Diplomat Discusses Experiences in Muslim World

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Author: Erik Parker, Torch Staff

On Thursday, April 10, UCLA’s Diplomat-in-Residence Peter Kovach spoke about public diplomacy in the Muslim world as part of the Diplomacy and World Affairs department’s Brown Bag Talk series. Approximately 20 students and teachers attended the talk, which took place in Johnson 200.

Kovach spoke about his experiences abroad to inform the audience on issues faced in public diplomacy. In particular, he talked about his recent post in Islamabad, Pakistan as a public affairs officer.

“Public diplomacy can be defined as one government’s organized attempts to influence, generate mutual understanding about its policies and build brides of mutual understanding,” Kovach said. He said that in military circles public diplomacy is often referred to as “strategic communication.”

He used examples from his postings in the Arab world to show that the United States tries to accomplish these aforementioned goals of public diplomacy. Kovach’s first posting was in Yemen, which he described as “just perfect.” He said, “I wanted to be in a country where Arabic was spoken, a less developed country that had been minimally colonized.” In Yemen, Kovach went through archives of articles that could be useful for educating people about the United States and shared them through the media. He said that his work received very favorable responses.

Another of Kovach’s postings was in Bahrain. He said that he started going out to the villages to talk to locals to decide how to best foster positive Bahraini-American relations. This led him to bring an American college basketball team to the country to play a few games against a Bahraini team. “It was a successful way to get through to people,” Kovach said. He also said that people in Bahrain were “thrilled” about President Nixon’s Watergate scandal because they loved watching how justice was achieved through democratic processes.

Kovach also spent time as a diplomat in Morocco. In Morocco, he went out to villages to talk with locals who had benefited from his group’s projects. Kovach said that he was told, “You’ve really influenced Moroccan journalism” because of they way he traveled to places where diplomats never went. “I really felt good about this,” he said.

Jordan was another country where Kovach felt he had successes. He said that most people in Jordan did not have favorable views of the United States during Bill Clinton’s presidency, but that he pushed for Clinton to make a speech to the Jordanian government body. “We warned the President that everyone might turn around or get up and leave,” Kovach said, “But it was a huge success . . . people were clapping.”

He talked about his posting in Pakistan and obstacles that he faced. “There was an extremely lively press in Pakistan,” Kovach said, “but it lacked investigative journalism.” In Pakistan, he carried out the role of press officer for the American diplomatic team, and he said, “It’s very important to stay engaged with the press.”

Kovach said that the lack of investigative journalism was a problem, but that it could be “hazardous to your health,” meaning dangerous. He said that especially in rural areas, there were many gangs that could become dangerous if some issues were investigated. Kovach said that the internet is a valuable tool for journalists because a young man published a blog about gangs and other issues anonymously and the government was very interested and responded favorably.

Towards the end of his talk, Kovach took questions from the audience. One lady asked about his background, and Kovach said that he was a “huge activist” and even received death threats in high school for his actions. “You cannot take my background as typical for someone in my field,” he said.

Audience members also asked Kovach about dealing with conspiracy theorists as well as knowing different languages. He said that he knows nine different languages and enjoys speaking them.

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