Thursday, September 29, 2005

Hughes Trip Exposes Huge Culture Gap

Undersecretary of State Karen Hughes, on a five-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey got some unexpected on the job training that highlighted the major issues facing US involvement in the Middle East. What Hughes learned first-hand was the enormous breadth of the cultural gap that separates East from West. (Reuters: U.S. image a tough sell for Hughes on Mideast trip).

Her first lesson, ironically enough, was one that Jimmy Carter had to learn the hard way. When you target a speech towards foreigners, be sure that speech translates well into their language. Her "Four E" slogan of engage, exchange, educate and empower simply didn't come across well in Arabic, and the effectiveness was lost on her target audience.

She faced an even bigger problem when talking about gender oppression to women in Saudi Arabia. The common American perception is that women are treated as second class citizens in that country, citing as evidence the prohibition against women driving and laws that weigh a woman's testimony in court as worth only 1/2 that of a man's. What Hughes encountered, however, was quite the opposite. Women she interviewed described how good they had it there and how they really didn't want their culture to change. That's the danger of judging other cultures by our own standards.

Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies was outspoken against the current diplomatic effort in the Middle East. "Quite frankly, when I look at what we've done in the field we've turned democracy into a four-letter word." Sadly, he's right. There is a miss-perception that democracy is something everyone yearns for, and given the opportunity they will gladly embrace it. That is hardly the case. As supportive as I am of our war in Iraq, I will be shocked if democracy can ever succeed there. Converting countries in the Middle East to a democracy overnight has about the same chance of success as convincing Americans to start speaking Icelandic next week.

There are many reasons for which I support our efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. None of them have anything to do with promoting Democracy, freeing the people, ending oppression, or any of the other justifications used to appeal to our sensitive side. Here's a suggestion for future presidents: before deciding to free an oppressed people, first make sure they see themselves as oppressed and truly want to be freed. As Karen Hughes learned in her Middle East classroom, our view of freedom does not always match the views of other cultures.

The State Department now has a clearer understanding of the challenges facing us in the Middle East. Hughes' trip provided some valuable and shocking lessons. It underscored a cultural divide far wider than any of us would have believed. It gave us - hopefully - a better understanding of the perceptions the average Muslim has of the US and our efforts in the Middle East. It also exposed the many areas in which we must improve our image; areas that we thought were our strengths less than a week ago. Her trip showed that our cultural knowledge of the Middle East is not adequate for the task we are trying to accomplish. We now see the problem. Let's see the State Department take steps to correct it.


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