Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.
March 12, 2004
Greg, from St. Germaine, Wisconsin
Yes, I'm a cynic. I don't believe they are very grateful for what we've done.
So last September I traveled to Iraq for the express purpose of listening to the Iraqi people. I saw for myself the thriving market place, schools reopened, electricity working and steady infrastructure improvements.
I met with rectors from universities, women community and academic leaders, cultural organizations and listened as they talked about life under Saddam's dictatorship.
One woman said to me--for those people who say he was a bad person but.... there are no buts. We were living in the equivalent of an insane asylum not knowing if our children, our husbands, our sisters would survive from day to day."
We also heard that because they suffered so long under Saddam they hoped we, the Americans, would have a "magic wand" and be able to fix everything over night.
We told them we have no magic wand but together we can work to help them work to renew their country and their lives.
Why are exchanges important?
In the case of Iraq, they provide young men and women with the chance to reconnect to civil societies, to observe what it really means to support the non negotiable demands of human dignity, how a free press functions, how a country such as the United States, a faith based country, works to ensure that people of all faiths are free to worship.
The Iraqis have been living in a cauldron of hate for so many years--and it is taking time for them to trust again.
Are they grateful? What I can tell you is what the Iraqis in Baghdad and the Iraqis who come here on our programs told me: "Thank you. Please don't abandon us."
Susan, from Baghdad writes:
2.) Your bureau at the State Department recently brought the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra to the States to play at the Kennedy Center. Why are those kinds of cultural exchanges in the long term best interests of American taxpayers?
Great to hear from you. My perspective on the terrorist attacks in Iraq has certainly been shaped by what happened yesterday in Spain. European, Canadian and Brazilian papers are saying that terrorism is now an evil and an issue for all of Europe.
And others are saying what we know that this is not about pursuing concrete goals but about causing chaos, suffering and cruelty.
I can say, after talking to Iraqi men and women who have come here on our exchange programs that they are resolute in fighting terrorism within their own country and they and we together with our partners will prevail.
The war on terrorism means that average people -- people of goodwill recognize that terror is our common enemy. And what we can do together is find our common good. Our common good lies in the rule of law.
Respect for the rights of women; the non-negotiable demands of human dignity; respect for differences in religion;
We are going to see more and more Iraqis such as the brave men and women who have joined the Iraqi police force, Iraqi teachers, Iraqi community leaders, Iraqi parents "say no more not in my country because this is now my country."
Your second question in terms of my bureau bringing the Iraq National Symphony Orchestra to the US to perform with our National Symphony Orchestra was symbolic of the power of cultural exchanges. As we connect with people from music to art through our mutual humanity beyond the need for translation.
And you ask a very good question, Susan, "why are these kinds of cultural exchanges in the long term best interest of American taxpayers?" They are in the best interest because they represent people to people diplomacy and opportunity for us to know one another and understand we all have the same desires for our children, our lives, and our community.
And what we are doing through these exchanges is basically recruiting people of good will in this ongoing war against the forces of evil.
Vincent, from Franklin County, Ohio writes:
This is not an either-or proposition. I met with our American men and women soldiers when I was in Iraq. As a matter of fact, one of them -- a young woman reservist from Michigan -- was working in her "spare time" with the Baghdad museum to help them as they began to identify artifacts returning to the museum.
I asked her "why did she think this was important?" And she said, "Saddam Hussein took everything away from these people. The most important thing was their culture. I'm helping working with Iraqis and as I do this, we are showing respect for their history and then I have a chance for Iraqis to ask me questions about my family in the United States. And that's why I'm doing this as a volunteer."
I can't say enough about the men and women I met in our armed forces. It is very important that they are safe, that they have the equipment they need, but at the same time they realize how important it is for them to connect to everyday Iraqi citizens.
And so we have our soldiers collecting books, coaching soccer games, and showing the Iraqis the true spirit of America.
Zack, from Los Angeles writes:
We have also an exchange comprising museum specialists who will, after training and meeting with peers in this country, help Iraqis reconnect with their own culture which had been diminished and subverted under Hussein.
A group of Iraqi men and women just arrived to study democracy issues as they look at roles for women in government and overall as the President says: the non-negotiable demands of human dignity, respect for law, building a civil society, respect for the rights of women.
Harold, from Boca Raton, Florida writes:
So much has been written and discussed about the negativity of American culture and what sometimes gets lost is the positive aspect of our very dynamic culture.
Culture connect is a program I started right after September 11, 2001 to enable Americans to travel to other countries and talk to young people. We need to reach a younger population beyond the elites and this program enables young people throughout the world to have a conversation with average Americans who have achieved in their chosen professions.
It is designed to connect well-known American artists, musicians, athletes and other cultural icons with students from around the world. Talented Americans like Yo-Yo Ma, Tracy McGrady, Denyce Graves and Wynton Marsalis have volunteered their time to be our "Cultural Ambassadors", and to meet with aspiring actors and musicians in countries around the globe.
During their travels, they hold "master classes" for students, and then follow up with the individuals they meet through a website chatroom like the one we're on now.
This program emphasizes our goal of reaching out to younger people to begin to build mutual understanding between the US and people of other countries at earlier ages.
Currently we have 10 CultureConnect Ambassadors, and we are in the process of identifying our next group of Ambassadors. For information on this program, and how you can get involved, go to our website, cultureconnect.state.gov.
Steve, from Rappahannock County VA writes:
You are not being crass. The reason why Americans should care about exchange programs is so that our children and even ourselves are not put in jeopardy through people who want nothing more than to destroy us and our way of life.
How can exchange programs can make a difference? And let me tell you what I know from meeting with the men and women who come to this country not only from Iraq but worldwide.
The first thing they do is tell me about what they know now about the American people. They discover we have a very big heart; that we volunteer even though we are holding down full time jobs; that we care about our neighbor; that we are a faith based country of very many faiths; and they talk about how surprised they are to see the diversity -- the many religions and races getting along on a day to day basis.
Why does this matter? Because when they return to their own country, they decide to try to duplicate within their own culture what they have learned here.
One young woman said when she returned to her country -- Turkmenistan -- she was going to start a shelter for battered women and she was not going to take no for an answer. One of the Iraqi fulbrighters said, "you have opened the gates for my future, I will go back to my country and create a perfect society. I will not fail."
The power of exchanges is not one-sided. Americans are able to meet with average men and women and recognize what we all have in common -- love of family and a desire to live in peace and freedom.
In the long run, I believe as one of our exchange participants said, "these programs are the answer to global terrorism."
Josh, from Maryland writes:
This is something we think about a lot. Our exchanges are designed to strengthen the culture of other countries and to enhance the person's ability to build within their own country -- working for a civil society. Culture is the heart and soul of a people and that is why Saddam Hussein wanted the Iraqi people to turn their backs on basically 10,000 years of civilization and view him as the centerpiece of Iraqi culture.
We are helping Iraqis reconnect to their own culture. But let me tell you what some of our Fulbrights from Iraq have said while they are here in this country.
They are adjusting to our culture and they are often caught in funny situations. One of the Fulbrighters said, "The food in America is only cheese, cheese, cheese and everything has sugar." He is finding places that are serving more rice.
Although they might not miss American food when they leave, Singary said he will miss the services for the disabled. He said he hopes one day what disabled people get here will be available in Iraq.
Another Fulbrighter named Mohammed said the one thing he noticed about America is the strength and the power of the law. Mohammed went on to say, "Almost all Iraqis are grateful for liberating them from the prison. We are more optimistic after signing the Constitution
They are enjoying their time in America, are eager to learn as much as they can about a system of government they hope will create stability and unity in their country.
Reece, from Sylvan Beach, New York writes:
Measurement is very important. And my Bureau has a system of evaluation and measurement that has been in place for several years. But beyond the academic measurement of these programs, we also have a track record personified by our alumni.
People like the President of Afghanistan, President Karzai, the Prime Minister of Great Britain Tony Blair, President of Indonesia Megawati Sukarnoputri -- these are all alumni of our programs and in fact among our alumni are presidents, poets, community leaders, journalists, government officials -- all people of goodwill extending their exchange experience and working for peace, prosperity and democracy within their own countries.
We have over 700,000 alumni of these exchange programs and they are a force for good wherever they live.
I am so encouraged by these questions and encouraged that so many
people are focused on what we are doing with the Iraqi people and
people of goodwill throughout the world. Thanks. I hope to do this