USA: War of ideas
William Fisher

One of the more under-reported conclusions of the 9/11 Commission is that the struggle against Islamic extremists is more than a military, intelligence, financial, and diplomatic battle. It is a war of ideas.

And it is a war the US is losing.

“The United States must do more to communicate its message,” the commission’s report declares. It quotes US Ambassador Richard Holbrook wondering, “How can a man in a cave out-communicate the world’s leading communications society?” And US deputy state secretary Richard Armitage is worried that Americans have been “exporting our fears and our anger, not our vision of opportunity and hope.”

Underscoring America’s problems is a new Zogby International poll of 3,000 respondents in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. The poll reports that Arab attitudes toward the US have plummeted to all-time lows. The results were released the same day as the commission’s final report.

In contrast to the Bush administration’s insistence that American ‘values’ and political ideals are behind the hostility, the poll findings show that Arabs see US policies in the Middle East as, by far, the main factor in fostering the Arab world’s growing antagonism toward Washington.

“It’s the policy, stupid,” said James Zogby, head of the polling firm and president of the Arab-American Institute. He added that when asked an open-ended question about what the US could do to improve its image among Arabs, significant pluralities in each country called for Washington to either “stop supporting Israel,” or “change Middle East policy.”

Faced with such a hostile environment, how should the United States go about doing a better job of communicating its messages to the Arab world? The 9/11 Commission had this recommendation: “Recognizing that Arab and Muslim audiences rely on satellite television and radio, the government has begun some promising initiatives in television and radio broadcasting to the Arab world, Iran, and Afghanistan. These efforts are beginning to reach large audiences. The broadcasting board of governors has asked for much larger resources. It should get them.”

The commission was referring to the US taxpayer-financed satellite television channel, Al Hurra (The Free One). Its start-up early last year cost about $102 million, added to the previously launched Radio Sawa, a Middle Eastern Radio Network with Arabic programming, and a radio station directed at Iran. Featuring mostly American pop music and a smattering of news, the radio stations have attracted large audiences in eight Arab countries, including Iraq. Now that they have begun to win acceptance, news content is gradually increasing.

Al Hurra has had tougher sledding. Although it has gained a modest audience – about 7 to 10 percent of Arab viewers of international news – it is viewed with suspicion by most of ‘the Arab street.’ The Zogby poll found that Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, two indigenous Arabic language channels, enjoy an overwhelming share of the growing satellite TV market in the Middle East.

Said one Arab commentator of Al Hurra: “We had expected to see news broadcasts that were not opinionated nor censored, programs that formed an awareness, programs that explained the American political system to the Arab world. Anyone who knows the American media or has worked in Washington will be shocked watching this satellite channel broadcasting at its present standard.”

As New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote: “The [9/11] commissioners don’t say it, but the implication is clear. We’ve had an investigation into our intelligence failures; we now need a commission to analyze our intellectual failures.”

What to do? A number of Middle East experts have asked why the region needs another state-run TV network and whether placement of US-produced programs on existing Arab channels might not seem less heavy-handed.

They have a point – up to a point. 

Outlets like Al Hurra offer the US an element of control it would not enjoy on Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya or other indigenous Arabic channels in the neighborhood.

But what good is control if no one is watching? Al Hurra’s programming will require a major overhaul before it will be able to capture meaningful market share among Arab viewers. This presents the US government with tough choices: to be credible, it will need to present a more authentic American reality – warts and all – and a far more diverse range of opinions if it is to shed its propagandist image.                

So while Al Hurra is maturing, the United States will have to bite the bullet and work with channels like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, as well as local stations in the area.

That will not be easy. In one of its first official actions, the now-disbanded Iraqi Governing Council announced a temporary ban on the two satellite television channels in Iraq. And Bush administration officials have been intensely critical of both.

There is no doubt that stations like Al Jazeera are, in the words of Michael Young, opinion editor of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, “daring, aggressive, and timely; but also selective, demagogical, and gruesome.”

But this is the hand the US has been dealt. Americans – and not only government officials – need to engage with the major Arab networks. If the ‘guests’ are sure of their messages, and reasoned and temperate in their presentation, they will be far more credible on Arab-sponsored channels than on any US government outlet.

If the 9/11 Commission is right about the US being engaged in a war of ideas, it needs to take that battle, too, to those who would be influenced by our enemies.

America needs to think carefully about how to use its unrivalled media expertise to help achieve those goals.

William Fisher is a regular contributor to the Middle East Times.