Sunday, April 24, 2005

It's The Policy Stupid

...and Better Communication Too

What we have consistently heard from high levels of the US government regarding the Middle East is that the biggest problem facing America in the region is overcoming a rampant disinformation and propaganda campaign led by unfriendly governments, non-state actors, and Arab media. We have heard several US officials and members of Congress insist on how “bad” and “irresponsible” Al Jazeera is to the point of accusing it of being a “mouthpiece for Al-Qaeda”. The US conservative media machine became the firing pad for this message. Recently, they went so far as to call the satellite TV station a “terrorist network”. The argument goes: “If only the people of the Middle East were able to hear our side of the story and understand our policy away from the incitement and hate speech practiced by the likes of Al Jazeera, everything will be just fine.”

In response, the US Congress authorized funding for a radio station, Radio Sawa, and a satellite TV station, Al Hurra, in order to carry an alternative message to the Middle East and act as a medium for ‘objective reporting’ on US policy. Several news websites such as Magharebia were also started by the US Department of Defense, and the US state Department is sponsoring a lifestyle magazine for young men and women across the Middle East called Hi Magazine. At the executive level, a new position of Undersecretary of State was created to carry out US public diplomacy efforts and formulate strategies for improving the image of the US abroad.

Three years after those specific media and public diplomacy initiatives were taken, it is time to evaluate the American strategy to reach out to the people of the Middle East and even revisit the overall assumption that America’s problems in the Middle East can be mainly settled with public diplomacy and media outreach.

On the media front, Radio Sawa did fairly well in terms of attracting an audience especially among young Arabs because it put forth a nice format alternating Arabic and Western music hits. Once, I caught a ride in a taxi in Casablanca and noticed that the driver was listening to Radio Sawa. However, as soon as the news report came on, he quickly switched to the local station.

I asked: Why?

He said: “They [the US] think we are stupid”.

I probed further by asking: But why listen to it at all if that’s how you feel?

He quickly replied: "I like the music they have on".

In October 2004, a report by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General found that, although Radio Sawa was able "to attract a large audience in key Middle East countries, the station has been so preoccupied with building an audience through its music that it has failed to adequately measure whether it is influencing minds." My exchange with the Taxi driver in Casablanca hints that the challenge Radio Sawa faces is one of legitimacy and credibility as long as it is viewed as an instrument of the US government. I think objectivity dictates that we at least consider the fact that the station is presented with a hard task in abnormal circumstances with the shroud of US government propaganda hanging over its head.

While Radio Sawa can at least be credited with attracting a large audience, we could not say the same for satellite TV station Al Hurra. The station, for which Congress did not authorize funding until summer of 2003, is far behind the sophistication and programming of any Arab satellite TV station including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Abu Dhabi. Unlike my taxi experience in Casablanca, I have yet to meet anyone who watches any of Al Hurra’s programs. If and when Al Hurra overcomes technical and programming hurdles to at least be in the same league as the Gulf satellite TV stations, then it will also have to overcome the fact that it is seen in the Middle East as a US propaganda instrument.

On the other hand and in the area of news publishing, Hi Magazine faces obstacles similar to those faced by Radio Sawa and Al Hurra (legitimacy, credibility, market penetration, etc.), but it also faces obstacles that are unique to published media. There is no additional cost (other than opportunity cost) for a resident of the Middle East to listen to or watch the US-sponsored stations if he/she so chooses. But with Hi Magazine, the Arab reader is asked to pay a per-unit price for a publication that he knows is sponsored by the US state Department. This is a huge socio-economic obstacle for the publication to gain market penetration even if it manages to overcome the other perception problems it faces. The magazine, however, has a website on which the contents of the Magazine are freely available. But that does not get rid of the economic disincentive entirely because TV and radio penetration far exceeds that of the internet in the Middle East (the region has been missing the train of globalization for years). This latter statement also points to problems faced by US news websites such as Magharebia.

On the policy front, the newly-created position of Undersecretary of State in Charge of Public Diplomacy has already seen two unsuccessful and short-lived appointments. Last month, President Bush nominated his close adviser Karen Hughes to the post. He also nominated an Egyptian-American, Dina Powell, to the number two spot in that office. In response to that appointment, I wrote that Karen Hughes must know that a propaganda campaign will not do the job. In regards to the Middle East, she should not make the mistake of following Arab regimes into the habit of insulting the intelligence of their people with blatant propaganda. What will cut it here is a concrete change in policy for which she will have to lobby relentlessly in the White House. I also believe that Mrs. Hughes should move to get the Arab Muslim community in the US to be more involved in U.S. public diplomacy efforts, because the American administration will not find better messengers to carry its goodwill to the Middle East than its own Arab and Muslim community.

The good news is that Karen Hughes enjoys direct access to the president, something her predecessors lacked. It is also a positive development that an Egyptian-American will be the number two official in charge of US public diplomacy. But, there is still a major lack of Muslim Staff in the administration’s main programs directed at the Middle East - and there in lies one of the problems of the current US strategy for public diplomacy. Administration officials admit that there is confusion about what public diplomacy means in the first place. Is it a communication job or is it an active policy-making job? I think both if you ask me, but the confusion looms and with it comes stalled progress and poor results. Furthermore, when you do not have the right people to help explain the problems you face, then you can not possibly come up with effective solutions – That is because you do not fully understand the problem. The US administration must stop to consider at least partly that the real problem it faces in the Middle East has to do with America’s own policy failures in the region and that America seems too distracted to realize that the fish it is trying to put back in the water is already dead.

How, you may ask. Well, let us consider a few realities:

1. US criticism has now become a blessing in the Middle East. The more US officials demonize an Arab media outlet, the more popular and credible the latter becomes among Arabs. Al-Jazeera, for instance, can effectively ignore US criticism as long as the Qatari government does not pull its funding. All it has to do is continue its programs and count its blessings. Actually, what they should probably do at this time is write the US administration a nice ‘Thank you’ note and encourage it to continue on its current track. By the way, calling on Arab governments to censor Al Jazeera all while defending the first amendment right of the conservative US media to desecrate the image of Muslims sends the message that America is only interested in the kind of freedom that serves its interests. It does not help either when US officials try to explain this contradiction by suggesting that Arabs are not sophisticated enough to make ‘intelligent use’ of freedom of the press.

I also think that it is incredibly flattering for a single media network to be credited with influencing the minds of 200 million Arabs. It is also unbelievably insulting for Arabs to be indirectly accused of not being sophisticated or intelligent enough so as to be enslaved by the ‘hypnotic force’ of a single TV station.

2. The images broadcast by Arab Satellite TV are not made up in a basement studio. They are real images of suffering brought on by war in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The question becomes one of spin, context, and focus. The tilt and bias is introduced when there is a deliberate disregard for other information that is important for the objective and complete presentation of a news story. There is no doubt that Arab media is guilty of this conduct. The reason for this is actually simple to explain: Bad news sell - good news, not so much. You can show Arabs as many pictures of American goodwill in Iraq as you can, but they will still see Abu Ghraib. The American media is just as guilty of such bias. When was the last time you heard the words “Arab” or “Muslim” attached to anything positive on this side of the Atlantic. You can show Americans as many pictures of Muslim goodwill as you can, but they will still see 9/11.

3. American officials continue to equate talking to Arab leaders to having a “constructive” dialogue with the Arab World. Someone needs to remind them that there is a huge canyon between Arab ruling regimes and the Arab people. In addition, American policy regarding the Middle East is full of contradictions because American values have seldom been aligned with American interests in the region – contradictions the US has never corrected nor explained to the satisfaction of the people of the Middle East. US officials must simply understand that having “an understanding with Arab governments” is not enough. They need to forge an understanding with the people.

By the way, it is worth mentioning that it is not particularly heart-warming for Iraqis in particular and Arabs in general to hear President Bush say: “We are facing terrorists in Iraq so that we don’t face them here at home.” - Nice thing to say at a pep rally in America but someone needs to remind US officials that there is a thing now called satellite TV and internet media that beams those messages to the Middle East in mere seconds, reinforcing the perception that America considers the lives of Iraqis to be inferior to that of Americans.

Although I believe that an active public diplomacy effort must be undertaken by the US in order to promote understanding of US policy, I also believe that this can not just be about advocacy but also about inquiry and a great deal of listening . Although I believe that a big part of the problem in US-Middle East relations has to do with poor communication on both sides, I also believe that the crux of the problem remains one related to poor policy planning.

In other words, better communication and media outreach are very important although many more steps need to be taken in that regard as I described earlier. But as the former president would say: It's also the policy stupid.


Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Unfortunately, I don't think that kind of policy change will take any place soon. Most critics of our policy in the Middle East, unlike you, don't offer specific constructive criticism but merely pander to certain groups, which turns criticism into bashing and is not at all helpful. Likewise, from what I see around me, many students of Middle East Studies, have a very idealistic outlook, which doesn't allow them to look into the specific details which should be changed/fixed, in order for a policy with a positive goal to have concrete results. Instead, they prefer to repudiate the policy entirely, instead of looking into the best way to fix. In other words, many people, both those who are interested in the area, and those who are not,are more interested in broad, generalizied polemical arguments and gaining political points with one side or the other than with concrete policy changes.

April 25, 2005

Blogger Michael Brenner said...

"It is also unbelievably insulting for Arabs to be indirectly accused of not being sophisticated or intelligent enough so as to be enslaved by the ‘hypnotic force’ of a single TV station."

But is it true? Similar arguments have been made about conservatives and Fox News.

In a region where there is not a lot of free media, I would not at all be surprised if many Arabs took their cues from one station, particularly if that station is the "free" one.

It is also my understanding that bloody images are run on television not unlike the way the 24-hour news channels ran the Dean scream speech over and over again. It is fairly clear that this saturation of a single image contributed mightily to Dean's downfall in the primaries, and this is a free society.

April 25, 2005

Blogger laurenbove said...

It is also unbelievably insulting for Arabs to be indirectly accused of not being sophisticated or intelligent enough so as to be enslaved by the ‘hypnotic force’ of a single TV station.

Dear Jawad: You know I think the world of you, however...I disagree here. It's not insulting, but ignorant. They are merely applying logic that's illustrated to be true in the US every single day.

Just look at Fox. Fox "News" (to be generous) is taken as the word of God or at least thought of as factual news with no bias whatsoever one way or the other by far far too many.

The people you refer to merely think that the people of the Middle East are in effect, just like the people of the US. I'm not saying that's a compliment...just a sort of leveling premise.

As you already are painfully aware, I think we are all basically and intrinsically the same. People are influenced by what they hear. I think also that most people only truly listen to things that reinforce and back up their already formed and shaped opinions. It's reassuring. I know I can be guilty of that, without even realizing it. It's quite a challenge to alter fast and hard perceptions no matter to whom we are referring.

I agree w/you that the US gov't backed radio and television etc. don't have creedence. Of course not. What a ridiculous idea that was. If the US was smart they'd hire the P.R. group that Martha Stewart has been working with and consult with the folks that actually live in the Middle East for starters.

April 25, 2005

Blogger laurenbove said...

Michael...Dude...! Sympatico moment of the day.

April 25, 2005

Blogger Jawad said...

Michael: First, welcome to my blog. You raise a good point. Here is the reality though, the Arab World has now hundreds of channels available to it via satellite. So, Al-Jazeera is far from being the only one. I cited a few in the post (Al Arabiya, Abu Dhabi TV, Dubai, Qatar TV, etc.). So, it is not that Al Jazeera is the only one and people have no choice but to watch it. That is an idea spread in this country by people who like to talk on TV but have absolutely no knowledge of the region. Arab viewers have access to more TV channels than us here and have had such access since the mid 1990s. Before that they were limited to their own state TV propaganda. So, it's not about access anymore.

Now, on the question of "independence" of news. This really depends on where the station is in relation to the viewer. For instance, a sat TV station in Qatar can not be independent in relation to news about Qatar but can be very independent in terms of news about Egypt. A more vivid example is something that just happened a few days ago. Qatar pulled citizenship rights from about 6,000 of its citizens belonging to a tribe bordering Saudi Arabia. This is obviously a huge breach of their own laws not to mention international conventions they signed and just basic human rights. Well, Al Jazeera (based in Qatar) did not even try to juggle that puppy. But Abu Dhabi and Al Alam went to town on it (both channels are received in Qatar but based elsewhere in Gulf). That's the difference between now and let's say 20 years ago when people of Qatar will only be exposed to their state media. So the dynamics have changed a bit and the old wall is being shaken a bit. But it is still standing, make no mistake about it.

April 25, 2005

Blogger Jawad said...

My dear Lauren: I actually believe that US officials also happen to insult the intelligence of Americans routinely. The latest offense, in my opinion, is the Republican intransigence in the Schiavo case down in Florida. What I am pointing out is that there are consequences to their behavior. In regards to the Middle East in particular, it hardens resentment and it makes it very very hard for Arab reformers to get the Arab street to move in the right direction.

April 25, 2005

Blogger Gothamimage said...

Excellent post.

April 26, 2005

Blogger Eman said...

Jawad, what can I say? yet another brilliant post. Thank you.
I wish people will really understand that people of the middle east are not losing trust in the US for the heck of it. They lost trust because of simple facts you've kindly listed: "the real problem it faces in the Middle East has to do with America’s own policy failures in the region", "that America is only interested in the kind of freedom that serves its interests", "When was the last time you heard the words “Arab” or “Muslim” attached to anything positive on this side of the Atlantic". I hope no one gets me wrong. I'm trying to be as neutral as possible. But you have to realize that no station, no media, nothing could be more powerful than what Arab people deal with in reality. Even if Arab media and US media both worked hand in hand to show the success of US policies in the Middle-East, nothing will make Arabs regain their trust in the US unless they see improvements for themselves. With all my respect to all our fellow American friends, but believe me a certain policy will mean nothing to a suffering person whose country is falling apart, whose environment is being destroyed, and who knows that many generations ahead will suffer pollution and radiation.

I join Jawad and agree that mutual unbiased media coverage is necessary, but many other steps must be taken to guarantee democracy and freedom.

April 26, 2005

Blogger Karim said...

While I do again agree on most of what you said, including your conclusion that the main cause of resentment and anti-US sentiment in the middle-east is US policy, don't you think that there is some substance to the claim that some aspects of al-Jazeera's coverage of the news in the middle-east is indeed a little bit "biased" (somehow in the same way as Fox is)? Don't you think that the great majority of journalists in the arab world still don't have the courage and the willigness to discuss the shortcomings of arab culture in an objective way?

April 26, 2005

Blogger Jawad said...

Hi Karim:

Absolutely there is credence and substance to the argument that al-Jazeera's coverage is biased. In fact in the post I say: “The tilt and bias is introduced when there is a deliberate disregard for other information that is important for the objective and complete presentation of a news story. There is no doubt that Arab media is guilty of this conduct.”

On your second question, I will go a step further and say that there are cases of cowardice and sheer ignorance still in the Arab media. But I am an optimist so I also say that things are getting better. Some Arab journalists are now debating topics that they wouldn't dare talk about only 20 years ago. So, there is progress. But a lot still remains - still a whole lot of taboo political, religious, and social topics that no one wants to touch in the Middle East. But, I believe it's a matter of time and that the burden is on us to force the debate and bring those issues up with confidence and determination.

One thing I also try to point out is that Arab regimes before were able to dictate debate to their people. Now with the advent of new-generation media technology, all they can do is try to control the flow and direction of the debate. They can no longer shut it down completely as they have been able to do in the past. You see that in some of the policies undertaken by those governments. They know that this a new world and this new globalized generation is no longer afraid to say NO. The major fight lies in the fact that Arab regimes are fighting for the status quo while this new generation of Arabs is telling them that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

April 26, 2005

Blogger laurenbove said...

Hey People of the Middle East! If you want to distrust US Officials, Do! But please, I BEG you don't distrust the people of the US or worse yet lump us in with the politicians. We too are mere pawns in the political chess game...most markedly with the current fascist corporatist administration.

Hey there, Jawad: Ultimately, I think we're really saying the same thing. Sometimes I need a little more clarification and then I feel I truly understand.

The ubiquitous underestimation of regular people (whatever they are) by government officials is egalitarian in nature, don't you think?

April 26, 2005

Blogger Irina Tsukerman said...

Be careful with the way you use language. "Fascist" has a very specific definition which can't even be really applied to the Nazis, much less to Bush.

April 26, 2005

Blogger Jawad said...

One can disagree with Bush's policies all day long. But we must try to avoid the emotional outburst. Irina is right. Bush has his ideas of how US policy should be carried out in the world. He believes his way is right. We can say he is wrong, we can say that he is serving the interests of a particular group at the expense of another, we can challenge his judgment and outlook in terms of policy. But, his detractors, need to let themselves understand: He is not evil; he is not Hitler and he is not the dumb president that they say he is. I personally believe that he really believes what he does is the right thing to do. He also has a particular personality that can be a problem at times and an asset in other times.

I happen to personally agree with a few initiatives he has taken in terms of foreign policy including the Millennium Challenge Account, the Middle East Partnership Initiative and his overall call for reform in the Arab World. I also happen to disagree with the way he handled Iraq and the way he has handled the peace process. I also disagree with some aspects of his public diplomacy as I noted in my post.

But you know that I sill love you Lauren :) and by the way, a prerequisite for debate is disagreement. Otherwise, there is no debate at all, just echoes of our own voices - and that would be too boring for the curious mind :)

April 26, 2005


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