It seemed a mere coincidence that only two days after the airing of the CBS 60 Minutes on Abu Gharaib prison torture April 26, 2004, Margaret Tutweiler, the US undersecretary for Public Diplomacy, resigned to take a position in the New York Stock Exchange. Ms. Tutweiler's resignation was as low-key as that of her predecessor in the job, Charlotte Beers, who resigned in March of 2003 for "health reasons." Both had proven to be capable in their professional lives, but had little to add to their resumes about their achievements during their tenure as brand managers of America.
In mid-March US president George W. Bush nominated one of his closest advisers, Karen Hughes, for this post. Ms. Hughes will assume her post at a time when the regional scene is significantly different from that during the terms of her two predecessors. The agitation over the threat of Al Qaeda and the conflict in Iraq are virtually off the international news radars. Instead, the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri has shifted the attention to the western flank of the Fertile Crescent and has put the calls for US-led democratic changes in the Arab world on overdrive.
The job description of Ms. Hughes as described by president Bush is not to handle the communication aspects of such changes per se, but "to have a message that counteracts some of the messages coming out of some of the Arab media, some of it coming out partly because of our strong and unwavering friendship with Israel." The other task the US has is to counter the image of the US as "wanting to fight Muslims, that the United States stood squarely against a religion as opposed to [being] a society which welcomes all religions," Bush told the news conference.
US support for Israel has been a constant factor in how (or rather why) the Arabs perceive the US, irrespective of any Arab media agitation. In articulating her communication strategy for reaching Arabs Ms. Hughes should look into the implications of an equally important factor that agitates feelings against the US, but which was not alluded to by President Bush. While the US is calling upon the Arab general public to embrace democratic values, it supports and protects most of the regimes it is asking their subjects to turn against. Syria and Lebanon are the exception since Syria has historically defied the US hegemony in the region and of late has managed to pull the Lebanese government into its fold.
Ms. Hughes assumes a job at a time when the communications set-up of US public diplomacy towards the Arab masses is well in place, spearheaded by Alhurra TV and Radio Sawa. Press releases claim that "millions" of Arabs are already tuning to Alhurra; one released early March on a survey done in Syria reported that Alhurra has a weekly audience of 39 percent of adults with access to satellite TV.
Irrespective of the question marks over the reported size of Alhurra audiences, such as those raised by respected authority on the Arab world Shibley Telhami, the US could draw on lessons from its successes in targeting East Europe during the Cold War. But this needs to be done more in terms of what cannot succeed in the context of reaching the Arabs than of what succeeded in targeting the Eastern Europeans.
Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty targeted audiences that were eager to listen to the US perspective and American democratic values. In response, Eastern Block governments invested heavily in jamming technologies in order to prevent their citizens from accessing the US radio frequencies.
In contrast, most Arab governments are overwhelmingly pro-US. They allow US-funded media such as Radio Sawa, Alhurra TV, and Hi magazine to be part of their national media scenes, no bars held. Interestingly, even Syria allows market surveys to measure audiences and attitudes towards Alhurra and Radio Sawa, again with no bars held.
Many of the staff of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty were human rights activists, prosecuted in their own countries and who had sought political asylum in the US and Western Europe. Hence they were credible proponents for democratic change in their homelands although they were at the other side of the fence. Arab staff at the US-funded media or many of the Arabs residing in the US who call for democratic reforms in the Arab world do not have similar credentials.
There are good grounds for apprehension towards Arab political cheerleaders who have opted for safer political territory in the West and in the US in particular. This is not to play down the contributions of Arabs in the US or Europe or Arab Americans who call for political reform in the Arab world. But we must keep in mind the Arabic adage that says 'Those who are whipped are not like those who count the whippings.'
In order to limit exposure to whippings, the Arab media and the Arab regimes have come to a gentleman's agreement that the media can talk about the need for democracy. But rather than targeting a specific regime, the media talks about the Arab political system (al-nizam al-arabi) as an abstract entity. Television talk shows and newspaper Op-Ed pages are full of political discourse within this format. The two other political punching bags are US policies in the region and Israel. From the general perspective of the Arab public, criticizing US polices in the region is also a safe route for criticizing its own regimes.
For Ms. Hughes to succeed in her public diplomacy assignment, it will not be enough to counter the image of US as depicted in the Arab media, 'partly' because of the 'unwavering' US support for Israel. US public diplomacy needs to address the intricacies of US political polygamy, where the US is married to both Israel and most of the Arab regimes. In this polygamous marriage it is Israel that is perceived to be the beloved, democratic, yet demanding, wife, whereas the Arab regimes are perceived to be the hated, authoritarian yet submissive wives, who breed only generations of Arabs that hate America and its democratic ideals.
Until the above ironies are resolved it may be best for US-funded media targeting the Arabs to maintain a low-profile about their stated goal of promoting democratic values and a more favorable attitude towards the US. It may be more feasible for them to present themselves as credible news organizations first rather than as promoters of political change.
The blunt interference of the US in the political reform process currently taking some root in certain parts of the Arab world will hamper it rather than promote it. In most cases it is the US-supported Arab regimes that are the ones blocking such changes. The fact that the Bush administration claims to be ready to pull the rug from beneath the wobbly feet of its Arab friends if they do not introduce political reforms is less likely to raise the level of confidence with regard to US intentions in the region. This latter hypothesis, however, deserves verification through public opinion polls.