasn’t that old. So, one day I asked him, ‘Mr. Jones why is it that every time I come to visit you, you purchase new equipment when I can see there is no need to upgrade it?’ In his deep southern accent he replied, ‘I like you. You come from a foreign land and you work hard to make a living, while some Americans down in Florida sit on their fat behind and do nothing, so I want to encourage you.’
The strong work ethic and the warmth of people like Mr. Jones has been carved into my mind and shaped my view of the American people and the United States. Not all foreigners can come to America and have the experiences I had in North Carolina. So they don’t actually know our real image.
We are an open door country to all mankind. And we are the most generous. We are the only government in the world that has a budget to help those around the world who are more needy than ourselves. During the Bush administration, when I was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the budget for international assistance was nearly $27 billion. There are also other US government agencies that assist countries around the world. Through public diplomacy efforts, our government is also trying to spread the message to others that we are a tolerant country and accept the others in our midst. Our diversity makes us unique. We are the greatest democracy in the world and to preserve the freedom of conscience for everyone, we were the first to draw the line that separates religion from government.
Despite recent declines in our economy, the worst since the Great Depression, we are already on the road to recovery and we are still the best economy in the world. We set an example to developing countries by fighting corruption and making people accountable, punishing them if needed and making them pay for their mistakes. With all the political scandals we hear and see, we are still a socially responsible country. If a politician betrays the trust of the people, we hold them accountable until they resign. In many other countries, political scandals take place every day and no one talks about it. Remember we are a huge country, we have our priorities and we cannot be everything to everybody, but we should continue to uphold our principles in order to advance our agenda.
Whether you like it or not, you are all representatives of the United States whenever you have contact with a foreigner and no matter what the situation. It is up to each one of you and all Americans to draw the image of the United States both domestically and abroad, as students, diplomats, military personnel, representatives, farmers, taxi drivers, or writers. It is not up to the outside world to draw our image based upon their own heritage or religious beliefs, their standard of living or sense of envy, or based on whether they like or dislike our society and our economic free spirit. Even those who dislike our foreign policy are not the ones to draw our image. It is shaped from your interactions, as well as the values and the principles on which the United States was founded.
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 great economic opportunities. 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.
As an example very personal to me, my native country, Lebanon has been in conflict for the past 35 years. Since the time the unrest started, there were military invasions at different times from Syria, Israel, the Palestinian Fateh Movement and others. Throughout this time, the United States policy toward Lebanon was: “Lebanon must be a free nation and we ask all foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.” However, behind the scenes the Department of State was giving Syria the upper hand in Lebanon’s internal politics and officials ignored the 30,000 Syrian soldiers who occupied Lebanon until April 2005.
The big setback for both Lebanese and Americans was the withdrawal of the US Marines from Beirut after they were attacked in 1983. That action made our foes, believe that we are weak and we do not stand up for our allies and that we are cowards for running away. The failure to immediately retaliate and follow through on the mission to stabilize Lebanon is, in my view, one of the big mistakes of the Reagan Administration. Due to the way politics in the region played out over the next three decades, I believe Reagan could have actually saved us from 9/11 if he had followed through.
So, after 30 years of neglecting Lebanese sovereignty, through four Administrations, we were finally able to take action in December 2003 when the Bush Administration, along with France, started working together on a United Nations Security Council Resolution demanding the withdrawal of the Syrian troops from Lebanon. On September 2, 2004 the United Nations Security Council voted with a majority of 9 members with no veto from any of the permanent members, and passed UNSC resolution 1559. And in April 2005 the Syrian troops withdrew from Lebanon. After Lebanon’s 30 years of foreign occupation, President George W. Bush was the first US President to implement the principles of the United States of freedom, self-determination and liberty. He was the only President to reverse the neglect of the Department of State and the four Administrations before him.
These are the images I have carried with me of the United States in my public diplomacy trips to the Arab and Muslim countries around the world. But the propaganda of our enemies is well organized and unfortunately our entertainment and popular culture outlets are not helping us change our image abroad. Merely appointing committees to study and make reports does not help either. We need an action plan. Throughout my four years at USAID I submitted several action plans to improve our image abroad. I believe these recommendations would also be useful to the Obama Administration:
1. Hire four Arab Americans from the second, third and fourth generation immigrants to be roaming ambassadors. They would need fluency in the local languages, a strong understanding of the region, and experiential knowledge of the political, social and religious implications, and provide them with an adequate budget.
2. Create one program and one program only to help the poor directly in Middle Eastern countries based on these three needs: medicine, nutrition and education. Deliver this assistance directly from the US government on a monthly basis for a first term of three years. The Public Diplomacy Ambassadors and the USAID mission directors will jointly determine the areas to which those goods will be delivered. In other words, we will directly compete with what enemies such as al Qaeda, Hizbollah and Hamas are doing in the region by providing the people with what they need the most.
3. Identify several Arab Americans with excellent public relations background and who are fluent in Arabic and have a command of Middle Eastern issues to be spokesmen on Arab television and satellite outlets all the time. They also need to be free of the traditional government approval process and have the freedom and ability to respond immediately to breaking events. We must fight the communication war smartly.
Generally speaking, the world does not like the word Aid, and in Arabic where it is translated as “mousaada,” the Arabs especially dislike the term in particular when it comes from western powers. Therefore in a recent interview I recommended that USAID become a full fledged Department with a cabinet level Secretary and it should be renamed US Department for International Development.
We must help establish the long promised Palestinian State, living side by side with the State of Israel in security, respect and prosperity. This needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.
Our elected leaders must also end the practice of delaying action and deferring solutions. Leaving time sensitive actions to other administrations only put us in more troubles and dangers. During his administration, President Bush moved away from this policy and showed a willingness to confront challenges instead of running away. As we saw after the horror of September 11, Presidents need to take actions as quickly as possible to protect us. We must stop passing the buck to the next President, increase the budget for our intelligence community and provide them with all the tools they need in order to keep us safe inland and abroad.
I strongly believe that the Department of State and the National Security Council should move away from appeasing autocrats and dictators, and acting only in naked self-interest. Instead they should stay true to the principles on which this country was established when making foreign policy decisions. This would be a beginning that could signal and perhaps lead to a change in our image overseas.
Thank you and now I’ll take your questions.