AS ANY GRADE school teacher will tell you, it's better to tell the truth. So it was unsettling to read that in its new propaganda war (known as Info Ops to the insiders), someone at the Pentagon had suggested planting fake stories with foreign journalists. The other idea allegedly floated -- boosting moderate Islamic schools with hidden American funding -- sounded better; funneling support to progressive institutions was at least a moderate success during the Cold War.
It may be that the Pentagon is the wrong place to conduct this operation. But wherever it is done, the principles should be the same: Make sure what you're selling is the truth, and try to do it through local institutions. So far, the job has been left mainly to the State Department and its revived Office of Public Diplomacy, headed by Charlotte Beers. Known as Madison Avenue's "queen of branding" for her success at rescuing Uncle Ben's Converted Rice, she is now charged with doing the same for Uncle Sam.
One of the first Beers products came with a kind of built-in contradiction: a slickly produced TV ad designed to convince Arab audiences that America was not all slick TV. The ad showed a Muslim teacher from Ohio wearing her headscarf, speaking in her appliance-filled kitchen about how she "didn't see any prejudice in her neighborhood after Sept. 11." But somehow that seemed too good to be true. Egyptian officials balked at airing "propaganda from a foreign country." Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have still not agreed to show it. So far the four-part video series has aired only in Indonesia.
A sequel unveiled recently is designed to be more subtle -- less whitewashing propaganda than cultural exchange. Fifteen writers, including Richard Ford and Michael Chabon, were asked to write an essay answering the question: "In what sense do you see yourself as an American writer?" The exercise is a throwback to the Cold War version of public diplomacy, when John Updike and Louis Armstrong were sent overseas as ambassadors for the American way of life. Unlike the TV ad, these essays are frank about the transition pains Muslims and other minorities face in adjusting to American society.
This effort seems more genuine, more akin to the American libraries and English classes that in the past turned out to be quiet meeting places for pro-Western intellectuals in totalitarian states. Still, if this is about the "battle for the eleven-year-old Muslim mind," as Ms. Beers described her mission, it may fall short. The essays are in the style of modern memoirs, confessional to a point that might seem self-indulgent. Should I spend my last coins in a jukebox or on a new pair of shoes, one writer muses, the kind of dilemma a budding young Muslim radical might find baffling. About half the writers are women with uncovered hair who make no mention of husbands, children or God, except once, when poet Linda Hogan muses that He might be a tree.
Changing Muslim views of America is a truly daunting task. During the Cold War U.S. pitchmen often addressed an audience, in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, receptive to the Western model. This time, the latest Pew poll shows that anti-American sentiment is widespread and growing, not only in Muslim countries but throughout Europe. Still, the task is an urgent one. If nothing else, Sept. 11 should have taught us the dangers of ignoring the information culture of the street.