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NPR Talk of the Nation - Transcript

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National Public Radio (NPR)

SHOW: Talk of the Nation 2:00 AM EST NPR

August 26, 2004 Thursday

HEADLINE: Public diplomacy




CONAN: Patricia Harrison is acting undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and she joined us by phone from her office here in Washington, DC.

And joining us now here in Studio 3A to talk about how Congress is working to address the recommendations of the 9-11 Commission is Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee which heard from Ms. Harrison and from the 9-11 Commission earlier this week.

Thanks very much for coming in.

Representative CHRIS SMITH (Republican, New Jersey; Vice Chairman, House International Relations Committee): Neal, thank you very much for having me on.

CONAN: So Congress' role in public diplomacy, some people say, is to fund it better.

Rep. SMITH: Well, we have funded it, and I think funded it very well over the years. Matter of face, this year under the Commerce, Justice and State bill, which is authored by Congressman Frank Wolf of Virginia, there's a $601 million appropriated for public diplomacy for the broadcasting board of governors and their work, and that's not all. There's other money in there for other, as the undersecretary pointed out, a...

CONAN: This is Radio Sawa and...

Rep. SMITH: Exactly. It's for those kinds of broadcasting. And that's a significant increase. 65 million of that will go toward Middle Eastern broadcasting, and I think it's a very, very good commitment. But that's not what it's all about. That's just part of the equation. We need more dialogue and discussion with not just the governments but the parliamentarians. One of the ideas that I've been promoting very aggressively is that-I chair the Helsinki Commission, the OSCE, and we deal with the 55 countries that make up Europe, Central, South, Eastern Europe, to make-bottom line is there are Mediterranean partners that are part of this effort, including Egypt, Jordan-Egypt is a part of it. And we have had contact with their parliamentarians, and when you sit down and you discuss and find a venue, a non-threatening venue when you can discuss these issues, you can begin working out those issues. We need more permanent ties, this idea of bringing the Helsinki process to the Middle East.

CONAN: OSCE is the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Rep. SMITH: That's right.

CONAN: It was a Cold War institution that allowed people from both sides of the divide to get together and talk about issues and...

Rep. SMITH: To meet and discuss, and we had three major initiatives: security, trade and human rights, and on all three, major, significant progress was made beginning in 1975 when the act was signed, because you had foreign ministers and members of various governments meeting on a regular basis. And you need to regularize those meetings. If they're just meeting occasionally in Washington or some other venue, that's not enough. You need to have a process. The Helsinki process will avail, I think, the peace process in the Middle East.

CONAN: It is about more than money, but money is important.

Rep. SMITH: Without a doubt.

CONAN: In a report to Congress in October, the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy said that cultural exchanges and similar efforts with Muslims were, quote, "absurdly and dangerously underfunded."

Rep. SMITH: Well, we've got to take their point, because I'm one of those, I chaired the International Office of Human Rights committee for six years and aggressively promoted the idea that exchanges, especially among young people-if you want to break the cycle of hate, the earlier you start with young people the better. And, you know, one of the things we need to do as part of these exchanges is to make sure that when people go back to their respective countries, they look at the elementary school level textbooks. You know, one of the things that has concerned me deeply in the Middle East, particularly the Palestinian, under what's known as the UN Works Relief Agency, UNWRA, the textbooks that are frequently used by the youngsters, the Palestinian youngsters, are filled with anti-Semitism. If that doesn't read the kind of hate that manifests in suicide bombers, I don't know what does.

You need to start at the earliest levels. Exchanges are extremely important. We need to do more. The more contact they have, the more they will see that the caricature that has been created of the United States-we have our flaws. We don't doubt that. But we have institutions of government, a judiciary that's independent, we have people who are elected and unelected, they're thrown out of office. It's all part of a process. We can make whole a situation. Unfortunately, they get a caricature painted of the US that is borderline demagoguery and demonizing, and it's not a reflection of reality.

I have met with many of those students over the years. They say, when you meet with them, especially after they've been here for a while, 'It's not what I thought.' Well, more of those exchanges certainly will help to bring enlightenment, and especially when they go back to their respective countries.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line. Mazyar(ph) is on with us from Columbia, Maryland.

MAZYAR (Caller): Hello.


MAZYAR: Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MAZYAR: I have a short comment, and I'd like to hear a response to it. It seems that we feel or our actions show that public diplomacy seems to be a one-way street. We want others to learn our language. We want others to learn about our culture and our ideals and how wonderful they are, but it seems like internally, in a domestic level, we don't make the effort to learn about them, learn not just their language, but what their history is and where they come from. And so I think that in order for public diplomacy to truly work, it needs to be a two-way street. And besides the exchanges, besides the student exchanges, what other programs is being proposed for us domestically as a whole to learn more about the countries rather than just hearing about them when we bomb them, but know of their past history? And I'll take answer...

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Mazyar.

Rep. SMITH: Well, one of the nice things about having a free press and an unfettered access to information the way we do in America is that our networks in radio, NPR and various other outlets, do routinely provide Americans with very fine insights as to what's going on, in-depth analyses of news and events happening in the Middle East. Unfortunately, that's not a two-way street, and many of the journalists in the Middle East give a one-sided perspective, and I do read a number of English translation, of course, Muslim newspapers every day, and frankly, it disturbs me to see, again, the caricature that has been created about the United States and about the West in general.

CONAN: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And our guest is Congressman Chris Smith of New Jersey. We're talking about public diplomacy. And let's get another caller on the line. Joseph is with us from Dayton, Ohio.

JOSEPH (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

JOSEPH: I've been listening to your show and I wanted to comment. I own a small company in the United States that takes American universities to Arab countries. We've been doing this for about 10 years. We help them recruit students coming back to the United States so they'll be on their campus. And the last lady-I forgot her name. I apologize.

CONAN: Patricia Harrison.

JOSEPH: Yes-had mentioned that they're giving a thousand-or they're gonna do a thousand students for exchanges this year. And I can tell you that when we take the universities to meet these-I set up a fair in the countries and this last May I went to Beirut, Kuwait, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi, Dubayy, Saudi Arabia, and the American embassies have this attitude that they're rude to the students that are coming to apply for the visas to come into the United States. I mean, I can tell you in the last year, probably over two to 3,000 students have been denied visas to come to American universities from the United Arab Emirates, just that one country alone.

CONAN: Joseph is not alone in reporting these difficulties, Congressman.

Rep. SMITH: Well, frankly, while we want to facilitate to the greatest extent possible, you know, the kind of academic exchanges that will lead to a more saner and compassionate and hopefully fruitful dialogue between the Middle East, particularly the Arab countries and the US, the problem that arose, and the 9-11 Commission does focus on this, was that there have been real problems with travel documents. Matter of fact, they make the point in the 9-11 Commission that travel documents and/or the lack of the kind of controls that will weed out potential terrorists is as important as weapons. Because we know for a fact now that at Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, we were giving out visas like candy, and there were people who got these visas who put on their applications, 'Student, USA,' had very, very imprecise and really not very informative information, and these people were given visas.

Now we don't want to err too far on the side of now excluding bonafide students who ought to have the opportunity to come here, enjoy the American experience, and go back and bring back perhaps the insights they could gather from being here, but we at the same time are in a position where we don't want the student visa or any other visa being exploited by terrorists to infiltrate and to do damage to Americans and Arabs or anyone else who happens to be on an airplane or on a train or whatever means they use to kill people.

So there's a tension, a very important tension. There were consuls throughout the world, US consulars who really to follow the law faithfully. We have a presumption in our law that says that if you-the onus of burden is on you as an applicant to prove that you are going where you say you're going, you have a means of supporting yourself, and you have ample reason to return. If that presumption is not overcome, the visa is disqualified.

One of the things that I'm trying to promote and promote very hard, especially post our hearings that we held, the UN does not have an international convention on travel. There needs to be so there's transparency, reliability when it comes to passports, birth certificates and the like, so there's uniformity, so we know that so-and-so is who he or she says they are, and they mean to go and do this or that, maybe study abroad and not engage in something more nefarious like terrorism.

CONAN: Congressman Smith, thank you very much for being with us today.

Rep. SMITH: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, vice chairman of the House International Relations Committee, was with us here in Studio 3A.

When we come back from a short break, we'll continue this conversation. Join us. I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


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