Two years ago, in response to the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US government created Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language radio station set up to deliver a mix of news bulletins and popular music throughout the Middle East.
Two years later, experts said the majority of the station’s estimated 15 million listeners tuned in more for Britney Spears than for updates on world affairs.
In late 2002, the State Department launched a marketing campaign titled "Shared Values", which involved a series of television advertisements depicting the daily lives of US Muslims.
Although it was designed to bolster public opinion of the United States in the Islamic world, many in the Arab media belittled the campaign as simple-minded and condescending. Several of the target countries refused to broadcast the transmissions.
Charlotte Beers - the former undersecretary of state for public diplomacy - who created the ads, resigned in March of 2003, amid mounting criticism of her performance.
Most recently, the US created al-Hurra, a new $62 million Arabic-language television station, seen by many in Washington as the administration’s attempt to counter the influence of pan-Arab news organisations such as Aljazeera.
While some foreign policy experts have praised the government’s efforts to enhance communication with the Arab world, they also said improved public relations would not overcome popular discontent with some key US policies in the region.
The United States is trying to win
the hearts and minds of Arabs
“Unless the policy itself changes, I do not think [public diplomacy] is going to be very effective,” said Edmund Ghareeb an author and specialist on Middle East media.
Specifically, several Middle East analysts pointed to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as an issue the Bush administration must resolve before its PR efforts achieve greater success.
“Until the United States does something about [the Palestinian situation], all the PR in the world will not make a difference,” said Richard Curtiss, executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs and a former director of the Voice of America’s Arabic service.
With polls showing rising anti-Americanism in the Middle East, there is increased pressure to supplement the military side of the "war on terrorism" with an effort to win hearts and minds.
“How do you serve an Arab audience when you also have people in the US government monitoring every single word and saying ‘that is not what US policy is'?"
Jon B Alterman,
Director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies
The development of al-Hurra is one of the clearest examples of that strategy.
The White House has often expressed displeasure with what it feels is an anti-American slant in the coverage of the most widely watched Arab news stations.
The decision to form a government-funded Arabic television station is viewed by many as an attempt to present the Arab world with a more pro-American take on various issues.
The station’s programmes will be broadcast from a state-of-the-art studio in Springfield, Virginia, and will have a largely Arab staff. In English, al-Hurra translates into The Free One.
One of the key reasons for creating the Arabic station is that the Bush administration believes the Arab world has been mislead on the substance of US foreign policy, according to Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic International Studies, a Washington think tank.
“I think there is a sense that the depth of hatred for the United States is based on misperceptions,” said Alterman, who is the author of a book, published in 1998 titled New Media, New Politics? From Satellite Television to the Internet in the Arab World.
Thus, al-Hurra is part of a larger notion that the more information people have access to, the less likely they may be to harbour extremists' opinions, Alterman said.
“My view is that people who know more have more nuanced views,” he said. “It is very easy to be very sure about things you know nothing about.”
Still, he says he doubts al-Hurra is the right move, in part because governments generally do not produce good television, but also because of questions about journalistic independence and the potential for propaganda.
US is trying to enhance
communication with Arabs
“How do you serve an Arab audience when you also have people in the US government monitoring every single word and saying ‘that is not what US policy is,’ ” he said.
Muafac Harb, a former Washington bureau chief for the Arabic-language daily al-Hayat, is the station’s news director. Harb did not return a phone call for this story, but officials involved with the channel have insisted in several reports that it will deliver straight news with no government interference.
“"We have to disseminate objective, balanced news. In the West this might sound like Journalism 101, but in that market it will be a departure,” Harb told The New York Times.
Whether al-Hurra can establish the kind of credibility it needs to attract viewers in a region where the US government is generally unpopular, is another question many media experts are asking.
“I think people will [watch]... whether people will change their views, I am not so sure,” Ghareeb said.
For the station to win the trust of the people it will have to do more than recite the details of US policy, it will have to report stories that address their concerns, he said.
“Just getting your message out there is not enough, the content is important as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, the government’s overall effort at public diplomacy needs a significant overhaul in order to address concerns about US policy overseas, according to a report put out late last year by the General Accounting Office (GAO), the investigative arm of Congress.
Polls show Anti-American feelings
are on the rise in the Middle East
Among other criticisms, the report cited the lack of ability to gauge whether the government's public diplomacy measures were working effectively.
“The absence of an integrated strategy could impede State’s ability to direct its multifaceted efforts toward concrete and measurable progress,” the report said.
“Furthermore, an interagency public diplomacy strategy has not been completed that would help State and other federal agencies convey consistent messages and achieve mutually reinforcing benefits overseas.”
“The problem is that if you are simply sending a message out without taking the root causes, this alienation, into account, I don’t think it’s going to be effective"
Author and specialist on Middle East media
In addition to the GAO report, a special commission created by Congress to investigate the areas in which US public diplomacy could be improved in the Arab World issued a report last October titled Changing Minds, Winning Peace: A New Strategic for US Public Diplomacy in the Arab & Muslim World.
The report described an “inadequate” system “that has become outmoded, lacking both strategic direction and resources”.
Although public diplomacy spending has increased by an estimated 9% since 11 September, the commission characterised current funding levels as “absurd and dangerous”, saying more money would be needed in the future.
It also called for a “new strategic direction—informed by a seriousness and commitment that matches the gravity of our approach to national defense and traditional state-to-state diplomacy.”
Ultimately, Alterman said the United States would have to utilise a multi-faceted approach to winning the approval of the Arab-Muslim world, saying “there is no one vehicle” for engaging people.
Perhaps no message, no matter how eloquent, can engage a greater number of Arabs and Muslims worldwide, unless the message indicates a willingness to re-examine policies that have long been criticised as unacceptable, Ghareeb said.
“The problem is that if you are simply sending a message out without taking the root causes, this alienation, into account, I do not think it is going to be effective,” he said.