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February 19, 2009

Alternatives needed to repair U.S.-Arab relations

Attempts by the United States to engage the Arab world during the Bush presidency have been disastrous, casting suspicion over U.S. political, economic and cultural initiatives and ruining this country’s reputation, according to an expert on Arab-language media.

To remedy this situation, U.S. policymakers should create a real operational and rhetorical alternative to the “global war on terror” as a framework for global engagement; acquire expert knowledge about the Arab media, which has greatly expanded in recent years; pay more attention to how economic governance issues affect perceptions of the United States, and consider the pitfalls of promoting a “branding” label, said Marwan Kraidy, associate professor at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication. Kraidy delivered a Feb. 6 Pitt global studies program lecture titled “Arab Media and U.S. Policy: A Public Diplomacy Reset.”

“Above all, an understanding should emerge that the U.S. reputation crisis cannot be resolved by communication alone, but ought to rest on smarter policies. A revised grand strategy should rest on a new multi-lateralism based on engagement with multiple state and non-state actors alike,” Kraidy said.

Polls taken post-9/11, and particularly since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, indicate a steadily deteriorating perception of the United States among Muslims in the Arab world, defined by Kraidy as the Arab-language countries from Morocco, across North Africa, and throughout the Middle East to Iraq.

Contributing to the negative image are America’s leading role in promoting globalization, which is viewed as exploitative of poorer countries; the application of Cold War propaganda strategies, and the tendency of the Bush administration to view the Arab world through the prism of black-and-white values as opposed to policies, Kraidy said.

“This is not about tactics, or about our obsession with asking ‘What technology can we use to make these people love us?’ It’s not about giving people cell phones. It’s about respect, and we need an overall strategy. Though a small, extremist minority may hate American values, more Arabs in the Middle East are turned off by U.S. policies,” he said.

The global war on terrorism, undergirded by U.S. unilateral policies and the “You’re either with us or against us” attitude tends to cast every Arab as a potential terrorist, he said.

“Bush said, ‘You’re either with us or against us.’ I think Obama would say, ‘You’re either with us, or you could be with us.’ I’ll take that every time, because there is room there, there is at least an opening.”

Depicting the United States and the Arab world as engaged in a “clash of civilizations” has led to undue emphasis on religion as the main source of widespread negative opinion, Kraidy said. “In fact, survey data suggest Islam is a factor, but not a very significant one, in determining attitudes toward the United States.”

America also has underestimated the impact of globalization on Arab lives, he said. Many Arabs view U.S.-led globalization efforts as the successor to European colonialism and imperialism, which sought to control a country’s resources. U.S. support for oil-wealthy monarchies in the Gulf region also exposes the United States to resentment in less well-off Arab countries, Kraidy maintained.

Furthermore, globalization is associated with America’s double standard by many Arabs, who believe the United States uses globalization policies as a way to gobble up the lion’s share of the world’s wealth.

“U.S. public diplomacy has often been discussed in terms of ‘branding’ the United States, but the branding metaphor is problematic for U.S. public diplomacy for several reasons,” he said. “In this context, U.S. public diplomacy practitioners appear to be addressing the overall image of the United States when they refer to ‘brand.’ This oversimplification of national image, in a country with such a vast array of policies, has backfired in U.S. global communication efforts,” Kraidy maintained.

As one journalist put it: America is not a hamburger, he said.

“Educated Arabs appear to understand, seemingly better than some U.S. policymakers do, that the United States is radically pluralistic,” and America actually is admired by many Arabs for allowing authors such as Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky to speak openly against government policies, Kraidy said.

Branding the United States also has exposed the inconsistencies inherent in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. American “support of democracy wavers when allies lose elections; support of friendly dictators belies words about freedom. The result is a lack of credibility,” he noted.

The failure of the United States to engage the Arab world is epitomized by the waste of hundreds of millions of dollars to finance Al-Hurra Television, a U.S. propaganda-driven Arab-language television channel, which never has captured more than 1 percent of the region’s viewing public, Kraidy said.

Propaganda may have been effective in a Cold War environment that offered a population no alternatives, but the Arab world’s media options are vibrant and growing. “Unlike in this country, the number of newspapers and newspaper readership is increasing,” he said.

During the first Gulf War in the 1990s, the BBC’s and CNN’s coverage of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait became the media of choice in the Arab world, which made several countries’ governments nervous, Kraidy said. As a result, the Saudi ruling family and the Egyptian government, for example, launched various satellite channels.

By the end of the 1990s there were some 300 Arab-language channels, a number that has grown to more than 500 today. “These channels, most of them privately owned but government influenced, offer a wide ideological spectrum and reflect competing political, economic and religious agendas,” Kraidy said. They offer news, talk and variety shows, dramas, reality TV, American sports and sitcoms, Latin American soap operas, movies and documentaries, he noted.

For Americans, the poster child for anti-Americanism is the Qatar-based channel, Al-Jazeera. “Grasping the complexity of the Arab media environment entails moving beyond asking whether an Arab media outlet is ‘anti-American’ or ‘pro-American,’” although even a casual observer can note some of those tendencies, Kraidy said.

“Some Arab media outlets advocate some declared U.S. objectives, while countering others,” he said. For example, the outlet New TV is aligned with two U.S. policies: to promote nonsectarianism and to tackle corruption and foster government transparency, while simultaneously New TV is critical of U.S. Middle East policies. “The complexity of the Arab media scene makes binary distinctions of anti- or pro- superficial and unhelpful,” according to Kraidy.

The U.S.-backed Al-Hurra Television never could compete with the vibrant mix of historically resonant, creatively produced and locally meaningful programming offered by the leading pan-Arab channels, but especially so when the channel offers only pro-American broadcasting, he maintained.

“The U.S. image problem in the Arab world for the most part is neither the message nor the medium. The problem resides in actions and policies,” Kraidy said. “The silver lining in all of this is that negative perceptions of the United States in the Arab world are neither old nor immutable. They are the result of U.S. policies and, as a result, they can be turned around.”

Specifically, Kraidy urged the Obama administration to abandon the global war on terror as the U.S. government’s main message. “This means ending the use of both pre-emptive action and confrontational rhetoric; integrating social and economic concerns in foreign policy and public diplomacy, and re-focusing the full power, influence and resources of the United States to broker a sustainable, comprehensive peace in the Middle East.”

Kraidy said efforts should focus on comprehending the Arab world as a differentiated area with multiple identities and concerns, without losing sight of the major pan-Arab issues. In this endeavor, the most difficult and most important challenge, he said, is to balance long-term strategic objectives with short-term desired outcomes.

—Peter Hart

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