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Associated Press – August 16, 2007

RABAT, Morocco – U.S. State Department chiefs chose a novel way to publicize baseball legend Cal Ripken, Jr.’s recent appointment as the country’s special sports envoy. They went on YouTube.
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, who appears in the video, said it was part of her campaign to bring a positive image of the U.S. to a skeptical global audience – particularly in the Muslim world. Children are a chief target.
“It’s important that we reach out to Muslim populations around the world,” Hughes said in an interview Thursday with The Associated Press. She was in Morocco this week to visit a U.S.-funded summer camp for poor Moroccan children.
The best way to counter widespread Muslim distrust of the U.S. superpower is to expose young people to American values, Hughes said. For that, she is turning to online media like the popular video-posting web site YouTube.com, which attracts the tech-saavy younger generation that Hughes is targeting.
“I know as a mother that by the time kids get to high school, their opinions are pretty hardened,” Hughes said. “Children tend to be a lot more open-minded.”
As part of the campaign, Arabic-speakers on Hughes’ staff log onto the chat forums of Arabic-language blogs to challenge “representations of America that are inaccurate,” Hughes said. She said they identify themselves as members of the State Department’s outreach team.
Using online media allows Hughes and her team to bypass the saturated market of traditional media outlets.
“During the Cold War, we were trying to get information in to largely closed societies,” Hughes said. “Today we’re competing for attention and credibility in a very noisy and crowded communications environment.”
Television stations have blossomed around the Middle East in recent years, many of them presenting the news with an anti-American slant, Hughes said. Chief among them is the Qatar-based Al-Jazeera, long loathed by U.S. officials who see it as propagating anti-American views to Arab audiences.
“When I arrived (in 2005) there was sort of an unofficial policy that we were mad at Al-Jazeera, therefore we didn’t appear on it,” Hughes said. “But that’s cutting off your nose to spite your face. Now we do a lot of interviews with Al-Jazeera.”
But Hughes’ charm offensive often collides with unpopular American policies in the Middle East – especially when it comes to Israel.
Hughes’ video on Cal Ripken coincided with another event this week likely to grab headlines throughout the Arab World: Hughes’ colleague, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns, signed a deal with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to sell Israel US$30 billion (€22 billion) in weapons over the next 10 years.
Hughes acknowledged that getting Muslims to take her seriously was another challenge. “As a Christian, as a woman and as a U.S. official I have three strikes against me when it comes to credibility in a lot of the Islamic world.”
Hughes sees American Muslims as the country’s “natural bridge” to Muslims around the world. Since 2005, the State Department has dispatched ordinary American Muslims – not government officials, Hughes stressed – around the world to present a Muslim face of the U.S. by holding town hall-style meetings and going on local television.
However, studies continue to show that a large majority of Muslims worldwide view the U.S. in a negative light. Hughes reckons it may take up to 30 years to see a significant softening of Muslim opinion.
“I keep an excerpt from a Chinese proverb on my desk,” she said. “It talks about planting the seeds of trees under whose shade you will never sit. That’s what I think we’re doing.”
Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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