- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

In Frank Capra’s legendary movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” George Bailey’s guardian angel is a lovable old fellow named Clarence. Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart, was in a heap of trouble, and Clarence was heaven’s public diplomat.

Clarence’s mission was to save George Bailey from hopelessness. He had the power to change facts, but only George Bailey could change his own attitude — the one that kept him in the Valley of Darkness. Clarence got the Stewart character’s attention, altered conditions around him and left him to re-evaluate his attitude toward Clarence and the future.

Enter today’s overriding dilemma in public diplomacy. How do we — as eternally optimistic Americans with a can-do attitude toward virtually any obstacle — convey the real promise of democracy to parts of the world that do not want to hear us, much less look beyond their own miserable condition? Especially when their lives can be plagued by hard-bitten poverty, intergenerational hate, blood vendettas, religious extremism and hopelessness?

We need to pull a “Clarence.” We need to get their attention, even when they don’t believe in us, have no interest in our vision and no faith in our ability to brighten the future. We need to be creative and change the conditions around them.

For starters, this does not mean offering self-congratulatory hand-outs to ungrateful and indignant detractors, but rather tailoring and tying specific types of foreign aid to prospects for real attitude change among particular populations.

Frontal approaches to public diplomacy, including our public support for democracy, individual liberty, religious tolerance and human rights, are necessary but are not sufficient. Not in a world that threatens to destroy itself one leap at a time.

A more culturally aligned effort is needed that borrows directly from another old-timer, Socrates. With more of an “ask the question and let them answer” approach — especially to teaching the values democracy embodies — we stand a better chance of getting meaningful messages to target populations from the lips of persuasive messengers.

Example: As Afghanistan staggers under a heroin trade that could end democracy, why not go to the heart of the problem and find common ground? Why not build on the absolute moral overlap between Sharia Law’s opposition to heroin and our own moral opposition to drugs and drug-funded terrorism?

Last month, more than 500 Afghan religious leaders — that society’s real force — met in Kabul to discuss drug addiction. They affirmed at least that they do not want the heroin trade in their communities. It is changing their society and taking their kids’ future with it.

So, why not build on a common love for kids? Why not help these Afghan mullahs with an all-out, tailor-made, anti-drug education program? Why not beat this source of hopelessness?Since addiction also threatens Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim country) Pakistan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Turkey, and even Iraq, why not support mullahs there too? The message: Americans share your moral outrage and care about your kids.

To highlight democracy’s effect on equality, especially for women, why not encourage female leaders from democratic countries with Muslim populations to showcase the “how to” and “here’s why”… for themselves. America could spur the multilateral forum. Participants might come from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Turkey and the Philippines. Side message: This democracy stuff works.

Public dialogue among nonviolent Islamic leaders is badly needed. Why not encourage multilateral forums where nonviolent leaders condemn religious violence? These voices in some ways are more powerful than ours. Yet, like Clarence, we can create conditions that foster new attitudes.

Finally, new initiatives need to be unapologetically intergenerational: tightly focused on the young. Democracy’s benefits — when they come — will flow chiefly to those generations still figuring out just what they believe and why. We can help that process with all-out offers of cultural exchange, education, economic growth and, in a word, options. If democracy presents options, democracy wins.

Whether we build on the common outrage about drugs, spur public dialogue on equality, trigger wider Islamic condemnation of extremist violence or expand options for the young, we can dispel hopelessness. Like Clarence, we can focus attention and alter conditions that shape attitudes. A tall order, but a universal message: With the rule of law, individual rights and economic options, the ingredients exist for a wonderful life.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group, Gaithersburg, Md.

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