Hip, Hip, Al Hurra!
Explaining America to the Arabs--with no help from the State Department.
Nov 6, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 08 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
AMERICAN PUBLIC DIPLOMACY in the Middle East did not have a good week. An Arabic-speaking State Department official named Alberto Fernandez made news on October 21 when he spoke too candidly about U.S. missteps in Iraq on Al Jazeera, the Arabic satellite television channel based in Qatar. Not only was Fernandez obliged to eat his words, but the coverage of the episode in the U.S. media was incomplete and misleading. It's an all too familiar story to anyone engaged--as I am--in the business of attempting to communicate with Middle Eastern audiences via Arabic-language satellite TV.
What most media reports of the incident left out was that Al Jazeera had set Fernandez up. Fernandez went on the air immediately after a spokesman for Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party appeared under the pseudonym Abu Moham med. Al Jazeera provided Saddam's flack airtime to lay down a series of conditions that U.S. commanders would need to meet before Saddam's followers would consider negotiating over the withdrawal of U.S. troops--little matters like the reconstitution of Saddam's army, the scrapping of every law adopted since Saddam was removed from power, and the recognition of pro-Saddam insurgents as "the sole representatives of the Iraqi people."
After the Baathist was done, Fernandez came on, and the Al Jazeera host lobbed a series of "Have you stopped beating your wife?" questions at him, including whether America was ready to begin talks with the Baath party. To his credit, Fernandez dismissed the entire conversation as "farcical" and "very removed from reality." Later in the show, when describing the intense political debate over Iraq in our midterm elections, he went on to utter his too-honest-by-half words about the problems of U.S. policy.
But media reports also failed to explain how Fernandez, one of Foggy Bottom's finest public affairs officers, came to be on Al Jazeera in the first place. His appearance was the result of a decision made by Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes earlier this year to reverse U.S. policy and encourage U.S. officials to appear on the Zarqawi-friendly, Hezbollah-cozy network famous for referring to suicide bombings as "so-called terrorism" and "martyrdom-seeking operations."
Fernandez's experience shows why this decision was unwise. U.S. outreach to Arabs is not advanced by having a U.S. diplomat engage in a he-said/she-said with Saddam's flack. Indeed, it's hard to imagine anything more apt to erode the image in Arab minds of Saddam brought low, captured cowering in a spider hole, than a U.S. diplomat forced to respond to the blatherings of a Baathist on an Al Jazeera talk show.
This error of U.S. policy is all the more frustrating in that there exists an Arabic-language satellite TV station that is eager to showcase U.S. officials without distortion--yet over the past year its invitations to senior officials of the White House, the National Security Council, and the State Department have been all but ignored.
That station is Al Hurra, the U.S. government-funded station established in 2003 to battle for the hearts and minds of Arabs bombarded by the anti-Americanism of stations like Al Jazeera. I have personal experience of the frustrations because I am about to celebrate a milestone: my one-year anniversary as the only non-Arab to host a talk show on Arabic satellite television. My weekly show is called Dakhil Washington (Inside Washington), and its purpose is to demystify politics and policymaking in our nation's capital for Arab viewers.
Some skepticism about Al Hurra is, of course, understandable. In a Washington Post op-ed in April 2003 entitled "Wrong Answer to Al Jazeera," I myself opposed its establishment, arguing that the Middle East did not need yet another state-funded TV station. But after Congress voted overwhelmingly to support the idea, I decided it was important that the effort be pursued as effectively as possible. I believed--and still believe--that the battle of ideas really is a war, with life-and-death consequences.
When Al Hurra first went on the air in early 2004, I was living in Morocco, a front line state in the post-9/11 culture wars. From that vantage point, I could see that Al Hurra should not try to compete with Al Jazeera, which has a lock on the sensationalist, conspiratorial, rabidly anti-American, deeply anti-Semitic share of the Arab viewing market (regrettably, a pretty big share).