America: How Others See Us
Monday, April 23rd 2012
I had an opportunity recently to meet Tara Sonenshine, the newly appointed Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and I came away both impressed and hopeful that she will bring a fresh, informed perspective to this important position.
We certainly need it.
The United States seems to have more than its share of image problems these days, from the Secret Service scandal in Colombia and the partying and flagrant disregard for the taxpayer’s dollar by the General Services Administration, to the latest batch of embarrassing photos to emerge from the Afghanistan battlefield.
All of these are public diplomacy problems in the sense that they conspicuously contradict the values of anti-corruption and human rights that we embrace for ourselves and advocate for others. So when we fall short, everybody notices.
Most Americans aren’t surprised by that. We know we’re far from perfect, and we’re also a nation that believes in forgiveness and second chances. (For proof of that, just look at our politicians.) But because of our history, our achievements, and, let’s face it, our occasional lecturing to others, we’re sometimes held to impossibly high standards.
The most surprising example of this that I ever experienced occurred in, of all places, Iran.
In July, 1988, a U.S guided missile cruiser shot down an Iranian commercial airliner over the Persian Gulf, killing 290 civilian passengers and crew. As a foreign correspondent based in the Middle East, I flew to Iran to cover the story.
When I arrived in Bandar Abbas, the steamy coastal port where the Iranian flight had originated, the bodies of the victims who had been recovered from the downed plane were being laid out in a makeshift morgue. Since the Iranian government was still trying to figure out how to show respect for the victims and their families while also exploiting the tragedy for maximum propaganda value, they detained the media for several hours at the airport, which served as a base for both civilian and military flights. During that time, I managed to strike up a few conversations with some Iranian air force pilots.
It’s always been my experience that some of the brightest and most impressive young men in a country, especially in developing countries, can be found in their air force. They are invariably among the best educated, most mature, and physically fit representatives of their nation, and that was certainly true of these young airmen.
They were smart, pragmatic, and un-ideological, just what you would expect in a well-trained pilot. And despite the fact that our conversations occurred at a time which could hardly be worse for an American visiting the Islamic Republic, a couple of them were eager to describe – with obvious pride – their experiences training in the U.S., working with American military personnel.
But here’s where they surprised me: They had such faith in the skills and perceived infallibility of the American military that they could not believe that the downing of the civilian airliner could have been anything but deliberate. “Americans could not make such a mistake,” one kept insisting, not with anger but with an almost childlike awe of our technological superiority.
It had to have been a mistake, I told them. Americans would never knowingly shoot down a commercial airliner.
But they couldn’t believe it. Their respect for America’s capabilities was higher than anyone could live up to.
A quarter of a century later, many things have changed over the years, but some have not.
We still make mistakes. And we still have a lot to live up to.