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Arab Media and US Policy: A Public Diplomacy Reset
January 2008

Expanding media in the Arab world and the inadequate American response were the subject of a 2006 Stanley Foundation report, Open Media and Transitioning Societies in the Arab Middle East: Implications for US Security Policy, and our 2006 public radio documentary24/7: The Rise and Influence of Arab Media.” This month, the foundation has released a policy analysis brief from Arab media expert Marwan Kraidy. The brief, titled Arab Media and US Policy: A Public Diplomacy Reset makes clear recommendations for American diplomats and policymakers struggling to communicate in the region. Here is an excerpt:

US global communication efforts are also undermined by their close identification in the minds of their receivers with the “global war on terrorism,” which has tainted America’s relationship with the rest of the world. The unilateralist policies and actions this war has engendered—especially the invasion of Iraq—coupled with the confrontational “you are with us or you are against us” rhetoric, has turned the Middle East, and many other parts of the world, into a minefield for US diplomacy. At the same time, the rhetoric of bringing freedom, democracy, and civilization to the Middle East, besides reminding the region’s populations of their past experience with European colonialism and imperialism, sets up overly ambitious objectives and exposes the gap between stated objectives and actual policy.

Consider the striking difference between the two visits that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made to Egypt. During the first visit, in June 2005, in a widely covered speech, she tersely instructed: “The Egyptian government must fulfill the promise it made to its people,” which included “free elections,” an “independent judiciary,” and freedom “to assemble, and to participate, and to speak to the media.” This was in stark contrast with her second, October 2007, visit when Secretary Rice answered a reporter’s question about democratization in Egypt in a subdued tone, saying: “Many positive things are happening. Economically, a lot of things are happening. But we do have concerns about political events here. I raised, for instance, our concerns about the detention of journalists, and we have had a discussion of those issues.” This clear example of inconsistency in US policy undercuts public diplomacy.

Similarly, Palestinian elections, which resulted in the victory of Hamas and the recent declaration of a state of emergency by Pakistani strongman and key US ally in the fight against terrorism Pervez Musharraf, are challenging developments that leave the United States open to accusations of double standards. Discrepancies between US past rhetoric and present actions provide opportunities for unsympathetic Arab columnists, talk show hosts, and (to a lesser, but growing extent) bloggers to criticize US policies.

To counter hostile perceptions in the Arab world, the Bush administration has resorted to censorship and counterpropaganda. News that the Pentagon was censoring pictures of the coffins of US service men and women killed in Afghanistan or Iraq, or that White House officials were “coordinating” with US networks on how to cover the war on terrorism, were aired in the US and Arab media, adding to the negative perception that the US government could not be trusted. These impressions were greatly amplified by news stories that US authorities in Iraq were planting stories in Iraqi newspapers that cast US troops in a good light, or “subsidizing” Iraqi journalists to ensure positive coverage. These actions are problematic not only at the ethical level; they are also public diplomacy blunders. In an Arab world awash with media and information, these news items become part of the story, fueling exactly the currents in public opinion they were intended to weaken.

Read the full policy analysis brief from Marwan Kraidy here.
—Sean Harder

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