Iraq Panel: Put forward officials who speak to Arabs in Arabic

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sun Oct 29 13:29:39 UTC 2006

Flap over U.S. officials critique of Iraq policy highlight pitfalls of
public diplomacy

By Associated Press
Saturday, October 28, 2006 - Updated: 08:40 AM EST

BEIRUT, Lebanon - Alberto Fernandez is one of the most recognized U.S.
officials in the Middle East thanks to his frequent appearances on Arab
satellite stations and his candid approach to selling Americas side of the
story.  But the Cuban-born fluent Arabic speaker was barely known in the
United States until recent remarks he made calling Washingtons Iraq
policies arrogant and stupid. His comments infuriated some Bush
administration officials and their supporters, and vividly illustrated the
pitfalls of Americas battle for Mideast hearts and minds, which has U.S.
representatives speaking to one audience and answering to a very different
      Critics have accused Fernandez of not standing up for America in his
comments aired last weekend by Al-Jazeera television, in which he said
Washington had displayed arrogance and stupidity in Iraq.  Fernandez
issued a written apology the day after the Oct. 21 broadcast, saying he
seriously misspoke. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said
Fernandez was still on the job and the matter was closed.  Conservative
commentator Michelle Malkin wrote that if Fernandez represents the voice
of the U.S. in the Mideast, we need to withdraw all State Department
bureaucrats from the region, find out what else Fernandez and his
Arabic-speaking colleagues have been telling the Arab media, and boot them
off the airwaves. Permanently.

     A panel commissioned by the administration said three years ago that
the U.S. government should do more to counter growing Arab antagonism, in
part by putting forward officials with the skills to speak to Arabs in
their own language.  Until the controversy, Fernandez's chatty,
freewheeling style gave him an audience far bigger than official spokesmen
or Cabinet members, whose remarks required voice-over translations, could
command.  Many observers said Fernandez's style of informal debate lent
itself to controversy, but also spoke to young, disenchanted Arabs angry
over the Iraq war and U.S. response to last summers Israel-Hezbollah war.

     I think he's quite popular with viewers ... under the present
condition in relations between the U.S. and the Arab world, to have an
American who appears on their screens and talks to them in their language,
its quite a phenomenon, said Abderrahim Foukara, Al-Jazeera's Washington
bureau chief.  Even before the latest furor, Fernandez, the State
Department's director of public diplomacy for Near Eastern Affairs, had
run afoul of conservatives for his on-the-air comments.  In February,
former U.S. federal prosecutor Andrew C. McCarthy accused Fernandez in a
National Review Online article of gushing over the hardline Egyptian
cleric Sheik Youssef al-Qaradawi during comments last year on

     Fernandez referred to the cleric - who is banned from visiting the
U.S. for alleged extremist activities - as a respected religious leader.
Danielle Pletka of the conservative American Enterprise Institute said
Fernandez comments about Iraq were wholly inappropriate and point to a
larger discord between the State Department and the White House on Mideast
policy.  Everyone says something dopey once and while, but the problem is
statements like that are a reflection of a broader disease within our
Foreign Service that the mission isn't shared, notwithstanding who might be
president, Pletka said.  But supporters say Fernandez is a breath of fresh
air not only because he speaks Arabic but because he appears comfortable
talking to Arabs about unpopular U.S. policies.

     Sending out spokesmen to be wooden doesn't make them persuasive, said
Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. If you
are going to say that people have to maintain a veneer of infallibility
then you might as well not even try.  Lawrence Pintak, director of the
Adham Center for Electronic Journalism at the American University in
Cairo, said Fernandez is willing to joke and argue with people. He doesn't
spout a couple of sound bites and shut down. He has earned respect here.
Fernandez relaxed approach also makes him more convincing than a stiff
speech, said Marc Lynch, an associate professor at Williams College in
Massachusetts and author of the book Voices of the New Arab Public:
Iraq, Al Jazeera and Middle East Politics Today.

     Fernandez has adopted a more freewheeling kind of style and gets into
the mix and is more persuasive, he said.  The furor over Fernandez's
comments comes at a crucial moment in U.S.  public diplomacy. Last month,
Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes said it could take decades to change
anti-American feelings around the globe, calling the three-year-old Iraq
war the latest excuse for anti-American grievance among Muslims.  A June
poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that
Americas image in 15 nations dropped sharply this year, and less than
one-third of the people in Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan and Turkey had a
favorable view of the U.S.

     Lynch said he fears the backlash over Fernandez comments could have a
chilling effect on other Arabic speakers who may want to work in U.S.
public diplomacy.  If it means someones career, why take the chance? he
said. If you have to constantly look over your shoulder, you wont be very


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