Why the U.S. is losing the propaganda war

Foolish decisions, nervous allies and not enough Arabic speakers mean Muslims around the world aren't getting America's side of the story.


Eric Boehlert
October 12, 2001 11:30PM (UTC)

Even as a deluge of bombs dropped on strategic targets inside Afghanistan this week, American forces simultaneously strove to win over the hearts and minds of the beleaguered Afghan population. In addition to cluster bombs and cruise missiles, a barrage of food packets, explanatory leaflets and portable windup radios that pick up only one frequency, broadcast by the U.S. military, showered down.

It's difficult to tell whether the humanitarian aid is having any impact, although so far there has been little word of widespread anti-American uprisings among Afghans themselves, while far more hostile demonstrations are taking place across the border in Pakistan. But if the war for public opinion in the nearby Arab states of the Gulf region is any indication, prospects are dim for a rush of converts to the United States' point of view.

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On the contrary, experts say the United States is nearly defenseless in this crucial war of words, unable and apparently unwilling to explain the goals of its campaign to a widely hostile and suspicious audience.

The biggest hurdle: few, if any, Arabic speakers, either among U.S. government officials or their hesitant Arab allies, who are willing to make the White House's case in the Middle Eastern press. But the problem isn't just a lack of human capital, it's also a failure of will.

"Despite this country's enormous ability to communicate, we've become mute exactly at the time when we need it most," notes Walter Denny, professor of art history and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, who just returned from the region this week. "We don't have anything there. Nothing. It's depressing."

"There's a media war raging over there and the United States is not even participating. There's nobody presenting an accurate picture of U.S policies," complains Norman Pattiz, recently appointed to Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees Voice of America. Pattiz has spent much of this year leading an initiative to greatly expand VOA's Arabic programming for the Middle East, a project he says is now a must. "Nobody is carrying the water for the United States."

The White House may be waking up to the problem. During his press conference Thursday night, President Bush conceded, "We need to do a better job making our case" to those in the Middle East. And earlier this week, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer confirmed that Bush may soon follow the lead of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and give an interview to Al-Jazeera, the Arab-language satellite channel, in order to speak directly to Arabs and Muslims about the war on terrorism. Al-Jazeera is the only truly independent Arabic-language all-news channel, reaching 35 million viewers worldwide, including 150,000 subscribers in America.

The question is, will Bush's interview make any difference? In addition to the paucity of Arabic speakers in the U.S. government and military, there are a number of other reasons that may explain why the United States appears to be losing the propaganda war in the Middle East. The U.S.'s Arab allies are afraid to appear too pro-American to their own populations. Funding for government-subsidized media outlets like Voice of America has been limited in scope. There's even the possibility, suggested by some media watchers, that Americans just aren't very good at propaganda. But judging by the rising tide of protest that is surging in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Islamic world against the bombing of Afghanistan, the reasons for U.S. impotence may not be fixable in the short term. Much damage has already been done.

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The case of Al-Jazeera offers a telling example of American failure, say analysts. The State Department recently lodged a complaint with the government of Qatar, which hosts the news channel, urging it to tone down Al-Jazeera's allegedly biased, anti-American coverage. But the move backfired badly among Muslims who saw it as an arrogant attempt by the U.S. to muzzle the Arabs' only free press.

"Asking Al-Jazeera to rein in its coverage was incredibly harmful," says Jillian Schwedler, assistant professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, and an expert on Jordan.

The White House has even undermined its own position by asking that American news networks censor themselves when broadcasting taped messages from al-Qaida terrorists that are originally shown on Al-Jazeera.

The Bush administration has expressed concern that the messages might contain coded messages to bin Laden's followers, but regardless of whether that fear has merit, from an Arab perspective, the move, like the formal complaint lodged against Al-Jazeera, represents another stumble, says Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia who monitors Arab media closely. "There will be a very negative reaction to it [in the Middle East] because the message does not go well with our claim of being a free press country."

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And even as the U.S. government has attempted to exert pressure on Qatar, it has dug its own hole deeper by failing to present any U.S. officials who will grant interviews on Al-Jazeera, either in Washington, D.C., or in the Middle East -- despite what Al-Jazeera executives claim are constant requests for guests. (Al-Jazeera does routinely cover Bush's speeches as well as briefings from the Pentagon and State Department.)

Part of that absence stems from the serious language barrier that has been built up in recent years. "What American [official] is going to be on Al-Jazeera? None of them can speak Arabic," says Denny, pointing to many senior diplomats in the region, as well as most U.S. ambassadors to Arab nations.

The Al-Jazeera channel does offer translators, but in a war of words, not speaking the language constitutes a serious obstacle.

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"There is a parallel," notes Jon Alterman, Middle East expert for the U.S. Institute of Peace. "Think about when [articulate Palestinian spokeswoman] Hanan Ashrawi came to the United States in the early '90s. Palestinians finally had somebody who could make their case, and give an understandable explanation to Americans. Even if they didn't agree with it, she was able to take something and make it real."

That is simply not being done in the Middle East today. "We have zero people who can make the case in Arabic for U.S. policy," says Alterman.

Including our own allies among the moderate Arab states, who have been virtually silent.

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"The people who should be making our case [in the local press] are our ally governments," notes Denny. "But they're just doing a duck dive, especially Saudi Arabia, which is kind of annoying. We saved their bacon in the Gulf War and this is the thanks we get. We don't have any courageous friends there. None."

Arab regimes such as Jordan, Syria and Egypt have long been crucial to the United States in helping to secure safety for oil exports and contain Muslim/Jewish violence to Israel and Palestine. But the United States is now discovering just how useless those governments are when it comes to building public support for any policies considered to be vaguely pro-American. Most regimes aren't even making a token effort.

"Most of our allies don't have enough credibility within their own territories" to make an American argument, notes Sachedina. The common fear among Arab rulers is that anti-American sentiment runs so high among its population that any gratuitous signs of support could spark an uprising.

So while American allies remain largely mum, and their state-run television stations don't dare defend U.S.-led bombings for fear of riling an already suspicious Arab and Muslim population, the United States is left in the awkward position of watching as a voiceless bystander while the debate over Osama bin Laden and terrorism unfolds in the Middle East.

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And even if Bush does eventually agree to appear on Al-Jazeera he will still be playing catchup to bin Laden, who has been given high marks by some for his ability to use Middle Eastern media to spread his message of hate. While the Wall Street Journal labeled bin Laden's Sunday taped message as "rambling," and MSNBC's Brian Williams dismissed it as "blowhard rhetoric," the communication went over in much of the Middle East as a coherent list of firmly held grievances against the United States; its strong support of Israel in its battle with Palestinians, its continued sanctions against Iraq and its military presence in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia. (At the same time, experts say the vast majority of Muslims dismiss bin Laden's call for a war on the infidels.)

"Support for bin Laden's message is fairly widespread; that the U.S. and Western powers almost accidentally make life miserable for Arabs and Muslims. That they just don't care," notes Alterman, at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

To Americans who have now seen President Bush address the nation several times, as well as his top military generals appearing on an almost daily basis, the notion that the United States' position is unclear may be difficult to comprehend. Especially during an age when information options such as the Internet and satellite television are exploding.

But from an Arab perspective, there's not much to chew on. CNN International is available, although only in English, as are NBC and Fox News, says Sachedina. But the people who have access to those outlets, or read the International Herald Tribune newspaper, are educated upper-class citizens who in no way represent the Arab masses, nor do they sway public opinion.

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Mistrust is also so high among Arabs that many dismiss U.S. newscasts as mouthpieces for the government. (Interestingly, the BBC, despite actually receiving funding from the British government, is seen by most Arabs as relatively balanced.)

"It's naive to think people around the world get an accurate view of us through the U.S. media, or their own media," says Pattiz at Voice of America.

Pattiz, who is also chairman of Westwood Radio, one of the largest commercial syndicators in the business, has been spearheading a Middle East initiative to modernize and expand VOA's broadcasts to the Arab world. "It will be a vehicle for public policy in the region."

He envisions VOA Arabic programming that broadcasts 24 hours a day, can be heard in five different Arabic dialects, can be picked up on AM and FM as well as digital satellite transmissions and, using the best parts of American radio programming, appeals to the Middle East's vast under-30 population with news and entertainment.

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Compare that to what he calls the current "piss-poor" Middle East operation VOA offers: seven hours a day worth of programming transmitted on a "barely audible" short wave signal, and heard only in a standard, classical Arabic that is rarely spoken on the streets of the Middle East.

"Voice of America is not popular, not compared to the BBC's" Arabic radio service, confirms Sachedina. "Voice of America is very parochial, very limited." Indeed, VOA's penetration rate in the Middle East is less than 2 percent.

Voice of America's Broadcasting Board of Governors has asked Congress for $30 million to pay for Pattiz's Middle East initiative. But the political climate on the Hill, not to mention the State Department, hasn't been favorable in recent days. Some congressional leaders were upset when the VOA recently aired portions of an exclusive interview with Taliban official Mullah Mohammed Omar. Taxpayers shouldn't be paying for enemy propaganda, conservatives argued, suggesting that U.S. overseas broadcasts need to become more aggressive in times of war.

The incident sparked a new debate over what role the VOA, which is the government's official outreach medium, should be playing in the so-called propaganda wars.

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According to its current charter, the VOA is mandated to report objectively, accurately and comprehensively. It is supposed to reflect a wide range of American thought, as well as broadcast official policies of the U.S. government in clearly labeled editorials.

"I just don't think propaganda is something Americans do well," says Sanford Ungar, former director of VOA, and currently president of Goucher College. "It's foreign to American journalism."

The irony is that following the Cold War some State Department policymakers and members of Congress questioned the wisdom of the U.S. government even being in the international broadcast business. The fact that CNN was beaming U.S. news around the world with its international editions may have suggested that it could be taken as evidence that the free market would provide a forum for an American point of view. .

The difference, notes VOA spokesman Joe O'Connell, is that "CNN caters to the English-speaking business traveler staying in hotels." By contrast, VOA broadcasts in 53 languages and targets the masses.

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The question now is, how will the Sept. 11 attack or Taliban incident affect VOA's efforts to secure its $30 million?

"I don't know how anyone can look at what's happened and not think this shouldn't have been done years ago. It's an urgent matter," says Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif.

However, Senator Jesse Helms, R-N.C., is already on record as being opposed to the plan. Earlier this year he put a hold on VOA money intended to fund the construction of a transmitter in Cyprus, necessary in order to reach Egypt. In an unusual move, and one that came after Sept. 11, the Broadcasting Board of Governors recently overruled Helms' hold, releasing the money for the transmitter.

Even if the VOA does expand its Arabic-language broadcasting and U.S. officials suddenly flood Al-Jazeera with interviews, the larger question remains, would it do any good right now? Or has rampant Arab hostility toward American foreign policy become too much to combat?

"No propaganda could have reversed the tide of anti-American sentiments in the region," answers Mohamed al-Sayed Said, analyst at al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, Cairo's preeminent think tank. "Simply because people in this region, and in every other region, develop their sentiments and views in light of what you do to them, not what you tell them."


Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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