Published January 14, 2015
The War on Terror (search) frequently has been described as a battle for hearts and minds, but critics of American diplomatic efforts toward the Arab world say that not enough is being done and warn that losing the struggle would be disastrous to the United States.
Aside from military might, the United States has started fighting the seeds of terror through public outreach that includes the establishment of Arabic-language media outlets, among other projects. But all polling data so far indicate the United States is far from victorious when it comes to earning the trust and friendship of Arab countries.
Polls show plunging American popularity throughout the world, with numbers registering the lowest in the Middle East. A Pew Global Attitudes survey released in March showed an overwhelmingly unfavorable view of the United States among respondents in all four Muslim countries surveyed — Turkey, Pakistan, Jordan and Morocco. In Morocco, Jordan and Pakistan, Usama bin Laden is far more popular than President Bush.
The numbers have only gotten worse since the Abu Ghraib (search) prison abuse scandal.
"The public diplomacy we currently have is not working," Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., told an audience at the American Enterprise Institute (search) earlier this month. "With what's taking place in the prisons in Iraq, I think it is much more difficult."
But directors and managers of American-funded Arabic-language TV and radio stations say they will continue to soldier on and get the U.S. message across.
The mission of these broadcasts is "to promote freedom and democracy through the dissemination of accurate information about the United States and the world," said Mouafac Harb, news director for Arabic-language Radio Sawa (search) and TV station Al Hurra (search).
Harb said that Radio Sawa's six stations have more news than Voice of America's Arabic service ever did and airs at least six hours of news a day, including all-news broadcasts during the height of the war in Iraq.
The State Department has embarked on other efforts as well, broadcasting President Bush's State of the Union address live to an Indonesian radio station with simultaneous interpretation in Indonesian. It also has held more than 1,000 digital video conferences between American officials and experts and foreign audiences; and has sponsored 30,000 academic, professional and other exchanges.
Ken Tomlinson, chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors (search), which oversees Al Hurra, Radio Sawa and other government networks like Voice of America, says broadcasting played a pivotal role in the Cold War (search) and it can be an invaluable tool in the War on Terror.
"We're in this thing for the long haul. The Berlin Wall (search) didn't come down overnight and we didn't win the Cold War overnight. And anyone who expects broadcasting initiatives or public diplomacy initiatives to pay dividends overnight is foolish," he said.
But the effort to broadcast American-friendly, or even unbiased, news has its critics. Danielle Pletka, vice president of AEI, called Radio Sawa "short on news and long on pop music."
It is very difficult to measure the tangible effects of these stations despite the costly effort that has gone into it, Pletka said. "It is reasonable to ask whether we get bang for our buck."
The State Department's Advisory Group on Public Diplomacy for the Arab and Muslim World (search), which issued a report last October on diplomatic efforts, suggests that the Cold War model of piping in American news and culture may be the best solution to some, but a new strategy for a new conflict needs to be developed.
Successful public diplomacy efforts directed at citizens behind the Iron Curtain (search) were not shaped for the threats that faced America after the Cold War, said James K. Glassman, a member of the Advisory Group. Bush administration officials have put forth too little, too late, perhaps deciding it's more important to send messages through action, not words, he said.
"Perhaps some of the administration believe that efforts to promote the national interest through official state-to-state diplomacy and military action must supersede what is often considered the softer science of public diplomacy, which is viewed in some circles almost as sissified, not for tough men and women," Glassman said.
But Harb countered that the news agencies should be given some time to show results.
"Al Hurra is less than four months old. Sawa is almost two years [old]. I mean, we are asking these two organizations to do magic, and it's not going to work overnight. It's a long-term project," he said.
Pletka said she is among those who believe actions speak louder than words. "It's much more important for us to go forward and win people over with deeds rather than educating them about what America is, which I think is largely known," she said.
She added that it may be a mistake to use a Cold War model because many of the conditions are different in the current conflict.
"We had a very receptive audience in the former Soviet Union (search), in the captive states of the Soviet Union. They loved America and they wanted to hear what was going on. They hated their own government, and that is not the case in the Arab and Muslim world. They begin with a prejudice against us and with a hostility and skepticism towards the media in general," she said.
According to congressional testimony by Edward P. Djerejian, chairman of the Advisory Group, success in winning over Arabs is being retarded by a lack of funding. The State Department funds approximately $600 million on public diplomacy programs worldwide, with just $25 million of that spent in the Arab and Muslim world. The Broadcasting Board of Governors spends another $540 million. The Middle East Partnership Initiative (search), a State Department program, proposes to spend $100 million to expand economic, political, and educational opportunity as well as to empower women.
Because Al Hurra and Radio Sawa have relatively small audiences, officials recognize the imperative of getting American views onto mainstream Arabic news outlets. But putting Americans on Arabic television will not be easy. The State Department has a tiny number of spokesmen capable of debating in Arabic on fast-paced, high-pressure talk shows.
"Out of the total pool of available Arabic language speakers, only about a fifth of them were fluent. Then if you take that fifth and you look at them, only a small portion, maybe a handful, are actually comfortable going on the Arab media on a 'Crossfire'-like show and engaging in a debate with a critic of the United States," said Jeremy Sharp, an analyst in Middle East Affairs for the Congressional Research Service (search).