10 February 2013

American Public Diplomacy in the Mideast

At the height of its military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and concurrent with its ongoing 'war on terror,' the US government launched a public diplomacy campaign in the Arab world. It was ostensibly intended to project a cooler, kinder, and gentler image of the USA, even as American policies continued to wreak havoc in the region. Utilizing a variety of media, including news and entertainment in audio, video, and print, the efforts were linked by what appeared to be a common goal of attempting to win the hearts and minds of Arab youth.

One of the first efforts of the campaign was a monthly Arabic language magazine, Hi International, launched in 2003. It featured slick images and superficial stories aimed at introducing American culture to Arabs in the 18-35 market segment. The magazine was produced, along with an accompanying website, by a private company hired by the US State Department. The stated goal of the magazine was to improve Arab perceptions of America. According to the company's spokesperson, 'It is designed to engage people in that generation in a constructive, interactive dialogue on many aspects of American society.' Heavy on celebrity profiles, the first several issues highlighted Arab Americans, such as singer Norah Jones and actor Tony Shalhoub, who have made it big in the American entertainment industries, in addition to stories about the latest sports scores and fashion fads, which are deemed 'subjects that are relevant to younger generations everywhere around the world.' The Hi International website, now offline, featured sections with answers to commonly asked questions about the US, as well as numerous polls, including those pertaining to the Arab clones of American TV programs, such as 'Arab Superstars,' a version of the 'American Idol' TV program showcasing up and coming pop singers.

The US State Department initially invested over $4 million of American taxpayer's money to launch Hi International, and expected to subsidize the magazine in the same amount each year for the next several years, with the goal of producing 50,000 copies every month, though it was hoped that advertising revenues would eventually offset the cost. The magazine sold for the equivalent of 2USD throughout the Arab world, as well as in Greece, Cyprus and Israel. Initial sales figures were low, but American public diplomacy experts had high expectations. While most of the content was produced by Arabs living in the US, all editorial decisions were made by the US State Department. Deputy spokesman Philip Reeker outlined the long term strategy of the magazine by stating that it is 'not designed to create or change opinions immediately, but to develop broader understandings, to have a dialogue which will take place over years, over decades and, indeed, over generations.' At the same time, the magazine assiduously avoided all discussions of foreign policy, with its editors and producers claiming that the target audience of Arab youth was not interested in politics. More likely, it was because American policy in the region, besides being lopsided toward Israel, remains indefensible except perhaps on grounds of colonialism and imperialism. The magazine was in fact criticized for assuming that Arab youth are mindless consumers, and for not mentioning those issues that are important in the region, such as the ongoing occupation of Palestine and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, American officials were optimistic. 'We don’t expect people to pick up a copy and instantly love the United States,' noted one diplomat, who added that, 'We want them to read it and gradually develop an appreciation for who and what we are.' Although the officials and managers appeared confident that enough of the Arab youth would remain attracted to the magazine despite mounting criticism, its publication and companion websites were suspended in 2005.

The duplicitous American policy in the region has been used by Washington to procure more funds from Congress for additional public diplomacy, despite the often ineffectual nature of these efforts. Margaret D. Tutwiler, the 2003-2004 Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, told the Congress that because of US policy in the region, 'it will take many years of hard, focused work' to reclaim America's image in the world. The general method being employed appears typical of American policy, public and private: identify a problem, find a way to make money from that problem, and then develop a strategy to divert attention away from the original problem. Yet, American policy makers still seem to be living in the Cold War world, when it was simply a matter of dropping a few leaflets on an 'information starved' Third World country, with its supposedly 'backward natives' eager for any information that comes their way. The US also seems to think that shaping the attitudes of Arabs is akin to selling a product, which resulted in hiring high-priced advertising experts to design public diplomacy campaigns. One such expert was Charlotte Beers, former head of Ogilvy Mather, one of the largest ad firms in the world, who the US State Department hired in 2001 to build the image of America the way she would build a product brand name, except instead of fast food and technical gadgetry, the products to be sold would be the American 'belief system' and American 'values.' Her contribution included a series of slick TV commercials that were aired on commercial networks in the Arab and Muslim worlds, which quickly became the object of public ridicule.

Not to be daunted, in 2002 the US government launched Radio Sawa, with the stated intention of 'communicating directly in Arabic with the people of the Middle East by radio,' to change perceptions of Arabs about America. The station features non-stop American and Arab pop songs, interspersed with short news bulletins. Radio Sawa remains on the air today. The same pattern of diplomacy was followed in June 2003, when a Congressional panel headed by former ambassador Edward Djerejian concluded that US policy was the main cause of anti-Americanism in the world, but no recommendations for changing that policy ensued. Instead, further funding was procured to expand public diplomacy in the region.

It may be useful here to recall a stereotypical ploy used among police officers interrogating a suspect, typically known as the 'good cop bad cop' routine. Basically, two policemen are in the room with the suspect, and one–the bad cop–uses verbal and physical abuse on the suspect, while the other–the good cop–occasionally intervenes to curb his colleague's temperament and even at times offer the prisoner some comfort and refreshment. The idea is to convince the prisoner that it is in his best interest to deal with the 'good cop' or else he will be fully turned over to the 'bad cop.' Part of the good cop/bad cop style of American diplomacy is to ban or otherwise prevent Arab journalists from covering regional news, while offering their own slick substitutes. The bad cop side of American diplomacy is most evident in Iraq, where American occupation forces have consistently attacked, arrested, abused and even murdered Arab journalists for regional satellite stations such as Aljazeera. In fact, as part of conditions for the US to end the siege of Fallujah in April 2004, the American occupation authorities demanded that Aljazeera journalists leave the city. Wadah Khanfar, director general of Aljazeera, cited Iraqi Governing Council sources in a press statement, saying, 'American forces declared Aljazeera must leave before any progress is made to settle the Fallujah stand-off.' The station was subsequently branded by the occupation forces commander at the time, General Mark Kimmit, as offering a 'series of lies' about US attacks on Fallujah.

American officialdom, it appears, cannot tolerate any competitive images or stories to their supposedly overarching control of information about their role in the world. At times, this is made painfully obvious. When the US announced a 'ceasefire' in Fallujah, itself an Israeli tactic used to curb mounting criticism, Aljazeera interviewed General Kimmitt live by phone, who insisted that a unilateral ceasefire was in place. As he spoke, Aljazeera simultaneously aired footage of American F-16 fighter jets bombing residential neighborhoods of Fallujah. It is from instances like this, where the American public diplomacy is exposed as a web of lies, that the US seeks to shut down any and all alternative viewpoints in a bid for control of information. A year earlier, in April 2003, just prior to US tanks rolling into Baghdad, US invading forces targeted the offices of Aljazeera in the city, killing the journalist Tariq Ayoub. Such attempts to silence Aljazeera have continued in various ways since then. In October of 2003, the Emir of Qatar, who owns a controlling interest in the station, was pressured by the Americans to cease what the US termed as 'anti-American' coverage. The US Secretary of State at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, even alleged that Aljazeera was cooperating with Iraqi resistance forces. During the same month, the US backed Iraqi Governing Council banned another Arab station, al-Arabiya, from broadcasting news from Iraq. In March of 2004, hackers downed Arab news agency websites days after they showed pictures of dead US soldiers and prisoners. The bureau offices of Abu Dhabi TV in Iraq have been hit with US missiles. Many similar examples can easily be found. All told, within the first year of the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, the Americans killed 19 journalists, according to a March 2004 report by the International Press Institute. These crimes included the murder of a Reuters cameraman in Baghdad in August 2003. In addition to killing journalists, the Americans shut down local print media, such as the 'al-Hawzah' newspaper published by Muqtada Sadr. In January 2004, American soldiers arrested three Iraqi journalists working for Reuters, beat and abused them, including 'sexual humiliation' and 'religious taunts,' and then held them in detention near Fallujah for several days. While the Americans have worked very hard to silence all news sources other than their own, the US continued to launch a variety of efforts to combat and counter, then President Bush put it, 'the hateful propaganda' of the local Arab media.
Early in 2004, the US Congress approved funding for Alhurrah, an American produced satellite TV station designed to broadcast news from Washington to the Arab World. The name means roughly 'the free one,' but which in Arabic has connotations of irresponsible freedom. Advertisements for Alhurrah use imagery to suggest that it is intended to bring Arabs 'out of the darkness' in which they supposedly live, and 'into the light of truth,' in this case the light of American truth. The station began broadcasting in February 2004, and gradually moved to a 24-hour format slated by producers to 'bring news, talk shows, and documentaries to 22 countries across the Middle East.' US President Bush personally launched Alhurrah, as its first high profile on air guest, by proclaiming that, 'We have not been in Iraq for one year and already there has been enormous progress' and that 'a free society has started to float to the surface.' The American Congress spent 62USD million of US taxpayer’s money to launch the channel, with another 40USD million for a special edition broadcast only to Iraq. Its producers pride themselves on having assembled a carefully selected group of anchors, and claim that they will present a 'wider range of stories' than its Arab competitors. This wider range includes stories about regionally contentious issues, such as gay and lesbian marriages. Predictably, Shaykh al-Khudayri, a Saudi scholar and judge at the grand Islamic court in Riyadh, issued an official ruling in March 2004 banning Muslims from watching Alhurrah, citing the station as a 'source of corruption' designed to 'fight Islam' and 'support American hegemony.' Alhurrah also relies heavily on images of 'good cop' US soldiers playing football with Iraqi teenagers, or handing out candy to Iraqi children. The channel’s upbeat programming persistently emphasizes how life has supposedly 'improved' for Iraqis after the American occupation, including stories of new internet cafes opening under US occupation, although without mentioning that recently American soldiers themselves were banned from using email, after the embarrassing prisoner abuse scandal revealed that pornographic pictures had been circulating among troops and their friends for months prior to the scandal. Despite growing criticism, the American good and bad cops have continued their two-pronged efforts at public diplomacy region. As Arab journalist Ramzy Baroud put it, the US handles its affairs in the region with 'a combination of extreme militancy, disregard of the individual and collective aspirations of Arab peoples, and the obnoxious tactics it uses to redeem its sins.'

The Alhurrah channel has been roundly criticized by Arab media scholars, including those in the US. Saad Abu Khalil, professor of political science at California State University, has noted that the quality of Alhurrah is substandard, and that the reporters' grasp of the Arabic language, which he noted is absolutely essential in reaching audiences, is weak. This is in line, however, with certain Lebanese satellite channels, like LBC and Mustaqbal, which often feature colloquial and English-Arabic hybrid speaking guests on its programs. It seems to be an attempt to reach the 'Arab street,' but in the end is demeaning to the language. Abu Khalil also noted that people who are interviewed on Alhurrah are often cut off when their discussion moves into contentious or controversial territory, such as criticizing American policy and its support for undemocratic Arab regimes. He suggests that Alhurrah only seems progressive when measured against the old-school state controlled media in the region, but that in the past decade the Arab world has largely moved beyond those limited perspectives. Abu Khalil continues:
At the heart of American propaganda effortst since September 11 is a fundamental insult to the intelligence and the minds of the Arab people. The United States government wants to be able to bomb, to continue to shower the region, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, and to allow Israel to shower the Palestinians with bombs and rockets, while trying by the silly propaganda of Radio Sawa and Alhurrah TV to capture the imagination and the sympathy of the Arab people.
However, while many of his points are salient, Abu Khalil is also missing a key element in regional dynamics. While the Americans are attacking and otherwise silencing journalist from the Arab media that are relied upon by mature viewers in the region, they are simultaneously targeting the Arab youth with 'fun' and 'cool' programming, which takes advantage of elements in the region that are already prone toward American consumer culture. For example, a majority of 15-25 year olds in Lebanon tune into 'Star Academy,' which brought together 16 young men and women of several Arab nationalities to live together under one roof, with their lives broadcast 24 hours on live TV, mimicking the American reality TV programs. Voting for their favorite star on the show gives Arab audiences a false sense of democratic participation, while their largely undemocratic US-backed regimes, remain indifferent to their concerns. In a way, the US has written off mature audiences, in the hope, one might imagine, that they can build support through developing younger and more fashion-oriented audiences, rather than converting older, more discriminating viewers. The method seems to be the persistent American tactic of using global fascination for American entertainment and style as a counter balance against its political and economic policies.

Another American Arab media figure, Jamal Dajani, has also been outspoken against Alhurrah. Vice President of international news on Link TV, which monitors and presents selected regional views to American audiences from over 30 Arab television networks, Dajani notes that al-Hurrah rushed itself into a pattern of heavy handed and facile justification for American policies in the region, before building an audience base, as was done by regional Arab media over the past decade. In other words, Alhurrah comes off as a flimsy and panicky reaction to a growing realization in the region that there is more to media than simplistic propaganda, yet the Americans seem unable to move beyond that vision. Dajani interviewed a number of people in the Arab world about Alhurrah and found a general sense of distrust and even disdain for the latest wave of American public diplomacy. He spoke to Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who noted that, with the crowded mediascape of Arab TV, Alhurrah will have a hard time breaking through, while viewers from the 'Arab street' consistently told Dajani that Alhurrah promotes 'American freedom' above the kinds of freedoms that are meaningful to regional audiences.

Whatever the regional responses to Alhurrah may be, they seem limited to young, educated and middle class audiences in urban metropoles of the Arab world, while it remains largely unknown in outlying towns and villages where people watch mostly terrestrial TV, not satellite TV. This is basically an issue of class, since most Arabs, outside the oil-rich Gulf states, cannot afford the increasingly expensive and privatized satellite services. Beyond that, all channels, whatever their point of view, are highly sophisticated and visually stimulating productions. Over 130 different networks broadcast on ArabSat and NileSat, the two main satellite providers in the region. A US State Department poll of 'urban Iraqis' found that 62% watch Iraqi terrestrial TV, but only 26% watch foreign TV via satellite, while 5% or less rely on local newspapers and radio for their media diet. At the same time, what was once Saddam TV has become American TV. Beyond content, flashy media have steadily been replacing more sedate sources of news, such as reading, radio and discussion. Audiences that watch the proliferation of TV channels, satellite or terrestrial, risk becoming more passive in their news consumption.

Critical voices raised against Alhurrah are not limited to those in the Mideast. Charles Hartick, an American viewer of Link TV, responded to a query about whether or not the US government should spend tens of millions of dollars on Alhurrah by saying, 'I feel it's wrong that we’re spending 62USD million broadcasting Arab language programming to the Arab world, because they have satellite TV just like we have and they have access to the world news, and they can clearly see that what we’re doing is just propaganda, and we’re trying to mollify them over the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Until we can straighten out our own problems at home, we ought to stop interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.' Similarly, in an April 2004 speech American opposition political leader Ralph Nader said:
The conventional Pentagon budget is $400 billion and rising and there are other departments such as the Department of Energy, in the nuclear weapons area. Most of the budget was built because of the Soviet Union's risk. There's no more Soviet Union. It was partially amassed because of communist China. Communist China is rapidly converting criminal communism into criminal capitalism. They're not interested in threatening us, they want to sell to us. So why the $400 billion plus? Why the diversion from school kids and millions of Americans who don't have health insurance? And people who want their clinics and schools and public transit built and repaired? Why no money for inner cities? Why no money for our crumbling public works, why no money for libraries, for clinics? Why no money for the necessities of the American people?
Besides forming a critical response to American public diplomacy, very few commentators have considered the success rate of such efforts. Rule one of advertising and public relations is that, whatever the critics say, if the customer buys the product then the ads are worth the effort. Maybe no one has done a systematic study of this, but there is evidence to be mined for those who are willing and able. A quick survey of Arab satellite TV channels suggests that some one is buying the American line, and even if it is only media bureaucrats being enticed by hook or crook into Americanizing their programming, the audiences for these channels are as large as ever. Some stations have shifted their diet to an almost entirely American oriented fare, all translated into Arabic, of course. The local newspapers in many Arab capitals also attest to the appeal of propaganda, again even if only to intimidated or bribed editors. For example, when MBC, an Arab TV channel based in Dubai, was set to run an Arabic translation of Michael Moore's documentary on American gun violence, Bowling for Columbine,' several Arab newspapers ran a reprint of an article from a conservative British newspaper, claiming that Moore exaggerated claims of violence in the US. Soon thereafter, the mantra of Moore's alleged 'exaggeration' could be heard elsewhere in the Arab media, as well as on the street and in university classrooms, with the sole source seeming to be this questionable British news article, even though Moore had answered the claims of exaggeration on his own website, providing not only documentation of those claims but also the sources of the stories highlighted in his film and books.

In the end, the ongoing claims and counterclaims of what is and what is not truthful will likely persist in the Mideast mediascape, as will the contradictions between the images of America portrayed through public diplomacy and the effects of American policies in the region. But as long as the question of how and why public diplomacy efforts persist, and often succeed, remains unaddressed then it may remain an ineffectual intellectual exercise to pick apart those efforts from a perceived moral higher ground.

[This is revised version of an article by J. Progler that was originally published in 2004 in the Crescent International newsmagazine.]

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