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U.S move to win Muslim youths

LAHORE, Aug 21: The US State Department is launching what it says will be the first comprehensive public diplomacy effort targeting children, hoping to shape the views of Muslim youths ages 8 to 14 with a series of summer camps and enrichment programs designed to counter negative images of the US, The Boston Globe reported on Monday.

The report said the new initiative was the brainchild of Karen Hughes, a confidante of President Bush who has become the most powerful public-diplomacy czar in decades. Hughes has argued forcefully that the US government must reach out to children younger than age 14, a population the State Department has largely neglected because they are too young for traditional exchange programmes.

"By the time kids get to high school, their impressions are already pretty well shaped," Hughes said in an interview. She said she began to plan the initiative last year when she realized that the US government's programmes for young people "weren't reaching down really young enough".

As a test of her idea, Hughes asked embassies in 14 Islamic countries this summer to come up with pilot programmes for that age bracket, and spent nearly $1 million on projects that involved about 6,000 youths and hundreds of local partnering organisations. Participants included more than 2,000 girls in Turkey who attended a basketball camp and 80 children from rural schools in Malaysia who learned about Thomas Jefferson and other US heroes on an American-style camping trip with embassy staff and families.

But the programmes also carry risks in nations with virulent anti-American sentiments, which are where most of the programmes are aimed. For example, 41 Iraqi students learned about baseball and the English language for three days this summer in Baghdad. A photo of the group meeting with US Ambassador Ryan Crocker hangs on the door of Hughes's office at the State Department but it cannot be publicly released for fear that the children may be harmed by terrorists.

Nonetheless, some foreign policy specialists praised the notion of targeting public diplomacy efforts at average people, rather than elites and opinion-makers, and said children often develop their world view during ages 8 to 14.

"There is a generation, in the Middle East in particular, of 15 to 22 year olds, that during the most formative years of their lives has only seen the US as an imperialist nation," said Joshua Fouts, director of the University of Southern California Centre on Public Diplomacy, a Los Angeles-based think tank. "If kids aged 8 to 14 are all that's left, then it is important that we engage them."

Nidal Ibrahim, executive director of the Arab American Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group, said he believed many Arab families would embrace this kind of outreach. But he also said the programmes would not significantly improve the United States' image abroad unless accompanied by a change in US policies.

Hughes said she hoped to greatly expand this summer's pilot project with $8.5 million she received from Congress this year. State Department officials will plan the expansion of the project after seeing exit interviews with the children. Daily times
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