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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > Proceedings > 2001 - 2002

Arab-American Perceptions of U.S. Policy Toward the Middle East.

Dr. Ziad J. Asali, President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC)
Remarks to Open Forum
Washington, DC
March 26, 2002

Photo of Dr. Ziad J. Asali

 Opening Remarks and Introduction by Alan Lang, Chairman of the Open Forum

The tragic events of September 11 have had a profound impact on the relationship between the United States and the Arab and Islamic worlds. The war on terrorism in Afghanistan is the first phase of a long, opaque and complex engagement that will define international relations for decades to come.  Arab Americans, both Christians and Muslims, have had the unique experience of being doubly impacted by this tragedy: first as Americans, and secondly as people of Arab heritage.  We will be in this unique position, filled with dangers and opportunities, for the foreseeable future.

The Arab world is a huge stretch of land, from Morocco to the Persian Gulf and the Horn of Africa, with a highly diverse population of over a quarter of a billion people, living in 22 States. It, in turn, is a part of the broader Islamic world, which includes 1.2 billion people who form a majority in 55 States, and are a significant presence in many more, constituting one fifth of the world's population.

There are around three million Arab Americans and six million Muslim Americans and they too represent a wide spectrum of experiences ranging from third and fourth generation Americans to fresh-green-card-holders barely able to tell the difference between baseball and football. I am here to try to offer, from my vantage point, some of our shared concerns regarding international relations, and explore some avenues that might help lead us out of the present predicament.

There is no historical precedent in our country for September 11. The closest analog, Pearl Harbor, was directed against men in uniform and machines of war.  There is no way to exaggerate the feelings of violation and outrage this massive crime provoked in all American citizens, Arab Americans included. All of us in this room will be dealing with its consequences for years, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Arab Americans are in the unique position of understanding and caring deeply about both societies.  We are able to identify the positives and negatives about both.  From our perspective, it is a moral imperative and an over-riding strategic necessity to avoid any drift towards what has been termed a "clash of civilizations," a generalized conflict between the West and the Islamic world.  There are malevolent but powerful voices in both Arab and American societies that cast the momentous events of our time in terms of such a clash.  In reality, this clash does not exist yet and it must not be allowed to develop.

The Arab American community can play a key role in promoting understanding and exploring avenues of mutual benefit between Arabs and Americans.  The task of educating both cultures about each other, by interpreting the multi-textured Arab world to America, without intermediaries who harbor their own agendas, and by educating the Arab people about the system that makes America great, is our calling and our challenge.  As Arab Americans, we know there is no inherent contradiction between these two societies, and we are keenly aware of the unexplored opportunities that improved relations offer.

I have traveled to the Arab world twice since September 11.  I met with the elite, but was more interested in reaching out to classes not present at the discourse of the privileged: the ordinary people.  It was conversations with the working poor that I found most interesting and most problematic.

The Arab people feel victimized.  They know they do not enjoy the political, economic, cultural, and civic development that has enriched the lives of a large segment of humanity, especially in the West.  They have a strong sense of history, and take pride in their role in it, so they feel a deep indignity in the chasm that separates their present from their past and their self-image from their image in the West.  It is fair to say that Arabs, no matter in what state, perceive their government as a dysfunctional system of coercion and corruption. In the past half a century Arabs have experienced a string of crushing military defeats and civil wars that yielded nothing but misery and bitterness.

A revolutionary and right-wing version of political Islam has emerged as a powerful ideological force.  It seized power in Shiite Iran in 1980, and claimed a military victory, with the strong support of the United States, for Sunnis in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.  It presents itself as a viable and successful alternative to a people who have known only the politics of failure for generations.  It appeals to the sense of injured dignity of the disaffected and hopeless youth.  Although Islamism is not in power in any Arab state, it has effectively replaced socialism, secularism, and Arab nationalism as the dominant form of opposition to all regimes.  It has been allowed to cast itself as the main vehicle for powerful reformist impulses as other voices have been effectively stifled.

For the past 20 years political dynamics in the Arab world have been shaped by two major internal forces: the regimes on the one hand, and Islamist opposition on the other.  It is fair to say that neither of them represents a majority, since a large middle ground is occupied by politically marginalized or impoverished sectors of the society.  The various reactions to the war on terrorism in the Arab world reflect the positions and perceptions of these competing forces.

The regimes were initially bewildered by the audacity of the attack and the astounding failure of their intrusive intelligence services. They were completely unprepared for and astonished by the relentless campaign in the American media against them, blaming them for creating failed systems and in some cases, promoting religious extremism.  The regimes feel that this campaign is orchestrated by pro-Israeli elements in the media and the Administration.  They view it as a serious attempt to block pressure from friendly Arab regimes on the Administration to resolve the Palestinian issue, which remains the central source of dissatisfaction towards the U.S. among their own people.

Most of the regimes have long considered revolutionary Islam as a major security threat and have not worried much about the public relations (PR) impact of their ruthless confrontation with it.  Saudis, on the other hand, tried to co-opt it by exaggerating their adherence to Islamic strictures.  The new war on terrorism gets genuine and substantive support across the board from these regimes.  However, there is cause for concern that some in those regimes may view the whole set of events since September 11, including their strained relations with the U.S., as essentially a PR challenge to be met by PR solutions. 

However, the Saudi peace initiative towards Israel, with the anticipated endorsement of the Arab Summit, provides an insight into the significance that Arab leaders attach to the changed political landscape.  A bold public stand by the highly respected Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, a country that has consistently shunned the limelight and worked behind the scenes, is in itself a powerful statement of changing political dynamics.  The binding security arrangements it offers to Israel should logically diffuse any serious arguments for continued occupation, but political reality does not yield only to arguments.

Supporters of Al Qaida, after their initial flush of triumph and defiance, were shocked by the quick disintegration of their power base in Afghanistan, their lack of popular support, and the relentless dismantling of their operations around the globe.  Their vision to replace the existing nation-state system by a single powerful Islamic state that reclaims the glories of bygone days lies in ruins. Their goal, as expressed by bin Laden, was to arouse Muslims against Christians and Jews, whom he called infidels in direct contradiction to Islamic texts and tradition.  This call failed to resonate in a culture that, contrary to relentless defamation by so-called experts, has a long history of pluralism, tolerance and coexistence.  Whatever initial appeal their propaganda may have had for some, these fanatics are now identified with brutality, desperation, and failure.  Life in Afghanistan under their control provided a vision of the future that almost everyone finds appalling and unacceptable. Their only hope is that the West, by its words or deeds, appears to the Arab public to be waging a "crusader" war rather than fighting terrorists.  An appeal to a clash of civilizations and religions is all these extremists have left, and we must, above all, not play into their hands by creating such an impression.

The reactions of the proverbial Arab street, the silent majority that has always had, but has never been allowed to express, an opinion, also need to be examined carefully.  This majority had in the main never heard of Al Qaida before September 11, could not believe that any Arab or Muslim group could or would in fact mount such an attack, and continued to doubt it for a long time despite glaring evidence.  This majority holds some common and simple views: animosity towards Israel that occupies its neighbors' lands, anger at the United States for its unconditional support of Israel, and disdain for unrepresentative and pliant Arab regimes.  For the past 18 moths, tens of millions of Arabs have in anguish watched the daily images on Al Jazeera of Israeli soldiers destroying Palestinian lives, shooting children, demolishing homes, uprooting olive trees, smashing ambulances with tanks, and enforcing a policy of premeditated and purposeful humiliation. This spectacle went on for almost a year prior to September, and it heightened these sentiments, sometimes to the boiling point.

Of course it would be disingenuous to deny that some Arabs derived and expressed satisfaction from the attack on America.  However, it is erroneous, indeed malicious, to suggest that the majority of the Arab people did not have a genuine sense of sympathy for America and the victims of the attack.  This majority understood America's reaction, and its retaliation in Afghanistan against Al Qaida and the Taliban, but is deeply apprehensive about the future.  It has not heeded the call to Jihad so violently pushed by bin Laden, but it has genuine fears that some forces in the U.S. share his desire for a clash of civilizations and is afraid that they might prevail.

Strategic and tactical decisions shaping the war on terrorism must recognize the vital importance of winning over this "swing vote" of the silent majority and ensuring that it is not lost to the fanatics.  Words that precede deeds, uttered by leaders, have to reflect a sense of history and sensitivity to their disproportionate impact at this point in time.  The colonial experience, the plight of the Palestinians, and the long record of broken Western promises to the Arab people are certainly serious obstacles to winning over the Arab public.  But it is a public that can be won over, and will respond to goodwill.  Despair and humiliation, two affects that are unfortunately spreading among the Arabs, cannot enhance anyone's security.

Let me move on to that subset of the silent majority that offers the best potential of a reconstruction of the Arab world.  I have in mind intellectuals, academics, professionals, and business people, the kind of people who had identified with Nasser's vision of a secular, socialist and united Arab world.  Nasser and his vision were dealt a crushing blow in 1967, and these "nationalist" forces lost out to regimes that actively weakened them and propped up Islamic groups to confront them.

The story of the past several decades is one of the ascendance of the Islamist forces in opposition to the regimes that nurtured them, and to the West, especially America, that also initially promoted them.  This was at the expense of the secular nationalists who were marginalized and discredited yet they remain a potential source of much progress.

These are the serious, secular, and progressive citizens on whom a positive future for the Arab world depends.  This is the intellectual, social and economic class around which healthy discursive and political systems can be built.  They are at the core of a civil society, which, in most Arab states, remains only a potential.  Both Arab governments and the United States have, frankly, regarded such people with suspicion and mistrust.  They have been marginalized, persecuted and discouraged, and have not been allowed to play their natural role in the development of post-colonial Arab societies.  Arab regimes and our government need to rethink their relationship to this class of citizens, and see them not as a threat, a nuisance or a problem to be managed but the hope of the future.  We need to recognize that while such people may criticize our policies, they share our fundamental values of freedom and democracy.  The questions they raise are the first stirrings of a healthy civil society.

Building bridges between this constituency and the regimes is the most reasonable road to development and security.  The economic failure of the regimes, with corruption playing a central role in impeding development, has created a significant constituency for a free and open economic system.  This segment of society has been calling for more freedom, accountability, transparency and enfranchisement.  Yet there is a great deal of mutual suspicion between these people and the regimes, and they have yet to develop any meaningful political role.  The regimes have to understand the value of this alliance, and have to be nudged to widen their base of support and improve their performance.  It will take a credible effort at reform for this class to cooperate rather than to be co-opted.

Many in the West are understandably looking into the internal dynamics of Arab and Muslim societies, including Islamic theology, to understand terrorism as a phenomenon.  One of the most pernicious notions to emerge is that, unlike other religions, violence is inherent to Islam.  This view reveals a complete disregard of history, and implies that future conflict is inevitable, even desirable.  Rhetoric that demonizes one out of every five people on earth is no recipe for peace.  Proponents of such views are, to be very frank, America's Taliban, the soul mates of bin Laden, whose dangerous and atavistic appeals to hatred need to be exposed and denounced.

However, there is no denying the seriousness of the problems that plague the Arab and Islamic world.  It is true that Arab societies have made significant strides in the past half-century, largely unnoticed and unheralded. This progress notwithstanding, the problems of uneven distribution of wealth, abridgement of human and civil rights, an array of social and economic ills and a sense of injured national dignity have all combined to create a subculture of despair and violence that exploded in the form of terrorism.  Whatever immediate remedies we consider, we must commit resources to educating young people about diversity and tolerance, and equipping them with knowledge and skills they can use to build productive and meaningful lives in a competitive world.

One can draw lessons from the history of this nation with the racism, despair and violence that created race riots, bombings and urban guerilla groups. Security measures, controversial but unavoidable, were employed to deal with these challenges, but of more sustained and permanent value were enactment of civil rights laws and the upward mobility of African-Americans.  One can also point to the progress made in the relations between the United States and Latin America over the past several decades.  The fear, suspicion and hostility that defined these relations in the past have gradually, if incompletely, yielded to a more respectful coexistence and genuine movement towards democracy.

While the lack of freedom in Arab states is clearly a major issue to be dealt with, no serious analysis can ignore or dismiss the central role of the Palestinian issue in defining relations between the United States and the Arab world. Anyone who tries to position the Palestinian problem as a cause of 9/11 is making a very serious intellectual and historical error.  However, there is no doubt that a successful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a vital element in any effective response to those attacks, since it is in fact the basis of so much resentment and anger across the Arab world.  In other words, the Palestinian plight is not a cause of the attacks, but resolving it is a vital part of an effective political counter-attack.  We are asking, even demanding that almost all Arab and Muslim states and societies join the war on terrorism and, in effect, embrace our international agenda.  American foreign policy towards the Arab world therefore cannot simply be a laundry list of ideas and organizations to which the U.S. is opposed.  It must contain some positive elements and provide the Arabs with a sense of hope that their most fundamental concerns will be addressed.

To understand the significance of the Palestinian problem to Arabs you must think in terms of the significance of the Holocaust to Jews.  The plight of the Palestinians is by far the greatest cause of antipathy to America among Arabs, who actually perceive the United States to be subservient to Israel due to our unbalanced policies.  Arabs are simply bewildered when they perceive the U.S. to be sacrificing its own national interests not just to support Israel, but also to sustain Israel's colonial occupation.  Positive visions for the future such as that presented in the November 19th speech by Secretary Powell offer glimpses of hope, but they usually melt away into the same old uncritical support for Israel.

Too many players on the local scene have been allowed to exercise a de facto veto power to block progress towards a just solution.  There is bitterness and a sense of victimization on both sides, and a very stark asymmetry of power, which combine to make the achievement of a lasting peace by the local parties on their own all but impossible.  The only viable outline for peace is known to all of us, and Secretary Powell articulated it well.  The excruciatingly painful arguments and nefarious deeds that frustrate the obvious land-for-peace equation have to be confronted with political courage.  The United States, the only power in a position to help resolve this conflict, has been creative in finding reasons not to close the deal.  It is time to be creative in finding reasons for aggressive proactive steps aimed at both sides in order to resolve this terrible conflict that is undermining the moral authority of the war on terrorism.

Israel's justification for its violent occupation is security, and the Palestinian justification for violent resistance is the occupation.  It is obvious that the parties will not be able to break this Gordian knot if left on their own devices.  However, one can outline a package that answers the stated concerns of both and meets the need of the international community for peace.  It would have to include concurrent political and security components combining several ingredients:

  • Defining final goals of a process of political negotiation: a two-state solution, sovereign, contiguous and closely linked, based on UN Resolutions, Prince Abdullah's proposals to be adopted by the Arab League, and a compromise on a shared Jerusalem serving as a capital for both Israel and Palestine. The U.S. is to work in conferences at multiple levels to define the final format of a final agreement, but it must be understood by all parties that what is being negotiated is a complete end to the occupation in return for the complete acceptance of Israel in the region.
  • A new UN Security Council Resolution, sponsored by the United States, to define the outlines of a Final Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
  • An immediate security arrangement in this political context, based initially on Tenet and Mitchell plans without unrealistic preconditions. Security arrangements can be supervised by the U.S. in coordination with the United Nations, and manned by multiple parties.
  • An economic assistance package with clear commitments, supervision, and timetable. Creative ways for funding need to be considered.
  • Normalized relations reflected in political recognition, trade, social, and cultural relations aided by active involvement of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from all over the world. Society adjustment programs, primarily in education and media, are indispensable for creating open and stable societies.

There is a very substantial international, Arab and Israeli constituency for such a solution, which can be effectively mobilized given American leadership.

The United States is trying to put together a system of security for the Middle East.  Beyond the rhetorical flourish of the Axis of Evil, there are strategic and practical objectives that we want to achieve. If we are to succeed, we will simply have to acknowledge the sentiments and perceptions of its peoples.  In other words, we have to start taking Arab public opinion seriously.  These opinions are in the main the product of a specific and profound historical experience, but also reflect a problem of access to information. Regardless of the privately or publicly stated positions of leaders, public opinion across the Arab world is focused on the plight of the Palestinians. Any strategy for the region will be frustrated and undercut unless it deals seriously with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and provides a fair and final solution for the problem of Palestine. The United States is the only power in a position to help resolve this conflict. Throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, this is the litmus test of the intentions and credibility of our country.  To fail to understand that would be political malpractice.

In the long run, the war on terrorism will be won by depriving terrorists of their most important weapons: issues.

Question-and-Answer Segment

Mr. Lang: Dr. Asali, on behalf of the Open Forum Iíd like to thank you for that compelling and eloquent presentation. At this point I would like to open the floor to comments and questions, and Iíd like to pose the first question. You noted the importance of educating American youth about racial and religious tolerance. Would you please highlight some of ADCís activities and contributions in this area?

Dr. Asali: For those of you who donít know -- this is a fact that I learned on the job -- there are 12,000 school districts in this nation. Yes, 12,000 school districts. Each one of them has an independent curriculum and syllabus. Believe me, they have all kinds of odd and unbelievable things that they teach kids about. Part of what we do in the educational field involves collecting information from our chapters and members across the nation. Parents who send their kids to school and kids who tell their parents about what they read, come across inaccurate and biased information regarding their own culture of origin and some of it is not fit to be printed. It wouldn't qualify for The New York Times. What we do is we write, we write back, we meet with school boards, and we challenge what is said. It is almost the rule that when we challenge those things, they get corrected, but how do you cope with the volume generated by 12,000 school districts? We donít have the means and we donít have the resources, and we have in fact welcomed anybodyís contribution of this effort. It is a monumental effort.

The second part that disturbs us about the education experience of our kids is their exposure to discrimination at schools by their friends, colleagues, and by their teachers, and in fact by a system that seems to be highly biased against some of these kids and they hold the blame against them personally. Some of them refuse to go to school, and some of them cry to their parents. Itís a long story, but we do try and provide counsel. We do try and provide counsel to parents and we encourage youth camps and trips. It is another monumental task. We do not have enough access to the public media, we just simply donít. To present this sort of thing we very much would like to have the opportunity to speak to the American public about a American phenomenon. Once they knew about it, it would be much less of a problem.

Question: Dr. Asali, Iíd like to hear your thoughts on the proposed use of force to bring about regime change in Iraq and what effects this might have on either increasing or decreasing the threat of terrorism?

Dr. Asali: This as you might imagine is quite a complex issue. I think so far it has been an imperative principle that people choose their government and sometimes governments are imposed on people without their choice. We have seen evidence of that. What is imperative for all of us is in our quest of unjust rulers, disruptive people who cause threat and perhaps more than a threat to their own people. The rest of us are to end up punishing the subjects who have been themselves victimized for long enough that they hardly are able to sustain yet more victimization while the rulers stand.

I think this is something to be born in mind once the question of Iraq arises. The punishment of the regime by isolating it economically and by depriving it of means of mass destruction has in fact not weaken the regime by one iota. But an untold number of Iraqi kids actually died, starved to death, and patients died from lack of medications. Iraqi civilized society, which was one of the leading societies in terms of development amongst the Arab people, is actually being thrown back to the Stone Age. It is our concern that the Iraqi people are not subjected to more suffering. I think the Iraqi people should be empowered to be able to resist the kinds of atrocities that are inflicted upon them. The challenge, of course, is how to do it and how to protect the rest of us. Iíd rather specifically not deal with the direct question. I could have stopped here, but I didnít. I really think this is a complicated issue and no, it does not have simple answers.

Question: Do you have a sense of the time line that might be involved, when the elements of the Saudi peace plan might come to fruition?

Dr. Asali: There are two major components of this approach to this proposal and people in this city, in this building in fact know about this. There are two major components. You have to outline an end gain. You must absolutely identify an end gain. What is it that weíre going to lead ourselves into? I believe the outline is pretty much known to most of us. The question is, how many more people will get killed? How much more destruction? How much more suffering will be endured before we get there? On the other hand, there has to be an immediate and binding security arrangement to be worked out now, and we do have the tools for it. We must combine both. We have to have a political solution that answers the deepest, the very deepest concerns of both peoples, both societies, both countries by now. Security for Israel must include security for our Palestinians and a state for the Palestinians. The Palestinians can not wander around the world and create the wandering Palestinian phenomenon. We do not want that any more than the Jews want the wandering Jews phenomenon. It is time to put this thing to bed. Fifty-three years should be enough.

Question: I'm a senior at the American University. Iím studying religion, Jewish Studies at the School of International Service. In light of the atrocities committed against the Palestinians in Israel today, can you shed some light on Yasser Arafatís role, the degree of respect he commands among Arabs and Palestinians there? Thank you.

Dr. Asali: I have as you may have noticed tried to stay away from polemics in the presentation referring to the atrocities inflicted upon the Palestinian people. I would just like to say in general this a huge violation of international law with collective punishment. It is really unheard of in present history about people being deprived of the ability to move from their home to their motherís home. More than twenty pregnant women have delivered at checkpoints, if you know what checkpoints are. Kids go from their home to their schools ten miles away. They have to actually stop at the checkpoint, get out of the car, walk for 500 yards, and get into another car. Waiting at the checkpoint is a 3-hour deal. This is a daily experience.

I mentioned the other stuff about the home demolition. The Palestinian families do not have running water anymore and they look up at the hill with a settlement with kids frolicking in their swimming pools and protected on Jews-only roads. People do not know about it. There is such a thing going on in the 21st century and we want to put an end to that. So, Iím sorry I went back to this question. About Arafat, well, I guess in a way he has never been more popular than he is now because heís been confined and represents the essence of what it is to be a Palestinian, completely disempowered by everything around you. You are a leader of a state and you canít get out of your own home. This is no comment about his political competence or his contribution of why he is there in the first place.

Question: I'm a freelance news producer. Dr. Asali, would you agree that the struggle in the Middle East is essentially non-secular and would arise anywhere first world and third world citizens exist side by side? Could this similar struggle, for instance, erupt amongst two Christian populations where one group had more abundant resources?

Dr. Asali: It really is a real estate deal that is paid for by blood. What is being fought over is land, and the price that is being paid for it is blood. Some people think that this much blood is good enough for that many settlements or something like that. It is as secular as can be. This business of using religion -- it happens to be a great argument to sell but it is very much a very secular issue. At the end of everything, it will be dealt with by various secular means in the United Nations, by the State Department, by very, very hard nosed political types who will not invoke any religious issues whatsoever.

Question: I'm with the Israeli Embassy. You talk about the necessity for security arrangements in addition to or proceeding the political negotiations. How do you propose that a security arrangement be made when Mr. Arafat continuously comes out against terrorism and yet the incitement to violence and releasing of militants from prison occurs on a daily basis? How do you reconcile that?

Dr. Asali: Back to the chicken-and-egg type of situation. The Palestinian argument is, of course, that the land is being occupied and weíre resisting. What do you want us to do? Fifty-three years of occupation now.

In 1967, literally there is this business of acknowledged legal occupation. So for them [the Israelis], in their land they would be resisting. If you come and tell them, why do you throw bombs at me here? Iím at this checkpoint. Say, because youíre here. So who is retaliating against whom?

I donít think we want to get into this because we want a solution. What weíre here for is serious attempt to explore a way out. There is enough blame to go around. No exceptions, none whatsoever.

Letís go back to the political context of things. There has to be a clear vision of an in-game for both that is meaningfully satisfactorily, not entirely acceptable but it has to be bound down with binding secure arrangements for all. Believe me, if the political will is present in this town and the political price that may seem not worthy of being paid at this time although it could carry a tremendous political return down the road -- if all that is available then this secure arrangement can be worked out. I do not believe that Palestinian leadership is trusting of Israeliís leadership and vice versa. I think itís mutual total lack of trust. These people frankly are victimized beyond being able to come up with a solution. They have an exclusive on victimization. There is nothing you and I can do about this but grown-ups have to get in and that is what you are talking about for grown-ups to get in. Thatís it.

Mr. Lang: Closing Remarks
Dr. Asali, again, thank you for that illuminating presentation. It now gives me great pleasure to present to you, this token of our appreciation for participating in the Open Forum's Distinguished Lecture Series. Having spent more than three decades healing bodies, we appreciate your efforts to heal spirits and to foster a meaningful public dialogue on issues of great importance to our nation and the world. Thank you for all that you are doing to build bridges of cross-cultural understanding and tolerance. Congratulations.



Released on April 24, 2002

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