Saturday, June 16, 2007

Unofficial Ambassadors

Pittsburgh -- About a week and a half ago, Metro published an interview on one of my favorite Live from Jordan topics – the role of Unofficial Ambassadors. “Unofficial Ambassadors” is my own term for American citizens who improve America’s relations with the rest of the world, and the Middle East specifically, by traveling, working, volunteering, and studying abroad.

It was a nice piece; Jason Notte, the Metro writer, wrote a summary of my book and pulled a few questions and answers from our lunch in a Cuban restaurant near Broadway and 51st in Manhattan. The restaurant had terrific espresso, and the food wasn’t bad either, except that Jason ordered a mini-hamburger and it was the size of a carmex lip balm container. He put some ketchup on the burger, and it disappeared. I felt bad for him; he must have eaten an early dinner that night.

For those of you who don’t live in New York, Boston, or Philadelphia, Metro is the free newspaper that is handed out at subway stations in the morning. We have one in Washington D.C. too, called the Express – it is like Headline News meets the Washington Post, Sudoku, and a classified section on steroids. It is especially nice for the people who don’t have cell phone reception on the train or who forgot their ipods at home.

Back to the unofficial ambassador interview though, my contention is that we do much better as a country if everyday Americans are the face of America to the Middle East rather than someone official, like Donald Rumsfeld. Not to take away from the efforts put forward by our military and diplomatic corps, but they represent and implement U.S. foreign policy first. Only afterwards are they able to represent the “American people.”

Whoa, how can I make a distinction between the U.S. government and Americans you might be asking? Well, it is true – Americans elect the President and Congress. But, in the Middle East, people separate the American people from the U.S. government. The American people gave the world Martin Luther King, the Matrix, and the minimum wage (I think – we at least get a lot of credit for it). The U.S. government brought you Iraq. In sum, people love Mariah Carey but hate George Bush. If we want to decrease anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, we should play to our strengths – the American people – rather than making everything a discussion of our (perceived) weaknesses, U.S. policy.

So, playing to our strengths, unofficial American ambassadors make us safer in the world for two reasons. First, they demonstrate our humanity. Despite the carnage you see on the nightly news, the killing of innocents is abhorred in the Middle East. When the issue of whether it is okay for al-Qaida to target American civilians is debated in salons and coffee shops across the Middle East, we want people to think of the Americans they know, like, and who have made the world better a better place. We don’t want them to think of our leaders who smirk at them and say in so many words, “we’re strong, you’re weak, and we’ll do what we think is best.”

Second, unofficial ambassadors can play a positive role in helping people in the developing world address the unmet human needs of their communities. Doctors without Borders, Peace Corps Volunteers, scholars, practitioners, and study-abroad students have a lot to offer in their fields of expertise or through their attributes of openness and curiosity. They’re able to travel around, unhampered, and people are willing and eager to accept advice and assistance, especially if there aren’t strings attached. While there isn’t much that American citizens can expect to accomplish on major policy questions in the Middle East, they should get involved in “people’s issues” like education, health, and IT training. One well meaning and knowledgeable person can have a multiplying impact. Just don’t wear shorts, behave like a jerk, or hit on someone’s wife or daughter.

The nice thing about having a platform, even if it is a small one like mine, is that you can say and write things and interested people of all stripes contact you and want to know more. I’ve recently met (in person or over email) high school students, college professors, and other potential unofficial ambassadors of varying interests and proficiencies who want to make connections with their Middle Eastern counterparts but who aren’t sure of where to begin.

Figuring out how to form those linkages in the most productive way seems like a good next step. I’ve been facilitating different connections over the last week and a half, and would be happy to continue. Send emails about what you can offer or what you’re looking for, and I’ll try to point you in a reasonable direction.

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