A failure to communicate

The U.S. finally found a senior diplomat who could answer bin Laden in Arabic. But did he bomb on Al-Jazeera?

Published November 8, 2001 1:23AM (EST)

The first major U.S. salvo in the so-called propaganda war against Osama bin Laden and his Muslim supporters came Saturday afternoon, when former American ambassador to Syria Christopher Ross arrived as a guest on the influential Arabic news channel Al-Jazeera. Appearing via satellite from the station's Washington bureau to respond to the latest broadcast message from bin Laden, Ross did what no administration official had done since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks: He addressed the Arab world in Arabic.

"The perpetrators of these crimes have no regard for human life, even among Muslims," said Ross, now working as a special advisor to the State Department. "They will pay the price of their crimes and they cannot go unpunished."

The White House cheered the move as a victory for the Coalition Information Center, a newly formed quick-response agency established to refute the claims of Afghanistan's Taliban or the al-Qaida terrorist network. Ross' 10-minute broadcast message was seen as a crucial step in patching up relations between America and the Muslim world, where suspicion and distrust are running high.

Yet the fact that it took America two months to find a single senior diplomat able to articulate the nation's position in a language spoken by hundreds of millions of people around the globe (Arabic stands as the fifth most widely spoken language in the world) highlights just one of the many hurdles America faces in launching its much-delayed propaganda war as it attempts to win hearts and minds in the Muslim world.

In fighting the propaganda war, President Bush's administration must not only wrestle with the steep language barrier, but once that fluent spokesperson is found, he or she will face a barrage of uncomfortable questions as Arabs and Muslims press the United States on points of substance, not just style. Meanwhile, the White House is busy playing traffic cop, trying to control what information is seen and heard by the masses.

Indeed, the Bush administration's most effective propaganda weapon may be its ability to convince the American media not to give bin Laden a platform for his views. The suspected terrorist's first taped video, broadcast by Al-Jazeera Oct. 7, was quickly carried by all major networks, and translated and distributed to hundreds of media outlets by the Associated Press. Shortly afterward National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice asked major network heads not to give bin Laden free airtime for his views.

This time around, television news outlets essentially ignored the bin Laden tape. Networks served up only cursory sound bites accompanied by a still picture. American newspapers treated it similarly, with none offering their readers a detailed transcript, the way the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press, among others, had done with previous bin Laden releases. In fact, a transcript wasn't available in English until the BBC posted one on its Web site Tuesday.

Journalists denied being cowed by the administration -- a New York Times spokesperson told Salon it was a newsroom decision to cover the second bin Laden video sparingly, having nothing to do with Rice's request -- but the paucity, and the uniformity, of coverage was remarkable nonetheless.

But bin Laden wasn't the only one facing an American news blackout last Saturday. Ambassador Ross' comments in Arabic also seemed to vanish. Anyone searching for an English translation to Ross' extended comments, and the most forceful effort yet by the United States to communicate with the Arab world, was out of luck. A State Department spokesperson told Salon they hadn't been translated into English. Television news shows and newspapers carried only a few quotes from Ross.

For a so-called propaganda war of words, it suddenly became very difficult to find out what either bin Laden or the United States was saying to the Muslim world.

Of course, Ross' words weren't intended for an American audience -- although many Americans might like to judge for themselves which side is winning the propaganda war. In the Arab world, the former ambassador got mixed reviews. One Arab-born, Ivy league professor who watched Ross' appearance on Al-Jazeera predicts the former U.S. ambassador failed to win over many viewers.

"Ross came across as arrogant," said the professor, who spoke on the basis of anonymity. "He was the face of American diplomacy that's very familiar to Arab viewers; hostile and dishonest," says the professor. "No matter how effective United States propagandists are, they can't explain the Israeli and Iraqi [sanction] situation, so they're going to lose every discussion in front of an Arab audience." (Ross was not available for comment.)

Other viewers gave Ross higher marks. But nobody denies he was the best person the Bush administration could get to deliver its message in Arabic, since there are only a handful of fluent Arabic speakers in senior diplomatic circles, and almost none with Ross' experience. And America has no choice but to fight the battle on Arab soil and airwaves, says Hume Horan, former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

"If we don't even appear [on Al-Jazeera] we look arrogant and scared. But if we do, it's like a talking dog: 'Oh my God, an American speaking Arabic.' It's fascinating. It has that effect on people there. They will pay attention," says Horan.

"Arabs love to hear their own language spoken, especial when it's done well with good grammar," says Jerry Lampe, senior associate at the National Foreign Language Center in Washington, and who has taught Arabic for 32 years. "When something is said in your own language it just sinks in a lot better. It's extraordinarily impressive to native, Arabic speakers that an American could speak it so well. And I've never encountered anybody who speaks Arabic as well as [Ross] does."

Adds Horan: "The scuttlebutt around the locker room was always that Chris was the man in terms of being able to wrap significant thoughts in good Arabic."

Lampe and Horan insist it's no exaggeration to say Ross is perhaps the only person the government could put on Al-Jazeera to articulate its position regarding the war on terrorism.

In fact, Secretary of State Colin Powell had to bring Ross out of retirement for the job. That's how few qualified native-born candidates there are for the task of conducting public diplomacy fluently in Arabic before an international audience.

"It's an obvious problem," says Bob Slater, director of the National Security Education Program, which is lobbying Congress for $20 million to launch a new language flagship program at universities to help students acquire proficiency in five strategic languages -- Arabic, Russian, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.-- in which the government feels it does not have enough qualified speakers. Among those five, says Slater, "Arabic is in the worst shape. We just don't have proficient speakers."

According to Slater, most of the small number of college students majoring in Arabic graduate without a Level 2 proficiency. (The State Department measures proficiency on a scale of 0 to 5.) The flagship program would help students obtain at least a Level 3 proficiency, or "the baseline level to communicate at a professional level," says Slater. "You need to be Level 4 to speak on your feet. And to have someone on Al-Jazeera you basically have to be fluent in the language. Or it's potentially very embarrassing."

At the end of 1998 there were only 30 Level 4 Arabic speakers on the government's foreign services payroll, according to a recent article published by Jon Alterman, a research program officer at the United States Institute of Peace. Ross has a 4+ level rating.

That fluency was needed Saturday afternoon as Ross dueled in Arabic on Al-Jazeera. After reading his prepared statement, Ross appeared on a 90-minute debate program, "The First War of the Century," with Kuwaiti writer Muhammad al-Awadi, and Eric Rouleau, a renowned French journalist as well as France's former ambassador to Turkey.

The pointed back-and-forth underscored another problem with the U.S. side of the propaganda war: the difficulty in developing a convincing message about U.S. policy to win over skeptics in the Arab world.

The former ambassador routinely found himself on the defensive over questions about military action during Ramadan, as well as simultaneously bombing and launching humanitarian aid efforts in Afghanistan. (Al-Awadi: "Bombing civilians with incendiary bombs and dropping food rations is like raping a mother in front of her children. As soon as it's over, you give Kit Kat bars to the children. That is how I understand the scene.")

After much discussion about the United States' and the United Nations' role in negotiating peace for Palestine, Ross suggested, "I believe that we have deviated a bit from the subject."

Rouleau responded, "I am of the view that the Palestine question is the core issue here. So it is not to deviate from the subject."

As for bin Laden, Ross argued that his latest speech was deceiving: "The people are misled because this man does not offer the people any real solution. This could be sweet talk for some people, but there is nothing behind it."

Rouleau said what Muslims "like about bin Laden's speech is that it defies the sole superpower in the world today."

In the end, it was a small victory that an American could at least hold his own, in Arabic, on Al-Jazeera. But Ross' difficulties there showed how far the U.S. will have to go to win its propaganda war.

By 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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Osama Bin Laden