Home / Culture & Society / Losing the Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds

Losing the Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds

(The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the UK Ministry of Defence.)

Militarily, there was never any doubt that the US-led Coalition would prevail over Saddam's forces in March and April 2003. However, there was much more at stake than a mere demonstration of military might. The Coalition had told the world that it was "liberating" the Iraqi people; this had to be publicly proven. When Victoria Clarke, US assistant secretary of state for public affairs, issued her public affairs guidance to the US military in February 2003, it is inconceivable that the battle for "hearts and minds" would not have been at the forefront of her thinking. For an operation that had been in planning since January 2002,(1) the importance of harnessing regional support would have been factored in from the outset. Indeed, by October 2002, Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld had developed a list of 29 issues which he felt were of paramount importance to the success of the coming operation. He wrote: "Iraq could successfully best the US in public relations and persuade the world that it was a war against Muslims."(2) Yet for all the good intentions, a substantive relationship with the Arab media never appeared to materialise -- Arab embeds seemingly were sacrificed for an "in-bed" relationship with US and UK media, to whom the Coalition afforded primacy. For those Arab media who did make it into the field of battle, the higher-level Pentagon clearances and assurances now appeared hollow and subsidiary to the prevailing opinion of troops on the ground when it came to the question of access.

Despite the arrival of a senior White House press manager, the US arrangements for Arab media were poorly considered when compared to those of Coalition countries. The head of the US media operation himself said that: "The news has got to come from the front lines."(3) Yet which side of those lines? With so few Arab media embedded with Coalition forces, it was inevitable that the Arab media would focus on Iraqi civilians and thus further inflame Arab public opinion. CENTCOM issued little or no guidance to deployed units on winning the battle for Arab minds. Some units appeared to regard Arab media with disdain, as if their reporting was somehow substandard or irrelevant. Although a candid admission, it is disquieting when senior US officials admit that the US had absolutely no idea how to communicate with the Arab world and paradoxical that one of the layers of the US Arab media strategy was to provide Doha-based correspondents a prayer room and seats at the front of the auditorium. Yet this absence of understanding did not stop senior US administration figures declaring that Al Jazeera was "absolutely biased," effectively severing all official contact with the channel after it screened images of captured and dead US troops.

While the US may have been correct in their assertion that Arab media "just wanted to be treated equally," they should, in retrospect, have been afforded priority. They would have done well to have read "To Prevail: an American Strategy for the Campaign against Terrorism," a 2001 publication by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Its authors considered the best way of targeting foreign media. The report read, "Simply including the foreign media in press conferences or in press room briefings does not suffice; exclusive or limited pool interviews garner significantly more airtime for the interviewee."(4) US officials acknowledge that when it came to dealing with Arab media, the British operation in Doha was much more sophisticated. The twice-daily provision of a senior military spokesman to Arab media saw a positive relationship develop. British representatives were much more informed of Arab media coverage and a close liaison was established between Doha and the Arab media experts in the FCO.

The lack of finesse and nuance on the part of the US can be partly attributed to their largely unconditional domestic support. What debate may have existed in US civil society before the war had either been predefined by the enormity of the events of 9/11 or by the overwhelmingly supportive stance taken by US media networks. Professor Mark Crispin Miller describes US media coverage of the war as "dazzling heroic spectacle. Nothing goes wrong, everything goes right. No one gets hurt. You don't see any bloodshed … if you question that, you are not a patriot."(5) Professor Nancy Snow quotes US talk show host Bill Maher when she considered those in the media who were not "on message": "When you ride alone, you ride with Bin Laden."(6)

US forces went to war in Iraq with a righteous determination and a resolve that was reflected across US society. As Richard Crockatt observes, "In the wake of Sept. 11, America's global agenda could carry only enhanced moral and political force, given the scale of the harm done to America."(7) Survey after survey, speech after speech established a connection between Bin Laden and the regime of Saddam Hussein. Like the US public, still traumatised by the World Trade Center and anthrax attacks, US TV networks believed in the strength of their president and his circle of neo-conservative advisors at America's time of need. As Cambridge-based academic and former leading Republican Stefan Halper has observed, "Significant parts of the (US) media seemed frozen in the White House headlights."(8)

For the other key actors in the conflict the story was very different. In the UK, Australia, and Spain, public opinion had been noisily and publicly vented. The UK media appeared split down the middle. Some of the best-selling tabloids and broadsheets printed daily condemnation of the policy of war. Across the board, British correspondents were asking difficult and contentious questions, a level of impertinence that was anathema to the US military.

In the Arab world, public opinion was the antithesis of that in the US. In Arab eyes, the war was morally wrong, a huge number of civilians would lose their lives, and the US were once again demonstrating duality and a contempt for Arab society and opinion.

Throughout the conflict, the Coalition in general, and the US in particular, stated that Arab media were inherently biased against the West and that stations such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya lacked objectivity in their reporting. In one sense, they may have been correct. Arab media were almost uniformly biased in their reporting against the conflict. Arab journalists had to report a deeply unpopular war to a sceptical and angry audience. As Al Jazeera Cairo correspondent Hussain Abdul Ghari explained, "The Iraq war has a different significance to us, as we are an Arab satellite channel with a country in our region that has been attacked." The very personal nature of the war for Arab journalists was demonstrated when Shakir Hamid, paterfamilias to the Abu Dhabi TV team in Baghdad, broke down on TV when he learnt that his older brother and two children had been killed during Coalition bombing of Nassiriya.(9) News presenter Hisham Diwani recalled, "As an Arab journalist, once you have discovered the truth and given an accurate account of events, you cannot stay aloof and not condemn the actions of this occupation. This is your role as a journalist. It gives the occupying Coalition forces no hope of wining the Iraqi's hearts and minds."(10)

The Arab media clearly reflected the wider public opinion on the Arab street. But to what extent did it lead it? Arguably, the Arab media could not have reported a war in an Arab country, to which the entire Arab world objected, in anything other than a pro-Arab manner; it would have been commercial suicide. Arab audiences live in Amman, in Riyadh, in Cairo, and in Tangiers. Apart from tiny minorities, they do not live in Washington or London. Yet it is more complex than this. Arab journalists shared asabiya (communal solidarity) with Iraqis, indeed some of them were themselves expatriate Iraqis who had no particular reason to love Saddam's regime but who could not support the assault upon Iraq. For many Arabs, the wider war against terrorism had become a war against Islam and therefore a war of national and cultural survival. As distinguished British war reporter Max Hastings observed during the Falklands War in 1982, "No British reporter could be neutral when his own country was fighting: objectivity was a peacetime luxury, and reporting an extension of the war effort."(11) Accepting that Arab media had a greater level of personal familiarity with the conflict than their western counterparts is important when considering allegations of bias.

Were, then, the pan-Arab satellite news channels institutionally biased against the US and the UK in their news reporting? The absence of detailed and objective academic analysis of the coverage makes this difficult to assess. However, that which has been undertaken suggests that the stations' news output was not institutionally biased against Coalition forces. Israel maybe, but not the Coalition. Indeed, a very senior British diplomat is unequivocal on the issue: "Al Jazeera news is not institutionally biased."(12) There is a corollary to this, however, and that is the question of bias in other aspects of pan-Arab satellite channel coverage. As has already been noted, there is clear evidence that many of the discussion programmes, notably The Opposite Direction on Al Jazeera, were inflammatory in their coverage of events -- and indeed was this was their intent. Al Jazeera communication manager Jihad Ballout makes no apologies for the programmes' content: "I can understand that some people arrive at the impression that our programming leaves something to be desired, but they have to look at it in the context of what the programme is and what our editorial policy is. We do not want to be the censor; this is another price that America has to pay for democracy."(13)

Debate in the Arab world is equally vociferous and inconclusive. Fouad Ajami, professor of Middle East Studies at John Hopkin's University wrote that pan-Arab TV networks "mimic western norms of journalistic fairness whilst pandering to pan-Arab sentiments."(14) The Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, looks at their effect upon the Arab masses: "They are being led by the masses, they don't lead the masses. They know the taste of the Arab street and the Arab street is anti-US … they are just like the NY Post!"(15) And, it might be argued, not dissimilar to Britain's The Daily Mirror, a newspaper which very deliberately took an antiwar stance in order to boost its circulation.(16) Dana Suyyagh, a Canada-educated Arab journalist, formerly of Al Jazeera and now a producer at Al Arabiya, considers one of the most contentious issues: Arab channels providing a mouthpiece for Bin Laden. "Maybe," she said. "But that would make us Bush's mouthpiece as well. He gets more airtime actually." Hafez al-Mirazi, Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera, believes that in the Arab world, "we have been accused of making Al Jazeera a mouthpiece for the US government. Almost daily we bring on spokesmen for the administration."(17) And this is more than can be said for other Arab media. The refusal of the Syrian press to even print a letter from British Prime Minister Tony Blair is, arguably, indicative of a more sinister attempt to muzzle debate than Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya have ever attempted.

Some Arab media analysts point out what they believe were three obvious shortcomings in pan-Arab TV reporting. The first was the inability of Arab channels to communicate the attitude of the Iraqi people toward their regime. Iraqis were not seen criticising the regime. Author Abdel Karim Samara wonders why this was so: "Was this due to state censorship or to self-censorship due to fear of the regime and its oppression?"(18) The second fault was the absence of knowledge of the Iraqi opposition, its capabilities, and internal relations. This was shown in the common assumption that the future of Iraq was played out only by forces in the field, i.e. the Iraqi and Coalition armies. The third dimension was the lack of credibility of some reports, with battles described by correspondents as fierce, while the same station later reported that they had merely been short exchanges of fire. The apparent failure to balance coverage of Saddam's regime has been noted before. Sheikh Abdullah Bin Zayed Al-Nahayan, UAE minister for culture, delivered a scathing address to Arab media for failing to blow the whistle on Saddam before the War.(19)

These may all be valid criticisms. However, the channels themselves believe that the Coalition impeded their work -- a view that resonates with many Western observers. Arab media were comprehensively, although not invariably, treated very differently to their Western counterparts. From the outset, Arab media were not embedded with British forces due to concerns over operational security. Almost by accident, one or two teams did meet up with British units. However, the degree of exposure that they were afforded was less than that of their Western colleagues. Their embeds with the US were problematic and short lived.

The only team which appeared to get anywhere close to the same level of information was from Abu Dhabi TV, fronted by an Arabic-speaking, British ex-army Colonel. In retrospect, this was a stroke of genius on the part of Abu Dhabi TV, who clearly had the foresight to realise that access would always be more problematic than for Western channels. Some commentators have observed that Abu Dhabi TV did surprisingly well during the Iraq War, adopting a much less sensationalist approach.(20) Certainly, military personnel were much more sanguine in dealing with a journalist who had experience or understanding of service life. Indeed, this is indicative of a wider problem throughout the military-media interface. The loss of dedicated defence correspondents, and therefore an absence of knowledge of even basic facts about the military, has led to both misunderstanding and resentment.

Given the absence of Arab media, one must question if there was a concerted campaign to exclude them. There is ample evidence that, from the outset, the US regarded the Arab media with considerable suspicion. Yet US public affairs guidance was quite clear and some attempts were made at embedding. On the ground, however, the implementation of that guidance was not always smooth. Certainly the nature of the relationship between the US military and the Arab media appeared conditioned by the stands of their own domestic media. The US media were largely pro-war and presented the military with few challenges. Their focus was positive and like the soldiers they filmed, many had an absolute belief in the justness of the war. The Arab media did not share these sentiments. Their reports could not be guaranteed, their coverage was largely anti-Coalition, and their agenda was governed not just by the current conflict but also by grievances over Palestine and Afghanistan.

If Arab news networks were excluded by the Coalition did this mean that they afforded the Iraqi regime undue prominence? The extensive coverage of the Iraqi information minister -- with his long and rambling press conferences often broadcast in full -- suggests that this may be the case. However, if a network is not provided access, it will have difficulty filling its airtime. Twenty-four hour news coverage is precisely that and in the absence of embedded reports the on-duty editor will fill the schedule with whatever information is currently available. This is one of the enduring complaints about continuous satellite TV news. Often news has to be recycled or, sometimes, very bizarre stories may gain undue prominence in the absence of other, more newsworthy, material. Western networks are no different to their Arab equivalents but they were able to fill their programming schedules with continuous imagery and reports from the huge number of embedded reporters. Indeed, some minor firefights were covered for hours by news networks in the absence of more substantive footage. Arab channels, with no direct access to Coalition troops, focused on areas about which they could report -- notably civilian casualties.

Arab news reporting was not perfect, yet neither was that of its Western counterparts. When Arab networks caused uproar by showing dead bodies, so did British and American networks. Despite references to the Geneva Convention, and the rights and sensitivities of the families of the dead, the US subsequently chose to release unpalatable photographs of the bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein. Rumsfeld told a Pentagon press conference the photographs "would help convince frightened Iraqis that Saddam's rule was over, a consideration that far outweighed any sensitivities over showing the corpses."(21) Why, then, should Arab networks exercise any sensitivities?

When Arab networks were accused of unrestrained support for the Iraqi regime, or for inflammatory words and terminology, similar accusations were levelled at US networks. The US administration accused Arab networks of using the term "occupiers" pejoratively; Arabs questioned the use of the strap line "Operation Iraqi Freedom" by Fox News, arguing that "freedom" is a loaded term. One observer summed up the dilemma: "Arabs are disinclined to take advice on objectivity from US journalists wearing a US Flag on their lapel."(22)

A cornerstone of the Coalition media campaign was the belief that Arab opinion could be won over by a quick victory. The military ordered its combat camera teams (23) to focus on scenes of jubilation and welcome by Iraqi civilians. But Arab media were not privy to this plan and instead focused attention upon the human cost of war. While casualties were a considerable source of interest, realistically there was little that the Coalition forces could do to ameliorate this. Regardless of the precision of Coalition munitions, it is a fact of war that civilians will be hurt or killed. Yet there were other aspects of the coverage of civilians that could have been handled much better. Arab channels showed, at length, the manhandling of tribal elders by US forces, as well as intrusive searches of women. The placement of a US flag on the statue of Saddam, allegedly on the orders of a US Marine Corps captain, was such a crass and inappropriate act that it immediately confirmed the very worst fears of an already hugely sceptical wider Arab audience. The absence of sophistication amongst US troops on the ground was probably based on ignorance; ignorance that might have been combated with robust and authoritative guidance from CENTCOM. Interestingly, in the southern part of the country British forces have been praised for their handling of sensitive situations, many commentators referring to the Northern Ireland experience.

As the leader of Coalition forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is clear that the US failed to rise to the challenge of the Arab media. One questions if they recognised such an opportunity even existed. Far from the campaign being waged in the Arab media, it appears that a campaign was waged against the Arab media. The administration's rhetoric, particularly against Al Jazeera, was often repeated by Western news organisations and as a consequence was picked up by Coalition troops on the front line. To a certain extent suspicion is understandable. Had Iraqi TV been able, or even willing, to embed with British forces, and Sky News head Nick Pollard's wish for Sky News to be embedded with Iraqi forces been possible, then suspicion would have been justified. Yet, as the House of Commons Defence Select Committee observed, there exists an inherent distrust in the military of all media. "We believe that the importance of the media campaign in the modern world remains under-appreciated by sections of the Armed Forces."(24) The media often do themselves no favours. A tabloid fascination for salacious stories of equipment and leadership failings has certainly reinforced suspicion in senior sections of the UK military. The very principle of embedding known UK correspondents caused consternation amongst certain British commanders. Fear of unknown Arab correspondents is understandable although their absence was a major failing.

The House of Commons Defence Select Committee considered the impact of the UK Information Campaign when they interviewed the UK MoD's Director of Targeting and Information Operations in December 2003. Asked to measure the success of the operations he stated, "We were unable to counter the high level of cynicism and hostility that we were meeting in open forum, predominantly in the media. We had no eloquent answer to most of that … I suspect we were slightly naïve in thinking we would be more persuasive with some of those regional neighbours than we were."(25) 

Similar thoughts have been echoed, privately, around the Pentagon and certain Washington think tanks. It is apparent that the US needs to approach regional public diplomacy in a fundamentally new way, opening direct dialogue with the Arab and Islamic world through its already existing and increasingly influential trans-national media. Yet this requires a fundamental change in mindset. Whilst the US seeks to portray what it regards as "truth" it has to overcome its institutionalised intolerance of any "truth" that hints of anti-Americanism. The US believes that existing transnational media are inherently biased. Evidence suggests that, from a cultural perspective alone, this may be the case. Yet a more fundamental question needs to be asked. Does it even matter if Arab media are biased? The fact remains that channels such as Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Abu Dhabi TV enjoy a legitimacy and credibility through out the Arab world that Alhurra can only aspire to. Can the US risk not engaging with them?

In his book The Clash of Civilisations, Prof. Samuel Huntington believes that inherent differences in culture will be the seeds of future conflict. Undeniably, huge cultural differences exist between Western Christian and Arab Muslim culture. This is a historical fact. Events such as 9/11 have caused people to focus on these differences rather than on the similarities. Arab media networks have massive public support throughout the Muslim world.(26) They undoubtedly reflect a strong vein of Muslim and Arab opinion and they largely play to their audiences. If the West wishes to enhance its dialogue with the Middle East, if it wishes to explain its policies, then it has to do so through a credible forum. That forum must be organic, pan-Arab TV channels, and not networks such as Alhurra. Al Jazeera's Jihad Ballout believes that the time has now arrived when Arab media should be viewed as a professional organisation:

"You must deal with us in the same way as you treat CNN and the BBC. If you want to reflect your point of view, to an audience that already harbours cynicism, then your only medium is Al Jazeera. But, don't expect Al Jazeera to be bowled over by reputation. Al Jazeera will provide you with a platform for your views but this will not guarantee acceptance of your stance -- we go back to Alhurra. By merely disseminating a point of view the battle is not finished. It takes more than information to convince public opinion of your good will towards the Arab world."(27)

Former CENTCOM commander General, Anthony Zinni USMC (rtd) has the final word: "Our whole public relations effort out there has been a disaster."(28)

For those who have a genuine affinity for the ideals of American society, the continuing inability of the current US administration to address the problem of public diplomacy in the Middle East is deeply worrying. New ideas are urgently needed -- ideas outside of the neo-conservative mould.


1. The US Military maintain contingency plans for a wide range of possible military operations. OIF, referred to by its CENTCOM designator 1003V, was one such plan.
2. Woodward, Bob. Plan of Attack (Simon & Schuster, 2004): 206.
3. Interview between author and senior US Administration officials.
4. Lennon, Alexander, editor. The Battle for Hearts and Minds. (MIT Press, 2003): 289.
5. Department for Media Studies. The Bush Dyslexicon (Ulster University, 2003).
6. Snow, Nancy. Information War (Seven Stories Press, 2003): 77.
7. Crockatt, Richard A. America Embattled (Free Press, 2004): 164.
8. Halper, Stefan and Jonathan Clarke. America Alone (Cambridge University Press, 2004): 316.
9. The Gulf Times. 8 April 2003.
10. Available online at http://www.opendemocracy.net.
11. Carruthers, Susan. The Media at War (Palgrave Macmillian 2003): 6.
12. Author’s interview with Senior FCO Diplomat. 17 March 2004.
13. Author’s interview with Jihad Ballout, Doha. 15 March 2004.
14. The New York Times. 18 November 2003.
15. The Washington Post. November 2000. 
16. Author’s discussions with The Daily Mirror defence correspondent. 
17. Available online at: http://www.insightmag.com.
18. Samarra, Abdel. “Arab media and the Iraq War,” Palestine-Israel Journal, Volume 10 Number 3 (2003).
19. Available online at : http://www.arabmediawatch.com. 
20. Author’s discussion with senior FCO diplomats. 
21. Available online at : http://www.cnn.com/2003/world/mideast/07/24/sprj.irq.sons.
22. International Herald Tribune. 23 August 2003.
23. Military personnel trained as broadcast cameramen who deploy to theatres of operation to record imagery for
civilian media. 
24. House of Commons Defence Select Committee. Report on Iraq. Summary Document, paragraph 124.
25. Evidence from Air Vice Marshall Heath RAF. House of Commons Defence Select Committee 16 Dec 2003. 
26. Al Jazeera was carried live by Indonesian TV throughout the war.
27. Author’s interview with Jihad Ballout, Doha. 15 March 2004. 
28. Remarks at CDI Board of Directors Dinner. 12 May, 2004.

About Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham

Lieutenant Commander Steve Tatham is a serving officer in the British Royal Navy and holds a Master's Degree in International Relations from the University of Cambridge, England. He was the Royal Navy's spokesman for military operations in Iraq. This article is reproduced from his forthcoming book entitled A Missed Opportunity; Al Jazeera, Neo-conservatism and a Failed Battle for Arab Hearts and Minds, which will be published later this year.

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